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Questionable Spending Practices in Lake Forest School Districts

The 'Chicago Tribune' investigates spending during Harry Griffith's time as superintendent.

The Chicago Tribune reported this weekend on the questionable spending practices implemented by the Lake Forest's District 67 and District 115 school boards.

While overseeing the two districts, which share administrators, former superintendent Harry Griffith was among the highest paid public school administrators in the state, with a salary of $362,000 in the 2011-12 school year alone, the Tribune reports. Besides his salary, he also reaped numerous other benefits – the school boards forgave him a $75,000 loan to buy a house, he traveled twice yearly to an educators conference at a resort in California, the district provided a car – as well as gas and maintenance – which they let him keep upon retirement.

The Chicago Tribune also reported that during the 2010-11 school year, the districts paid more than 60 restaurant bills under his name, with “little or no documentation showing who was with him or whether the meals were business-related.” In his final school year alone, Griffith spent nearly $15,000 on “entertainment, travel, professional development, car repairs and membership dues.”

Both Lake Forest High School and Deer Path Middle School were ranked among the best in the Chicagoland area recently, with LFHS ranking 13th among high schools and DPMS ranking 39th amongst elementary and middle schools. 

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LFHS also ranked 1st among average administrator's salary, with an average of $175,375 per administrator. (For comparison, Homewood Flossmoor District 233 ranked second, with an average of $167, 237 per administrator.)

This wasn’t the first time that the Lake Forest school boards have given hefty perks above traditional payment for administrators. The Tribune reported in a Nov. 25 article that in 2006 Jennifer Hermes, a District 67 business administrator, put her Naperville house up for sale in order to buy a house closer to her job in Long Grove. When the Naperville house hadn’t sold after two years, Hermes borrowed $28,000 from the district to cover her mortgage. As of last month, Hermes still owed the district $16,400, the Tribune says.

But housing assistance is common in the private sector, Michael Jacoby, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Business Officials told the Tribune. “Most people don’t move unless there is some support in housing,” he said. “In the public sector it’s a little bit less the status quo, but it’s all part of if you want a quality leader and if those are the issues in stopping them … It’s up to the board of educators to make that decision. 

Griffith retired from his position as superintendent at the end of the 2011-12 school year, which many residents felt was necessary after it was found that former Deer Path Middle School Principal John Steinert had been convicted in 2009 for misdemeanor harrassment by electronic communication for sexually explicit text messages, voice mails and a lewd photo from his school district-issued cell phone to a 22-year-old Lake Forest College student. 

A petition posted by Lake Forest resident Michael Beacham on Change.org  called for District 67 school board members to vote for Griffith's termination, citing that Griffith "demonstrated gross incompetence and derelication of duty to the students in his care." The petition was signed by 113 people before it was closed. 

A Lake Forest city caucus will decide in a closed door meeting on Tuesday whether or not to renominate incumbents of the two school boards to run for re-election in the spring. 

