I am writing in response to Mr. Burgener’s 1-22-13 comments to my Patch post of that same date and also to extend an olive branch to Mr. Burgener and the entire Board. Regarding the LFHS Booster’s Diamond Anniversary Campaign (DC), pardon me for omitting the “public record” source for my information. It was a video posted on the Board’s website of the 7-17-12 Board meeting in which the background of the failed effort was discussed. http://www.lfhs.org/news/photo_gallery/boe_video_gallery.html (segment entitled “rejection of construction bids”).

I cited to the DC’s website only to address Mr. Burgener’s assertion that the DC’s offer “was to cover the cost of installing two artificial turf fields and NOT the track replacement.” In fact, the DC’s goal in 2011 was to raise, via cash and pledges, $2.5M to fund “two state-of-the-art synthetic turf fields and a new track field facility for use by LFHS teams, wellness classes, intramurals and the entire community, as well as new bleachers systems and a new press box.” http://www.diamondcampaign.org/Diamond_Campaign_Press%20Release_1M_Weigel.pdf

As I understand from the Board-meeting video, the only reason why the DC retreated from its initial offer to fund the entire project was because the Board wanted more cash in hand before committing. Keep in mind that by 3-12, the DC had raised over $1.5M in cash and pledges from residents as well as corporations such as the Walt Disney Company and the Lake Forest Bank & Trust, which generously agreed to be a “major contributor” and a “Varsity Gold Partner.” http://www.diamondcampaign.org/Diamond_Anniversary_Campaign_Press%20Release_LFBT_021312.pdf

In response to the Board’s requirement of more up-front cash and in an effort to salvage the project, the DC suggested a scale back in the scope of the project so that the cash it had in hand would have amounted to a larger percentage of the cost of the project. While this compromise plan was acceptable to the Board, the re-bidding process for the scaled-down project would have delayed construction until 2013. This delay was unacceptable to the DC not only because the integrity of the donors had been called into question but also because ¼ of the donors (those associated with this year’s senior class) would not have enjoyed the benefit of their donations thereby compromising the representations made in the DC’s solicitations.

The bottom line from this saga is that if the Board had not been so skeptical of the bona fides of the pledges, LFHS would now have two new fields and a new track without having to rely on the taxpayers to fund any of it. The Boosters is not a fly-by-night group; it is an organization that has long been fund-raising to support our sports programs, and its gift should have been graciously accepted not treated with such skepticism. I go into this detail to defend the integrity of my prior posts, not to beat a dead horse.

Regarding the LFHS renovations and proposed $5M of new spending, Mr. Burgener implies that inaccuracies remain in my blogs as well as that of Mr. Boese, who pointed out the extra $8M spent on the renovation that Mr. Burgener had omitted. I am open-minded and will stand corrected if the facts so warrant, but no specifics on alleged inaccuracies have been provided. Mr. Burgener’s point about accepting that others err is well taken. I concede that it is easier to criticize than to perform.

I also am grateful for the long volunteer hours that Mr. Burgener and other school board members devote to their oversight role. However, it appears to many of us that the boards are generally not open-minded to opinions and proposed solutions from citizens who think differently from the “party line.” We are met with grimaces or blank stares and seldom with any discourse when we take the time to provide input at Board meetings. As your 1-18-12 letter states, you listen to my “rants” only because you have an “obligation” to do so. I know many individuals from the “Advocates for Accountability” feel the same way (for readers unaware of that group, see http://accountabilityparty.us/).

Perhaps going forward we can all make an effort to be more collaborative than combative, better enabling us to achieve the goal all of us presumably have in mind: the achievement of excellence (not mediocrity) in our schools in the most cost-effective manner.

In closing, I promote once again my idea of the retention of an inspector general. A volunteer, part-time school board can only do so much. A full-time paid inspector general could serve as a friend, not a foe, to the Board in carrying out its vital oversight role.

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.

My continued scrutiny of Lake Forest High School District 115 is not unlike what is surely happening at other high schools in Illinois where things have gotten out-of-hand.

Passivity is not a good thing to be found among taxpayers, as can seen up here in Lake County in a wealthy area where taxpayers have become indifferent to what really exists at Lake Forest High School, District 115. Many taxpayers feel that more money directed toward education must equal better of every thing! How wrong they are.

Just days after my opinion piece aired at Illinois Review on January 7th questioning the need for so many administrative positions at Lake Forest High School, a Lake Forest Patch article posted by editor Steve Sadin on Jan.11, 2013 raised further questions about improvident school spending.

Sadin’s article describes a $5 million capital-spending plan currently under consideration by the LFHS (District 115) Board of Education, $1.5 million of which would come from capital reserve funds and the remaining $3.5 from the sale of bonds. According to the article, ” The most expensive part of the project is replacing the approximately 20-year-old six-lane track at Lindemeyer Field with an eight-lane banked oval and building new storage facilities to replace those currently located under the bleachers.” Other updates include a “Dectron” unit to improve air quality of the swimming pool, new air conditioning units, new hot water boilers, and a new rigging system for the theatre.

