BELLWOOD, Ill. – Illinois’ Bellwood School District 88 has some really serious financial problems.
As the Chicago Tribune put it, “the district is steeped in debt, and many of the students come from low-income homes. The classroom basics — such as paper and calculators — are often paid for by teachers or through fundraisers, said PTA leader Maria Perez. Tablets or new textbooks are just a dream.
“District officials made enough budget cuts over the past couple years to get off the state’s financial watch list, but the district is still mired in nearly $30 million worth of bond debt and has exceeded a state-imposed borrowing cap.”
Most people would assume that means the Bellwood district lacks resources. But as it turns out, the management of resources may be at the root of the problem.
Last summer a Tribune report revealed a very worrisome spending pattern in the district involving Superintendent Rosemary Hendricks and other top officials.
For instance, the school board voted to “replenish” a $105,103 retirement account that Hendricks had cashed out a long time ago, the news report said.
But getting that money back could be a problem.
“District 88’s attorney said previously that Hendricks is required to repay the money to the district,” the Tribune reported. “But documents obtained by the Tribune last week show Hendricks is six months behind on the repayment agreement, which was adopted in September 2015 when District 88 paid the Illinois Teachers Retirement System on her behalf. As of May, Hendricks had repaid $7,300.
“While Hendricks has 36 months to repay the district for the $105,000, there are only 12 months left in her $175,000-a-year contract. If she leaves the district, or is not rehired next year, there is no recourse for recouping the money.”
The added pension contribution from the school district will increase Hendricks’ annual retirement benefit from about $14,000 per year to about $77,000 under the state formula, the news report said.
“Hendricks, 66, is now eligible to retire with the pension benefits of someone who has paid into the system for 25 years, though, as of last year, she had paid into it for only 4 1/2 years,” the Tribune wrote. “Taxpayers across the state will pick up the tab, potentially for years to come.”
The school board also approved paying Hendricks for 33 vacation days per year, rather than the original 24, which amounts to a bonus of about $5,800, according to the newspaper.
Between March and November 2015, Hendricks and various school board members spent more than $20,000 on trips to Las Vegas; Nashville; Savannah, Georgia; Phoenix; and Washington D.C., according to the news report.
They were also reimbursed a combined $8,300 for various food and travel expenses that were not related to those trips, and spent thousands of dollars at nearby Chicago hotels and restaurants, according to the Tribune.
The Tribune also revealed last summer that several children of Hendricks and school board President Marilyn Thurman were recently given jobs in the district – and several of them make a lot of money.
“Hendricks’ daughter Brittnay Atkinson was tapped last summer to fill a new student service coordinator job. At $70,000 a year, her salary was higher than those of 87 percent of teachers in the district.
“According to Atkinson’s job application with the district, she has a bachelor’s degree in communications disorders from Saint Xavier University and one year of experience as a teacher’s aide and special education assistant.
“Hendricks’ other daughter, Jocelyn Hendricks, who has an associate degree and is a licensed practical nurse according to her job application, was hired to fill a $78,500-a-year job as a district nurse. Last month, the school board agreed to keep her on over the summer as well — at a cost of $48 an hour.”
When asked about the hires, Hendricks told the Tribune, “There is no nepotism policy — not that I know of. Is my daughter not qualified?”
The newspaper wrote that Hendricks “declined to comment on whether anyone else applied for the positions.”
Now the Tribune, in a November report, revealed that the Bellwood school district has been running up outrageous bills for taxi cab service.
“Since the 2011 school year began, Bellwood School District 88 has paid People Cab Co. $605,000 to shuttle homeless and special education students to and from school,” the Tribune reported. “More than half — or $311,000 — of those expenses were authorized by the board during the past two school years alone.
“Bellwood’s taxi bills far outpace those of surrounding districts, state education records show.”
Taxpayers and parents get the type of schools that they are willing to tolerate. Only time will tell if the people of Bellwood will stand up and demand radical change and reform.