Bellwood District 88 Superintendent Rosemary Hendricks | Chicago Tribune
Monday, July 11, 2016 || Originally Published: Chicago Tribune || By Angela Caputo
Money in Bellwood School District 88 is tight. 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.
But that hasn’t stopped leaders in the west suburban district from giving perks to the superintendent or traveling to conferences in five cities in less than a year. Nor has it curbed family hiring on the taxpayers’ dime.
Compensation, travel bills and other expenses found by the Tribune in a series of open records requests raise new questions about spending in the troubled school district. Previous Tribune investigations found the district cycled through more superintendents than any other in the region in recent years, and it was mired in legal bills that, on a per-student basis, were among the highest in Chicago’s suburbs.
Questions about the spending were referred to the school board president and District 88 attorney, neither of whom responded.
Meanwhile, student achievement continues to slide in the elementary school district. Teacher turnover grew over the past two years at a rate higher than 95 percent of districts in the Chicago area, state education records show. The personnel changes, from the superintendent post on down, have led to lawsuits, payouts and tension between administrators and the community.
“Your personnel matters are touching my tax dollars and affecting my property values,” Bellwood resident Arnetta Watkins told the school board during a meeting last week.
Children of both Superintendent Rosemary Hendricks and school board President Marilyn Thurman were added to the district’s payroll during the last school year.
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.
Thurman’s son Ferrell Wells was hired as a bus assistant. Thurman’s daughter Carmen Jefferson-Thurman was hired as a lunch supervisor and building assistant.
“There is no nepotism policy — not that I know of,” Hendricks told the Tribune in June. “Is my daughter not qualified?” She declined to comment on whether anyone else applied for the positions.
Hendricks’ and Thurman’s children could not be reached.
During last week’s meeting, resident Deborah Giles chided the School Board for the district’s hiring practices. “You make bad decisions for this village,” she said. “Everything I’ve seen so far is hiring and firing. You’re trying to take over jobs. Everyone is trying to get a piece of the pie.”
Giles was among the taxpayers who gave district officials an earful at a Tuesday board meeting after the Tribune wrote about a $105,503 payment the School Board approved to replenish a retirement account that Hendricks personally cashed out years ago.
District 88’s attorney said previously that Hendricks is required to repay the money to the district. 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, which, according to the agreement, “shall be considered compensation for services and part of the superintendent’s severance.”
The added contribution would increase annual pension benefits to $77,000 from an estimated $14,000 under TRS’ benefits formula. 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 41/2 years. Taxpayers across the state will pick up the tab, potentially for years to come.
Board members declined to comment on whether they read the terms of the agreement before approving it in September.
“When we were coming in as new board members, there were a lot of things presented to us,” said board member Patricia Crawford, who ran on a reform ticket and was sworn in on the Bellwood school board in the spring of 2015. “I’m just going to say I’ve learned you have to do your research.”
The Tribune found the pension perk isn’t the only sweetener the school board added to Hendricks’ compensation.
Last July, the School Board approved paying Hendricks for 18 days of her 24-day vacation time. In June, before the same school year ended, the board approved paying her an additional 15 days of unused vacation time.
Hendricks said the initial payment was compensation for her first nine months on the job when she worked for $750 a day as interim superintendent. However, there was no vacation time provided in that initial contract, district records show.
In all, the board approved paying Hendricks for 33 vacation days. The extra nine days on top of her 24 days per year amounts to an estimated $5,800 bonus.
Last year, auditors dinged the district because “Vacation and sick days are not tracked on a consistent basis” and noted other problems with record-keeping.
While Hendricks was paid as if she didn’t take off a single day last year, she did travel extensively on the district’s dime.
Over the months from March to November 2015, the superintendent and a handful of board members spent more than $20,000 on trips to Las Vegas; Nashville, Tenn.; Savannah, Ga.; Phoenix; and Washington, D.C. That didn’t include the $8,300 in per diem reimbursements for related dining and travel expenses. Or the thousands more spent that year on stays in downtown Chicago hotels and per diems while attending local conferences.
The travel expenses were gleaned from district credit card statements and financial reports that, in some cases, did not show reasons for travel or length of stay. District officials forwarded all questions to attorney Michael Castaldo Jr., who did not respond to questions last week.
Crawford, the only board member to respond, said all new board members are required to complete three training sessions. She opted to attend only local conferences in Chicago.
The first trip on last year’s travel itinerary was in March, when Hendricks, board President Thurman, Secretary Dorothy Clark-Smith and then-board members Daisy Allen and Janice Starks attended a three-day National School Boards Association conference in Nashville. Taxpayers picked up the $2,499 tab for airfare, district credit card records show. Accommodations at the Embassy Suites cost $3,554. When the group returned, the district cut them $2,700 worth of checks to cover per diem reimbursements for food and travel expenses.
Under district policy, employees are required to submit “an itemized list of actual expenses with receipts attached” for reimbursements. Yet board members and Hendricks were routinely reimbursed in round numbers that averaged out to between $150 to $300 a day, financial records show.
Just 3 1/2 weeks later, Hendricks was reimbursed $750 more for per diem expenses for attending a three-day conference. That week, district employees flew to Phoenix. In addition to airfare, accommodations and per diems, the district paid for a $348 bill at a steakhouse.
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