By Nancy Thorner -
Just by chance I heard about the Lake Forest School District 67 Board of Education Special Meeting on Monday, February 13.
Given the limited number of parents and citizens present at this very important meeting, which should have had standing room only, was the announcement of the new superintendent to replace retiring Superintendent Harry Griffith, fifty-year old Michael Simeck who holds the same position at Berkley School District in southeastern Oakland County in Michigan.
Instead the February 13 meeting had the appearance of a hurriedly arranged and previously unannounced meeting, which helped to fortify my perception of the search process even before entering the meeting room at West Campus, that it lacked the openness and transparency promised initially to residents of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff.
Being curious, I wanted to know more about Michael Simeck than the glowing bio and statement presented at the February 13 meeting.
In an article written by Jack Lessenberry on March 11, 2011, Education Cuts Based on a Hunch, Michael Simeck was described as superintendent of the smallish but highly diverse Berkley School District in southeastern Oakland County, with a school enrollment of 4,800 students.
In the article Simeck expressed deep concern that the governor's proposed FY 2012 budget (Gov. Rick Snyder), with its deep cuts to education, will do his district and his students serious harm by resulting in a sudden budget deficit of $4.9 million. It was speculated that Simeck, like other superintendents, had little wiggle room since most of the budget goes for negotiated salaries and fixed costs.
What Michael Simeck feared did happen. The 2012 budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday, June 21, 2011, called for $1.5 billion in budget cuts in fiscal year 2012 with a 2% cut in education.
Another telling Michael Simeck situation while at Berkley seemed to offer further reason why Simeck, as reported at the meeting, was so ecstatic over being selected out of 99 other candidates for the shared superintendency position of Lake Forest Districts 67 and 115. After all the superintendent position is a plum job. Simeck will have even less students and schools to oversee than he did in the Berkley School System.
While superintendent of the Berkley School System, a shared position arrangement, in 2010 Simeck attempted to pass what may have been the largest bond ever issued during a time of recession.
Citizens took advantage of the public comment period at the monthly meeting of the Berkley school board to vent their displeasure with a ballot proposal that failed on Feb. 23. It would have authorized the board to issue bonds totaling approximately $167 million, to be paid with the proceeds of an additional 4.27 mill tax levy. Simeck was accused of handpicking members of a bond committee who would be willing to work as advocates, instead of finding community members.
The bond issue was also described as one that had nothing to do with educating students; it was all about buildings and learning environments, which tied right in with Simeck's constant drumbeat of giving the schools more money, instead of the need to buck-up and make cuts.
As reported in a post to "Tempers flare over failed Berkley bond," after the bond issue failed on Feb. 23, Simeck immediately interviewed for a job at another school district.
One job position Simeck did seek while superintendent at Berkley was the superintendent position at Bloomfield Hills Schools in Michigan. A report updated on Wednesday, March 31, 2010, relates: "The BHS Board of Education tonight selected Robert Glass and Michael Simeck following interviews of four candidates during this week's first round. School Exec Connect, the search firm, will arrange interviews on Monday, April 12 and Tuesday, April 13." Robert Glass was ultimately chosen over Simeck for the position.
Unlike the procedure followed at the Bloomfield Hills Schools in selecting Glass over Simeck in 2010, Lake Forest/Lake Bluff residents were not given a chance to meet the final two candidates to ask questions. As reported: "The BHS Board selected Mr. Glass after second interviews of he and Michael Simeck, the current Berkley superintendent, which included an opportunity for community members to meet the two finalist candidates and to ask questions. Four candidates presented by search firm School Exec Connect were interviewed in the first round."
Contrary to what happened with the Berkley bond issue in which Michael Simeck was involved, the bond referendum requested by the Board of Education of Lake Forest School District 115 in 2006 ($54,000,000) did pass overwhelmingly, most likely because the recession had not yet hit the pocketbooks of taxpayers in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff.
Following is the referendum voted upon by Lake Forest and Lake Bluff residents in the 2006 General Election of Nov. 7:
Lake Forest CU School
LAKE Bond Build/Construct Pass
Shall the Board of Education of Lake Forest CUSD 115, Lake County, build, equip, improve, and
repair Lake Forest CUSD's school buildings and issue bonds up to the amount of $54,000,000 for
paying the costs thereof?
The outcome was the construction of a high school facility whose purpose, as admitted to me when touring the unbelievable and science fiction-like facility, was to be the best high school in the area, as if the spending lavishly on a building will elevate student achievement.
As such, Michael Simeck is now superintendent of a Lake Forest School District, as of July 1st, that has a high school building that he could only have dreamed of in the past!
My concerns are many as to how Michael Simeck was selected and the actual extent of promised community involvement over his selection, as well as the hurriedly arranged meeting to vote over and announce his selection. Why wasn't this done at one of the regularly scheduled meetings in February? Was there a reason to do it at a "special meeting" so the community would be caught unaware? Was it to avoid lumping it in with the Safer report at the February 28th meeting?
