Ear Hustle

Niles Township School Administrators Collected $450K In Perks While The School Makes Cutbacks To Staff And Programs

Suffer the little children!!! Yes indeed that is exactly what they are doing…suffering.  Here we have the Niles Township’s top education administrators clocking major dollars in perks but the Niles School District 219 has to make cutbacks in school programs because they don’t have the funds to keep them going.  Now what kind of mess is that??  Something is really wrong with this scenario, administrators are raking in the cash while the teachers and students are paying the price for the districts inability to control their spending.  To add more to the problems, the top administrators are still collecting a check while on leave until the investigation is complete.  Maybe they should have spent more of their energy looking into their financial book and overspending rather than going overboard checking up on kids who attend the school that may or may not live in the district.  Priorities are just out of whack!!!

Read more as reported by the Chicago Tribune:

niles school district

As a north suburban district grappled with cuts to staff and student programs in recent years, the school board showered two top administrators with nearly $450,000 worth of perks, a Tribune investigation has found.

Those benefits included $296,000 of graduate school tuition for Superintendent Nanciann Gatta and Assistant Superintendent for Operations John Heintz, the district’s chief legal counsel, to attend the exclusive University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Gatta also received extra vacation payouts and bonuses not included in her contract.

The Tribune acquired hundreds of pages of contracts, personnel records, employee benefits and other financial records from Niles Township High School District 219 through an open records request and found a spate of expenses that raise questions about financial oversight in the district in recent years.

Last month, the north suburban school district’s board put the two administrators on leave pending an unspecified investigation, and, without explanation, hired a forensic technology company, an accountant and pedigreed law firm to conduct the probe. Officials released a statement that Gatta and Heintz had “agreed” to take leave until further notice “due to differences” with the board.

District and school board officials have refused to answer questions, and it’s unclear whether the spending and contracts are connected to the ongoing investigation. “I want to respect the rights of the people involved,” school board President Mark Sproat said, declining to comment further. “There’s nothing I can do at this time.”

Gatta is scheduled to earn $341,000 this year in pay and benefits, and Heintz will earn $216,000. Both are on paid leave, and taxpayers continue to cover their salaries and benefits, estimated at roughly $50,000 per month.

Gatta and Heintz said they are political casualties of the shifting priorities that came with a new slate of union-backed board members who took office this spring. “I would have hoped that they would have been a professional board and come to me and said they wanted a leader who was more in line with their vision,” Gatta said.

She said any payments to her were always made with the board’s approval. Records show the school board approved tuition payments, which were included in monthly financial reports. Gatta’s lawyer Thomas Durkin said board members are trying “to trash” the superintendent with an ominous probe “for their own political purposes.”

“Would someone do that to get out of the obligation of paying?” Durkin said. “Yes.”

This week, Gatta filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the school board for what the lawsuit describes as an “attempt to force Dr. Gatta to resign so that the Board could avoid the political implications of honoring the full value of her contract.”

School board members referred questions to attorney Dana Crumley at Franczek Radelet, a private firm retained to handle general legal issues when the probe was launched. Crumley declined to comment.

Gatta’s compensation has exceeded what was stated in her contract, documents show. Since she took the job as superintendent in 2008, Gatta has cashed out more than $127,000 in unused vacation time, nearly double what her contract allowed.

As superintendent, she was allotted 25 annual vacation days and could exchange up to 10 of those days for cash each year. Her maximum allowance would have been $71,000 for 80 days since she took the district’s top job. Instead, a Tribune analysis found that Gatta cashed in 146 days and from 2009 to 2013 she used an average of only three vacation days per year, selling back the rest to the district.

Records also reveal the district cut $73,000 worth of checks directly to Gatta rather than a private retirement fund, though her contract explicitly states that the contribution should be made directly “to a tax-sheltered annuity and deferred compensation plan.” Those payments were made in addition to the $198,500 the board contributed to a retirement account while she was superintendent, records show.

Durkin said the direct payments are a moot point because they didn’t cost the district any more than if they’d been contributed to an investment fund.

Melinda Selbee, an attorney with the Illinois Association of School Boards, said a school board should vote on amending any changes to a contract as a best practice. That wasn’t done in District 219.

The school board’s silence was met with sharp criticism by Morton Grove resident Lorenzo Fiol at a recent meeting.