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Tracy Burns November 27, 2012 at 08:26 PM
Oh, by the way, the teachers’ union and the Democrats are not the ones who created the pension crisis in Illinois. The pension crisis we face today is due to the state’s consistent failure to adequately contribute their portion of pension liabilities. When the state promises to pay pensions to their employees then refuses to set aside enough money to do so, it is essentially borrowing from future taxpayers . . . that would be our children and us.
Kathie November 27, 2012 at 09:05 PM
The strike at LFHS revealed there is no real connection between pay and performance. We have many exceptional teachers paid far less than others who clearly need tenure just to be lucky to keep their jobs (and their excessive pay is a further outrage!) But at least teacher pay is a fairly transparent negotiation! The pay and benefits and perks our bloated administration receives is totally out of control. The Tribune article makes me wonder, what else is out there that hasn't been disclosed? We have a new superintendent who has not had any public presence since arriving here. Where is he? What's his opinion on all of this? Is he willing to take action to clean house of all of this abuse from the Griffith era? We're #1 in administrator pay and #13 in our HS ranking. That is embarrassing.
ilove lakebluff 2013 November 27, 2012 at 09:35 PM
Tracy, You have accurately portrayed the way the LB School Caucus is "supposed" to work, according to its bylaws. Perhaps in the past there were elections where the Caucus worked as well as you describe. In practice however, over the current election cycle, the LB Caucus has strayed from its mission. I noticed your name is not listed as a current member. Perhaps you have not been involved this cycle? Maybe you should reach out to the members you trust to give you real story. A quick review of the LB Caucus bylaws shows that non-partisan politics is essential to the Caucus delivering on its model as designed. This is where the LB Caucus has strayed this election cycle. The Caucus volunteers have been heavily influenced by the politics of a small group of LB citizens with a very specific "Tea Party" type agenda. So much so that the Caucus will soon publicly endorse a slate of 4 candidates who's own leader told the Caucus at its open interview that he will only run if he can pick his own team. Even after that brazen statement he and his team was endorsed. This is a one issue slate with one goal in mind. This is party politics and the Caucus has dropped the ball and strayed very far from its non-partisan mission. Don't be fooled. The Caucus system is a relic and its time has past.
Gary November 27, 2012 at 11:18 PM
Hey! It sounds like the good guys took control of the Lake Bluff Caucus. Good for them. Now if the Lake Forest Caucus would get in line we'd have a chance at real fiscal reform. By the way, being accused of having a "Tea Party type agenda" must mean that those people are serious about getting government spending under control.
Michael H. Ebner November 28, 2012 at 12:37 AM
I have served on the LF Caucus, including chairing the Ward Two committee on candidates. A decade hence I also was advanced by the Caucus to serve on the Building Review Board and then the Historic Preservation Commission. I very much enjoyed these opportunities to serve the community. I found the entire Caucus process quite open. A neighbor of ours asked me if she could nominate me for the committee on candidates. I was interviewed and subsequently appointed. Men and women from all walks of life serve on the caucus. I found it to be a very good cross section of residents. And our deliberations were entirely above board as we considered whom to slate for appointments or nominations to elective office. Any resident of Lake Forest who wishes to be considered for appointive or elective office is encouraged to file an application. My sense is that there are more positions than there are applicants. Having said as much, I do think that members of the school boards -- #67 and #115 -- need to take a more pro-active stance regarding transparency. Clearly some lapses have occurred.
R. Huszagh November 28, 2012 at 12:43 AM
ilove lakebluff 2013: Your comment "he will only run if he can pick his own team" has been posted out of context, and that candidate had no "team." He interviewed independently as did all others. The "team" he was seeking to find if elected, was one that would have the same commitment as he did; to work hard to achieve considerate solutions/resolutions to the needs of the district. Your comment "This is a one issue slate with one goal in mind." - I've been a volunteer on the LB Caucus for a few years now and our only agenda/goal continues to be seeking, interviewing, and promoting qualified school board candidates on a nonpartisan basis who demonstrate a willingness to consider and reflect upon the needs of our students as well as the tax payers. We have members who are both tax paying users and tax paying non-users. There is no agenda or alignment with any other affiliations, period.
Kathie November 28, 2012 at 01:41 AM