Lack of community involvement was in full play at the Feb. 13 meeting, when the only comments permitted following the open session, and after the name of the superintendent and the terms of his contract were released, were those of Missy Burger, Spirit of 67 Foundation and Elizabeth Nemickas. Their comments offered glowing accounts of Simeck and how he was heads and shoulders above the 99 other superintendent candidates. All the while others present, sat champing at the bit to express their concerns and opinions.
It was refreshing that two of the District 67 board members did express their misgivings by voting "no" on approving Michael Simeck's three-year contract, Laurie Rose and Bill Anderson.
Laurie Rose, who participated by phone because of a family emergency, read a long letter when asked for her vote on the "Approval of the Performance Based Superintendent's Contract." Much of her letter could not be understood, but one of her misgivings regarded the compensation package of Michael Simeck.
Rose noted how the NYC Chancellor of Schools oversees 1.1 million students and earns $213,000, while Michael Simeck will receive a base salary of $220,000 augmented by an additional $30,000 for managing two districts -- with further perks and additional benefits forthcoming -- to oversees 4,000 students with the aid of four Assistant Superintendents and six directors.
When Superintendent Harry Griffith retires in June he will be the highest paid superintendent in all of Illinois when combining his shared services compensations -- entered into in July of 2004 -- as superintendent of Lake Forest Districts 67 and 115. Michael Simeck likewise received more in compensation as superintendent of the Berkley School District than the governor of Michigan.
Although Michael Simeck will experience a pay-cut in his acceptance of the shared superintendent position in Lake Forest Districts 67 and 115, his three-year contract, if extended, is certain to give Simeck raises and bonuses as were likewise granted to Harry Griffith through bargaining during Griffith's years as superintendent and which now add up to his extreme compensation package upon retirement.
Speaking in financial terms, Simeck will bring with him to his new Lake Forest superintendency position monthly pension benefits he accrued during his time in Michigan, while at the same time he is being compensated for his shared superintendent position in Districts 67 and 115.
How is it that Simeck needs $500 per month in auto reimbursement and 22 days of vacation time. Only the superintendent is awarded this much vacation time. It is appropriate to question whether Michael Simeck will be given the car assigned and paid for by the Lake Forest School Distrcts upon his retirement, as will Superintendent Griffith? Why don't we just give Mr. Simeck the luxury automobile we gave Mr. Griffith to tool around town! How many luxury automobiles do we have to buy for our pampered Superintendents?
Michael Simeck is sure to follow through with the 21st century learning program which is now being implemented in District 67, which is not greeted enthusiastically by all parents in District 67 In January of this year Berkley Education Foundation held a fundraiser, "Off to the Races," to support Berkley's technology initiative with a goal of raising enough money to buy I-Pads for every classroom in the district.
In Lake Forest, although all parents pay a $250 technology fee each year, more than enough to cover the cost of I-Pads, only staff and administrators get I-Pads while students get much cheaper and less advanced Net-books which are paid for by the Spirit Foundation.
The 21st Century learning program uses I-pads for the learning process in which subjects to be taught are merged together instead of being taught separately. In observing the limited implementation of the 21st learning program in District 67 through a video presentation shown at a board meeting a few months ago, the program seemed to point to a disorganized and haphazard classroom learning situation which could possibly work well with brighter students, but which seemed destined to fail those students who required more hands on instruction by the teacher.
Simeck is likewise a supporter of the on-going Mandarin Chinese program in Lake Forest Districts 67 and 115. Many question have as of yet been unanswered that were posed by citizens who presented their concerns to the boards of both Lake Forest School Districts.
Other concerns which merit followup reports:
1. Age of the selected superintendent (50) as to his service commitment in years to Lake Forest School Districts 67 and 115?
2. Simeck is just now completing his doctorate degree in education. Not that diplomas mean all that much in the long run, but most likely most of the candidates applying already had received their doctorate degrees. In addition, his Baccalaureate and Master's degree's are both from Eastern Michigan University, a school not known for its rigorous educational standards.
3. Is it true that the shared services policy entered into eight year ago in 2004, and which now includes 17 other individuals from finance, building/ground, and communication, has saved District 67 $600,000 per year, or a total of $6.8 million, as was expressed at the Feb.13th meeting.
4. The main thrust of the argument for the BOE to have declined the proposal was pointed out by board member Laurie Rose, when she strongly advised that the BOE should have gone back to the drawing board to create a true binding agreement, i.e. one with 'teeth' that holds the Supt. to performance based measures and is also fiscally sound, especially in this recession.
The fact that Ms. Rose clearly identified the caveats of this proposal and the Board still pressed forward with a mandate, indicates that the Board does not act on their own but under pressure from the Superintendent. Isn't the Board's role to serve the taxpayer and the students, not the Superintendent?
Although opinions about the hiring of Michael Simeck will vary, Mr. Simeck certainly deserves watching and observing as he assumes the superintendent's position at Lake Forest Districts 67 and 115 this summer. Only then can it be determined whether this choice is really what community input indicated, or whether the choice was determined more by the wishes of a small group that was involved in the final selection of Simeck to maintain the status quo in both districts.