“Why did the board begin the investigation of the superintendent?” Fiol said during a public comment session dominated by students and teachers who lamented the district’s latest budget cuts.

“They talk about money being taken away from the kids,” he said, “but how much have they spent on the accounting firm and the legal firm?”

Unusual contract provisions

In 2008, the school board tapped Gatta, a former English teacher and human resources administrator, to head the district, which draws students from Niles, Skokie, Lincolnwood and Morton Grove. The following year, a new position, the assistant superintendent of operations and chief legal counsel, was created and Gatta tapped Heintz, a former colleague in the English department, to fill the job.

According to Gatta’s lawsuit, she and Sproat, the board president, sparred in the days before she was put on leave amid pressure by the board president to go around the school board to staff a new communications department for students. Gatta saw the move as a violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act and filed a complaint with the Illinois Association of School Boards, the lawsuit states. She is seeking protection under the Illinois Whistleblower Act.

The communications department hiring drew the ire of union officials, and Gatta claims in her lawsuit that she was scapegoated and suspended last month in an attempt to cover up Sproat’s role in pushing the hires. Heintz said he advised Gatta that those decisions needed to be done in open session and claims he was suspended by the board in retaliation.

Within the district, there were rumblings about executive spending under Gatta’s leadership that began before the personnel flap occurred.

Heintz and Gatta are under contract through 2018, and taxpayers could be on the hook for more than $1.7 million worth of salaries and benefits to buy them out.

Heintz can be discharged only for “just cause” for conduct “that results in a felony conviction,” according to his contract. School law experts say the provision is highly unusual and are unsure whether it would hold up in court.

“Some superintendents try to put that in there but we never allow that because it’s ridiculous,” longtime suburban school lawyer Burt Odelson said. “What if he didn’t come to work? What that contract does is it says that he can do that.”

Heintz said he negotiated the language because he wanted “a clear just-cause clause.”

The contract was approved by the school board and vetted by an attorney from Scariano Himes & Petrarca, the board’s law firm at the time. Heintz worked briefly for the firm before returning to the district as its top lawyer.

For the school board to fire Gatta, she would have to be found culpable of a felony or a violation of the Illinois School Code, her contract says. The school board also agreed to cover 10 years of health care premiums for Gatta’s family if she leaves the district and remains unemployed.

The most substantial compensation not explicitly stated in either contract was the more than $300,000 in tuition reimbursements paid on behalf of the pair since 2009. Gatta and Heintz were awarded Master of Business Administration degrees from the University of Chicago in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The district paid $200 to Loyola University Chicago during that time to cover books for coursework that Gatta had taken prior to becoming superintendent. Another $4,700 tuition check was cut to Concordia University Chicago this summer for Heintz.

Teachers in the district are not eligible for tuition reimbursement under their contract but some support staff members are. Those reimbursements are capped, as are the number of credit hours they are eligible to take on the district’s dime.

Debra Hill, a retired north suburban superintendent who runs the school executive search firm BWP & Associates, said it’s unusual to not spell out tuition reimbursement in a school executive’s contract. “If you have an administrator working on a doctorate, they may request tuition reimbursement,” Hill said. “Typically, there would be a ceiling on what that reimbursement would be.”

Durkin points to a clause in Gatta’s and Heintz’s contracts that says the administrators should be “encouraged to attend appropriate professional meetings and continuing education at the local, state and national levels. Within budget constraints, as approved by the board, the costs of attendance shall be paid by the Board.”

“There is nothing that says that (tuition reimbursement) should be included in the contract,” Durkin said.

Kids face cuts

School officials have been quiet about the pending investigation and the spending under Gatta’s leadership.

During a recent budget hearing, teachers and students packed into chairs neatly lined along the back of a conference room at the District 219 administrative offices.

“We understand that you need to be fiscally responsible,” science teacher Tom Jodelka said as the board weighed doubling student transportation fees for field trips and cutting funds for the debate team, technology and an environmental science program that he helped to develop.

“Everyone is being asked to do more with less,” Jodelka said, asking the board to maintain at least a fraction of the $100,000 it was preparing to cut, which would wipe out his science initiative.

The board later voted to make the full $100,000 cut.

“Please reconsider,” Niles West senior BoaTran Le said in one final appeal to spare the science program.

“If the money isn’t going to be spent on our students,” she asked, “where is it going to go?”

Source: Chicago Tribune

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