I'm a 2nd ward resident and thank you for your service, Michael. I agree. The caucus process is open from a resident perspective and I'm sure there are many more positions than applicants. It's not easy to do volunteer public service and few are willing to step up. But what disturbs me is that candidates who do step up and aren't supported by the caucus tend to be subjected to a destructive whispering campaign in town. (Griffith himself was observed campaigning against an independent candidate in the last election, by the way. That seems to be clearly a breach of ethics that the BOE looked the other way on.) I agree that there might be a genuine reason why the caucus supports one candidate over another. But, the caucus "stamp of approval" tends to stop genuine debate and inquiry in the community. Perhaps, questions such as how all the outrageous administrative and "consultant" pay and benefits abuse could have been allowed to go on for so long could have come up during the last election? Many alarms were out in 2010. It's human nature. People don't want to call out their friends who put them where they are or who made bad decisions. How do you propose to fix that? I don't know the solution. But I do agree. Lapses have occurred.
LFParent November 28, 2012 at 02:26 AM
I don't think anyone here is saying the excessive salaries and poor accounting standards are the result of corrupt school boards. The relationship between the school boards and the superintendent/administration has always been an incestuous one that undermines any check and balance/accountability. My inlaws live in MD where they have one superintendent that covers numerous school districts, not two, with far more students. The attitude of the former superintendent and the board has always been that our community can afford whatever they chose to do and until we support and elect independent individuals to the board, this will not change and the waste will continue.
Mosober November 28, 2012 at 02:39 AM
Michael, Give me a break you are just one of those yes folks who has found a home among the shallow folks. If you are what you say you are then show us with our voice and vote to replace the board. To merely suggest some lapses have occurred is a gross understatement and reflective of your true lack of understand about the events. This clown Prince Harry has made it thru a board of fools by so called leaders and caucus appointees. How is it that a past board member was a Human Resource Liberal Attorney allowed this nonsense to take place. How is it this legacy of trash continues on the board today. The process is stacked. Vote them off. What arrogance does a person have to feel he is worthy of a consulting position yet today. Who put him there? Is there no shame for the major bank in town who has Prince Harry on the Board? What are they thinking? Its a joke and frankly deserving of town full of want to be people.
LFParent November 28, 2012 at 02:43 AM
Ditto. I've lived here for 20 yrs and whenever another party has tried to present candidates to run against the Caucus, they always lose. As Arthur points out, there is low voter turnout, etc. We can all complain about how things are run but until we are willing to become engaged in the process, to support and vote in independent thinking candidates, nothing will change. Hannah Emmanuele ran as an independent for the D115 school board. She is extremely intelligent and looking at her resume, she was over qualified for the position. Yet she did not win. Until our community is willing to support candidates like Hannah, who are willing to challenge the status quo, to ask the administration the right questions and to put students first, not their salaries, pensions or perks, we will continue to have fiscal waste and school districts where there is a higher ratio of administrators to students compared to virtually every school district in the country. Our administrators "retire" but then are hired back as consultants and continue to be on our payroll. I wonder how much Harry Griffith is being paid as a consultant? Furthermore, where is the community engagement during school board meetings? While I concede even with community participation, the school board usually does what it wants, but residents need to let the board know how they feel on any given issue. Unless they are there to voice their concerns and/or dissent, the board is left to do what they want.
LFParent November 28, 2012 at 03:02 AM
Ditto Kathie. I think the LF Caucus on paper appears to be open and fair. But as you pointed out, in practice, if a candidate is not selected by the Caucus and they chose to run independently, it is an uphill battle against the "establishment" which includes the current administration and board. The Caucus contends that it is difficult to seek volunteers to serve and if the candidates had to run against another opponent, it would make this search even more challenging. I think the doubts surrounding the Caucus exist because their candidates, despite coming from diverse backgrounds, have traditionally operated in a homogenous fashion. This lemming mentality and the incestuous alliance with the administration is why we continue to see incompetent fiscal policy and excessive waste. It's up the residents to challenge the status quo and to consistently hold the school boards and the administrators accountable. If they feel they are not accountable to anyone, they will act accordingly. If the boards won't serve as the check and balance, it ultimately is the community's responsibility.
