Nancy Thorner responds to member of District 115 school board to uphold her reputation as a concerned citizen

January 24, 2013

I am responding to District 115 Board Member Burgener’s 1-18-13 letter to the Patch in which he excoriates the Patch, a Patch commenter and me for publishing/republishing the inaccurate amount of $75M for the 2008-2009 east/west campus expansion/renovations and for rabble rousing over what he considers to be “fringe” opinions, as reputations once lost are difficult to recover. http://lakeforest.patch.com/articles/letter-to-the-editor-lfhs-school-board-member-criticizes-patch-story

I learned of the erroneous $75M number from a citizen comment to a Patch article. I failed to verify the accuracy of this number and regret this error. I take great pride in researching the facts on which I base my opinions and will work ever more diligently to check facts in the future. However, to err is human. According to the 1-20-13 Patch follow-up letter by Mr. Al Boese, the $54M number Mr. Burgener himself published is also inaccurate; the amount spent “was closer to $62MM.” http://lakeforest.patch.com/blog_posts/war-between-d-115-board-member-nancy-thorner-and-patch

In any event, whether the actual number is $54M or $62M, we are still talking about a staggering amount of money and I still think it is a fair question to ask why the track field, the AC units, the boilers and the theatre rigging issues for which the District is now seeking another $5M were not taken care of for that price tag?

The list of renovations accomplished for our $54M/$62M, even put in the best light by Mr. Burgener, do not seem to justify the enormous investment. For example, he mentions “re-purposing more than 68,000 feet of educational space,” but what exactly does that mean? I understand that the old classrooms all stayed in tact, with no structural changes. Could changing a math classroom into a history classroom cost anything, much less lofty sums? Was it prudent to spend money renovating and now maintaining the west campus building for the primary purpose of relocating the burgeoning “Central Administrative Staff” when the economic times warranted truncation of that staff and keeping them housed at the Deer Path Middle School facility?

Mr. Burgener defends the renovations on the ground that the public voted for them. True enough, but the $54M bond referendum was sold to the public as the solution to two deteriorating campuses, not merely as the phase I of necessary renovations that it apparently was. Specifically, the plan was marketed as being “a long-range comprehensive plan” that would include infrastructure improvements including “Air Conditioning and heating,” the very improvements for which District 115 is now seeking funding! http://www.lfhs.org/facilities/qna.html

I also remain firm in my belief that the Board mishandled the generous fund-raising effort by the Diamond Campaign (DC). What I understand from the public record is that the DC proposed to fund, with up front donations and pledges, $2.9 million for “a new state-of-the-art track & field facility and two new synthetic turf fields.” http://www.diamondcampaign.org/overview.html

The DC proposed that the District fund the project with a loan that the DC would pay off over time. By March of 2012, the DC had collected $300,000 to $500,000 in donations and had over a million more in pledges, with a representation that it would continue its fund-raising efforts as new freshman classes cycle into the school. However, the amount of cash in hand was not good enough for the Board, nor was the word of the pledgers that they would be “good for” their pledges, a response that understandably created resentment.

Herein lies my problem with the Board’s handling of the matter. As the Board now concedes in seeking funds for a new track, the track needed to be replaced in 2012 as it does now. By alienating the DC, which I understand has already refunded all donations, the taxpayers are now left with paying 100% of the cost of the new track and the students are left with no new turf field for field hockey and lacrosse. Let’s assume that 50% of the pledgers reneged on their promises – an extraordinarily high assumption given the track record of similar booster pledges in other towns – funding from the DC would still have paid for well over half of what now must be paid for in full by the taxpayers. How can this be characterized as prudent?

Mr. Bergener’s letter is a seeming attempt to intimidate the Patch and me into not publishing articles and opinions that reflect poorly on the Board. He makes the petty, juvenile accusation that my opinions are “foolish” and reflect “fringe thinking.”

I thank Mr. Boese for coming to my defense in his 1-20-13 Patch letter. While some people may well disagree with my opinions, I can assure you that many share them. In fact, many members of the public have reached out to me, either via anonymous letters or in person, asking me to research and inform the public about various issues pertaining the schools. I don’t know how many times parents have told me that they would raise the issues themselves but fear reprisals against their children.

I intend to continue keeping a keen eye on issues of importance to taxpayers. I urge the Patch to continue doing the same. With the Patch, the public finally has a forum for exchanging opinions on matters of importance in the community (the Lake Forester now limits opinion letters to one 250-word letter per person per month and has no mechanism for comments to those letters).

It was largely due to the Patch’s coverage of the LFHS teachers’ strike and its willingness to publish blogs and comments on teachers’ salaries that the public rallied in support of the Board’s taking a tough stance in negotiations. Had the Patch been around a decade ago, it is doubtful that the public would have tolerated former superintendent Harry Griffith’s reign of excesses.

Regardless of what improvident decisions might have been made in the past, going forward we cannot skimp on future necessary spending on our schools. For the sake of the students and our property values, we must ensure quality facilities. We also need a better system of checks and balances than we have had in the past. For example, as I have previously suggested, it would be prudent to retain a full-time, paid inspector general to assist our part-time volunteer Board members in their oversight role.

Unfortunately this does not seem to be in the cards for District 115. As told to me in no uncertain terms at the January District 115 board meeting on Tuesday, January 8th, such a hiring was not warranted as the board had done its job in curtailing excess expenditures during the past several years.

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