My gripe is not with the bona fides of the claimed needs. Rather, what I am perplexed about is why, less than six months ago, the Board turned down private donations and pledges totaling almost $1.7 million to build the very track the Board is now seeking to fund with taxpayer funds. I am also disturbed that $5 million is needed for infrastructure repairs less than six years after taxpayers spent $75 million to renovate the LFHS’s infrastructure!

The history associated with the turned-down private donation, which would have been the largest gift in the history of Illinois public schools, is succinctly summarized in a comment to Sadin’s Jan. 11 Patch article:

“1. The School Superintendent and the School Board were aware of and supportive of the Diamond Campaign (DC) from its earliest stages.

2. The DC plan was to replace the current track, add a turf field, and replace/upgrade the surrounding facilities.

3. The DC received about $1.7 million in written pledges from credible Lake Forest residents, over $300,000 was cash with the balance pledged in equal amounts over four years.

4. The School Board had planned to support the DC plan with an additional $1.2 million to complete the project.

5. After the DC fund raising was complete, the School Board changed its position and turned down the gift. This was in the summer of 2012.

6. The recently voiced School Board plan to replace the track will cost $1.6 (a portion of the $5 million). This is substantially more than the district would have spent had it accepted the DC gift — and we won’t get the new turf field with the new School Board plan.”

Why did the Board see fit to look this gift horse in the mouth?

In addition to this imprudent snub of an enormous private gift, the proposed $5 million in infrastructure improvements raises another question about Board decisions. It has been less than five years since taxpayers spent a whopping $75 million to renovate the east and west campuses of LFHS. Why weren’t the track, a-c, boiler, and theatre rigging issues addressed during the “big spend” that was sold to taxpayers by Harry Griffith and the Board as solving the problems of the two outdated facilities?

Many taxpayers are left wondering just what did the taxpayers get for their money? As I pointed out in a Patch opinion piece back on Nov. 27, 2012, the $75 million renovation “is viewed by many taxpayers as an improvident expenditure of an enormous amount of money, putting a Band-Aid on an antiquated (though admittedly lovely) building that is unable to accommodate all athletics and all parking needs, adding considerable ongoing waste of student time and taxpayer and parent funds.”

Let’s look what we seem to have gotten from the big spend: The east campus building was spiffed up but it is essentially still an old building with the same old classrooms, the same old lockers, the same crazy-quilt hallways, and the same old indoor and outdoor athletic facilities. To boot, there is a woefully insufficient amount of parking and insufficient space to accommodate the multitude of top-notch sports teams LFHS has built, requiring droves of athletes each day to be transported to west campus facilities.

The renovated east campus does now have a 2-story edifice that connects two buildings. This edifice reportedly makes for a very cool hangout area for students, but seems to fall short of expectations from a $75 million renovation, prompting one citizen to comment in the Patch in response to the suggestion of $5 million in new expenditures: “They already own $75M for the ‘apple store’ hallway they built.”

To be fair, in addition to improvements of the east campus building, the $75 million did also cover renovations of LFHS’s west campus building, but those renovations appear to consist of little other than a new weight room and new offices to house the vast District 67/115 administrative staff that formerly occupied a wing of Deerpath Middle School.

There is one crown jewel emanating from the big spend: a beautiful new football stadium erected at west campus, arguably the only part of the big spend that truly meets expectations.

It is a shame the taxpayers and students didn’t get for the $75 million a new, state-of-the-art high school and new sports facilities in a locale that would have accommodated all academic and extra-curricular needs and lasted for many decades without further expenditures on infrastructure. $75 million could easily have bought just that. According data from Reed Construction, the cost estimates in 2008 to build a two-story, 130,000 square foot high school using union labor ranged, according to construction types, from $17,945,690 to $21,384,440.

Even tripling those estimates for more square footage, parking lots, and outdoor sports facilities, $75 million would surely have done the trick.

This, unfortunately, is “spilled milk.” We must move on from here to do whatever is necessary and right for our schools and taxpayers alike. However, we must learn from our mistakes as we move forward. There seems to be an air of denial present among Board members, who heretofore have been able to convince enough taxpayers that they are and have been good stewards of taxpayer monies. For whatever reasons, they have not been.

What our school districts need is a full-time, neutral inspector general to delve deeply into finances and ferret out abuses, such as the turning down of the Diamond Campaign’s gift and enormously bloated administrative costs.

At the January 8th District 115 Board meeting, I called upon the Board to appoint an inspector general to trim the fat that the Board has turned a blind eye to gaining. Almost laughably, the Board’s response was that it has determined that doing so would not be “cost effective.”

Tax dollars that are devoted to education should be spent for one reason and one reason only – to provide a quality education and quality facilities for our students, not to enrich administrators or contractors. If the taxpayers want to ensure that our tax dollars are being spent for that reason, they should insist that the Board re-consider and hire a paid, full-time inspector general, one who should be independent of, but work in concert with, our volunteer Board members who understandably cannot devote full time to their oversight role.

Published initially at Illinois Review on Monday, January 14.