marco sangria November 28, 2012 at 03:17 AM
harry, did a great job!!! dont blame Harry for a great contract. Blame the board who gave it to him. To that, the parents in the district wanted the best and the best doesnt come cheap so the school board did their best to appease the community. Also, the LF Caucus is a fine, transparent and objective group. If you dont believe it then sign up.
ilove lakebluff 2013 November 28, 2012 at 01:16 PM
R. Huszagh The statement made by the Caucus endorsed candidate is out there. It is not out of context. It is real. He told the Caucus that he is a reluctant candidate and will only run if he can chose his team. The facts are the facts. Actions speak louder than words, and with the endorsement of this candidate and his hand picked team the actions of the Caucus confirm that partisanship has corrupted the process. Lake Bluffers need to look closely at this slate and where they have come from and what they intend to do. their agenda has nothing to do with our children or their education. its a one issue slate. its politics. its partisanship. the Caucus is a relic and needs to go.
Gary November 28, 2012 at 03:08 PM
If the LF Caucus is so transparent then why did they stop recording minutes of their activities during the last election cycle, and swear their members to silence during that period or be expelled from the group? Why did they take campaign donations from the Lake Forest Bank, where Harry Griffith sat on the board, who clearly had a conflict of interest while he was directing money to the LF Caucus to defeat candidates he didn't want to deal with? ... all while accusing the other candidates of fund raising fraud that never occurred. Look folks, it's just dirty hard-ball Chicago style politics. It's nothing new. It was nasty and border-line illegal, but no one was killed. They say they don't do it , but they did (actually, no is saying they didn't do it, are they? hmmmm). It's completely ridiculous to think that an organization which chooses candidates for a political office, and then campaigns for those candidates, is a "non-partisan organization". Of course they are partisan, and right now they lean heavily left. The LF Caucus is Lake Forest's only political party, and if you want competitive elections where our representatives answer to the whole community instead of a small group of people, then you'll have to stop griping and start a second party. If you do, you'll have my support.
Eric Grenier November 28, 2012 at 04:10 PM
To: Ilove lakebluff 2013 I don't know the whole slate but I personally know two of the people on it. One IS an educator and the other is the son of one, and both have strongly supported all of the investments we've made in our schools over the last decade. Neither came to the caucus on a "hand picked slate". Like everyone in town though, including current school board members and district administrators, they too are concerned about our prop tax rates and have expertise that I believe will help produce appropriate fiscal policy without compromising the level of education provided. Good news - your concerns that the school caucus in LB has been taken over by a single agenda group and its slate of candidates are its philosophical acolytes cannot be true. If anyone is still concerned, once the new board is in place, the amount of community engagement in what the board is doing and its respectful discourse with the board will significantly influence their decisions.
R. Huszagh November 28, 2012 at 04:57 PM
ilove lakebluff 2013: That candidate's comments were not intended to represent the ideas you have presented to the readers here. You are the one with the hidden agenda by misleading the public. That candidate fully understands that nobody, not even the Caucus can hand pick anyone let alone a "team." Again, the team he was seeking was one that would work hard to get a group concensus on how to move forward to build a better school district and keep our community attractive to home buyers. He wanted to feel confident he could be an effective board member by volunteering. He is a happy retired citizen who loves LB. Caucus members have been working hard to promote good citizenship always... without one single agenda. We all have differing opinions but have worked very hard to encourage people to volunteer to help our schools and our community. Even the parents/users on the Caucus understand that we have to live within our means. The charm and attraction here includes both the eclectic group of citizens and the outstanding professional educators. I'm hoping the new Board will work hard to find ways to keep them both.
R. Huszagh November 28, 2012 at 05:09 PM
ilove lakebluff 2013: Please use your name when posting. Transparency is the honest and thoughtful approach when dealing with community members, always!
Mrs. H November 28, 2012 at 07:29 PM
The folks trying to defend the mismanagement &exorbiant spendings are missing it completely. Yes, the explanations of how the system is SUPPOSED to work are accurate but let's be honest here--they are not following the rules otherwise their wouldn't be this much conversation & debate. Look on on my side--the taxpayer side that is saying enough is enough & I myself may try to join the council but I'm sure I wouldn't win because of all the boys/girls club behavior. Pathetic that folks are actually sticking up for these losers. Losers completely. Be wary b/c my vote will be loud & clear.
