By Nancy Thorner -
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 indifference 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.