Mary (living in Lake Forest) November 28, 2012 at 08:31 PM
If you have time and want a "real eye-popper" go to www.guidestar.org and look up some of the 990 tax filings for the non-profits involving the area. Some of the very same names pop up.
Scout November 29, 2012 at 05:49 AM
Mary: What is the guidestar link supposed to tell us? To all: Did we learn anything during the LFHS strike...I saw lots of responses oat that time about people calling for 'new BOE members'. What happened? Are we getting the same ole' same ole' with the new Caucus slate? Will there be a candidate forum for the community to ask the tough questions? Folks, take a look at the LF Caucus website...do you see any conflicts of interest? Make an informed decision.
Sick n Tired in LB December 01, 2012 at 03:25 PM
Eric Grenier who are you kidding when you suggest that the "alternative would have been more expensive" if Harry had been given the kiss-off instead of getting one of the highest salaries in Illinois, the land of corruption in government? It's inconceivable it could have gotten much higher. That's the problem with you school board members (yes, E Grenier, YOU were one of those too once). You and your cronies are so quick to both spend yourselves silly at the taxpayers' expense, and defend your counterparts who do the same. You doth protest too much Mr. Grenier, on behalf of the 115 board. And why? It was YOU who began the trend of reckless spending with that 24 million dollar monstrosity of an elementary school in Lake Bluff. When YOU were president of the LB school board, the district began its program of stashing away money as surplus. And that surplus-stashing trend continued as you ran out the remainder of your term in office. So no wonder you're quick to rush to 115's defense. You are guilty as charged.
Jim Findaggi December 01, 2012 at 09:35 PM
Sick n Tired, people like you make it hard to attach one's name on a comment for fear of getting smeared. Eric Grenier is an outstanding citizen of Lake Bluff, and has probable spent as much time in his life contributing to public service in our town as you have in your dungeon cooking up vile rants to spew on us decent folks. While I don't agree with Eric's position about Harry's salary, the larger lesson, if you took the time to actually think it through, is that school boards are not generally a bunch of reckless cronies out to get you and your money. Let's consider some actual facts, shall we? Fact 1: the 24 million dollars of Lake Bluff taxpayers' money didn't only pay for the new elementary school, which is a far cry from the mold-infested crypt that was East School. It also paid for improvements to the Middle School. And, oh by the way, The taxpayers approved it through a referendum. I was glad to vote for it even though my kids were done. Even though it cost money, it was the right ing to do. Fact 2: Eric Grenier and his board did indeed implement the policy of accumulating surplus above what it cost to run the district every year. Again, it was the right thing to do. The district had gotten dinged by the State, and was on its Financial Watch List, for having insufficient reserves to cover future major expenses. This was a district that, not too many years back, had a history of deficit spending. To be continued
Jim Findaggi December 01, 2012 at 09:38 PM
But President Grenier and his board accumulated surplus funds, therefore improving the district's credit rating and their ability to weather future storms (wow, Sick n Tired, who ever thought a SAVINGS ACCOUNT could be such a good financial decision?). Now the current board has built up reserves to the level where they've actually been able to promise Lake Bluff taxpayers (like you, Sick n Tired) a measure of tax relief in next year's estimated levy (to the tune of 3 million dollars) while still keeping enough reserves on hand to plan for future costs and contingencies. Even people like you can probably understand the value in that. Fact 3: Aside from their record of financial savings, the LB school board has actually done a nice job of cutting spending as well. They've eliminated several high-paying jobs (like the communication director and elementary assistant principal). They've negotiated contracts to keep cost down and turned down some ridiculous projects like the tunnel across Rockland Road because some expenses just aren't fiscally responsible. So, no, Sick n Tired, Eric Grenier and his Lake Bluff school board friends are not just a bunch of dumb cronies out to get you and your money. It's pretty obvious they're highly-competent, principled, and volunteering their service for the betterment of our community.
Eric Grenier December 02, 2012 at 12:43 AM
Dear anonymously Sick n Tired. The information I gave wasn't opinion or a defense of the D115 board - it was the actual facts behind what drove Dr. Griffith's salary package to become so high (very high in my view, too). It is also factual that the two districts actually saved a big chunk of money getting Dr. Griffith to agree to the new combined job - one he had to create. The situation was not "Chicago-style cronyism" or some sort of corruption in the LF Caucus. It's important to have at least some knowledge of a problem before trying to solve it. Not to you, apparently. The LB "monstrosity" was only $19 million - $5 million went into the Middle School. Yes, I did support building up a surplus, as required by the State of Illinois after we found in 2003 that the district was in a $2 million hole. That's when the build-up started. In my last year, as it approached 10 million, I did argue that it was getting too high. So, I am in agreement. It's certainly better that the district hasn't spent all the money it's gotten in any year since 2003. If you had been paying attention you would have known that I stood up at the school board meeting just this September with others in the LB community, and urged the board to go into deficit spending to bring the fund balance down to a more reasonable level. It has to be done carefully. BTW. if the State of Illinois dumps more unfunded pension obligations onto the local districts as is threatened, LB may need the money.
Me December 02, 2012 at 01:26 AM
There is a grave danger in having excess reserves. The teachers union will see those funds sitting there and will somehow believe that they are entitled to them. If the State dumps unfunded pension obligations back onto the districts, it could be a blessing in disguise. Perhaps then, the districts will begin to exercise some restraint in negotiating the out of control teacher and administrator contracts. Harry Griffith will laugh all the way to the bank while the taxpayers cry on the road to the poorhouse.
Sick n Tired in LB December 04, 2012 at 05:45 PM
Mr. Grenier, it's downright absurd to sat that 115 saved a chunk of money by getting Harry to agree to the combined job. These joker superintendents serve at the pleasure of the board. If they had the kahunas to tell Harry to take the combined job at a less stratospheric salary and he turned them down . . .well, they could have easily picked up any number of superintendents at a lower price. Combined, 115 and 67 are smaller than many many many districts whose CEOs get paid a lot less than Harry got away with. So don't try talking out of both sides of your mouth agreeing his salary was way too high but defending the idiots who were supposed to be watching e store. It's either right or wrong, nothing in between. I think you spent too much time on your school board to know the difference any more. But I think that's kinda your style, Eric Grenier, talking out of both sides of your mouth. Case in point you agree to jacking up the D65 surplus for 7 years and then in year 8, with 10 million in the bank and as you were walking out the door wondered if it was "getting too high." One dime in reserves was getting too high in this taxpayer's opinion.
Sick n Tired in LB December 04, 2012 at 05:46 PM
I agree with Me that shifting pension liability from the state to the districts will be a blessing when it happens, and from what I'm reading, it WILL happen in 2013. But I think Me is missing the bigger point. It's not negotiated contracts that are out of control. It's classroom size. That, friends, is the real problem with our North Shore schools and why our taxes are so high. If we had more reasonable classroom sizes (studies show that 30 kids in a classroom is no worse than 20), WE WOULDN'T NEED SO MANY TEACHERS TO BEGIN WITH. That's why our district budgets are so far out of control around here. Yes, we need to stop further "Harry" scandals from occurring, but more importantly, we need our board to "right-size" our classrooms. If we can do it in the pirate sector, you can do it in the school. I for one am happy the Concerned Taxpayers are on their way in. They've been around the block a few times, long enough to remember that we used to get along just fine with student/teacher ratios approaching the Ivy Leagues.
Gandhi December 05, 2012 at 05:12 AM
Sick.... It has obviously been awhile since you and your Geritol popping Concern Citizens have been attending your one room school houses .... been around the block...I bet on their dinosaurs .... Why don't you move to a Del Webb community already. You are obviously no longer on the production end of society but a burden ..the good news for the rest of us hard working tax payers that pay way too much for the houses in the community and for the inflated property taxes for the great schools our children attend is that neither you nor your Concerned Old Farts are actually relevant or persuasive.
Michael Beacham December 05, 2012 at 08:19 PM
For those of you who are interested in seeing competition for the Caucus, check out this website: www.accountabilityparty.us
Nancy J. Thorner December 05, 2012 at 08:55 PM
This is one individual who was extremely pleased when checking out MIchael Beacham 's website. The present Caucus organization has been in existence for many years. It is way past time for voters to have candidates to vote for who are free from any hint of past actions. These actions seem to have called forth all manner of pubic distrust over how candidates were selected in the past and subsequently elevated to board positions, more on their loyalty to ex-superintendent Harry Griffith, then being responsible to tax payers as good stewards of their tax dollars.

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