A series of abrupt superintendent resignations over the past year have pitted taxpayers against school officials in a battle between the right to privacy and the right to answers.
Suburban school boards in Palatine, Wheaton and Roselle recently agreed to severance packages totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars for early "resignations" by their top administrator.
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In each case, the former superintendents got paid big bucks for doing either nothing or nondescript work unrelated to their previous posts.
And each deal is cloaked in a veil of secrecy, as the same school board members who tout transparency come campaign time hide behind gag orders inked into the severance packages they sign off on.
"It seems gratuitous in these very difficult economic times to grant nearly a full salary for someone not to work and then have to pay someone else to perform those same duties," said Civic Federation President Laurence Msall, who studies government spending. "The burden is on school board members to justify that expenditure."
The most recent example came June 30 in Palatine Township Elementary District 15, where the school board unanimously agreed to pay Superintendent Dan Lukich $185,000 over the next year for clearing out his office a year early - an amount just shy of his $202,000 salary.
Lukich "resigned" in what was dubbed an "amicable separation," but officials won't shed light on the reason for his departure other than to rule out gross misconduct. They're pointing to a clause in the separation agreement that forbids any comment other than referring an inquiring party to a six-sentence news release.
District 15 also withheld certain portions of Lukich's separation agreement, including a letter of reference he could present to future employers, citing material protected under the Personnel Record Review Act.
Meanwhile, the board is on the verge of hiring an interim superintendent, a position that easily pulls in $100,000-plus in the suburbs.
"Here you have a public body that's going to essentially pay twice for the same service," said Terry Pastika, a Palatine resident and executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center, an Elmhurst-based nonprofit legal group that works on government accountability initiatives.
"When public funds are being expended and the public doesn't know why, it perpetuates distrust in government and a lack in confidence for officials to do the right thing."
In Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200, school board members were so happy with former Superintendent Richard Drury that they awarded him a contract extension.
But less than two months later, they wanted him gone and wouldn't say why other than a vague reference to disagreeing on goals and the direction of the district.
In September 2009, Drury went on "vacation" and started missing work and board meetings, generating rumors that persisted for days before officials even acknowledged his job was in jeopardy.
Nearly a month and several closed-door sessions later, a severance agreement was reached giving Drury the remaining 10 months of his $208,000 base salary and a $60,000 payment.
School board President Andy Johnson said Drury would spend his remaining time with District 200 doing an undisclosed job that didn't involve overseeing a staff or have any supervisory duties.
Similar to Lukich's separation agreement, Drury's said "subsequent employers, the board's employees, the media and the public" are precluded from learning any details about Drury's departure.
After listing some of his accomplishments, a prepared five-paragraph statement said, "However, in August, 2009, differences arose over those future goals and the leadership and direction of the School District."
School board members defended not straying from the official line.
"One statement is less confusing than having several different ones out there," school board member Rosemary Swanson said at the time.
But that lack of transparency doesn't serve the greater good, Msall said.
"There is no public interest in having private or secret separation agreements that don't enlighten the public. It hampers the credibility of that government," Msall said. "If there's a rational explanation, tell us. "
'Time for a change'
A similar situation to Lukich's departure - albeit on a much smaller scale - occurred following the resignation of former Superintendent John Butts from Lake Park High School District 108 in Roselle.
Butts resigned April 13, with more than two years remaining on his contract. From April 5 to June 30, he continued to collect on his $189,505 salary and receive health benefits despite not working.
School board members would not comment on the reason for his departure.
Like many school districts experiencing financial woes throughout the state, District 108 faces a $1.7 million deficit in next year's budget due to sagging revenues.
Butts, named superintendent in 2002, insisted there was no conflict with the board, saying, "It's just more that, over time, some of the same frustrations build up and it just gets to be that it's time for a change."
The issue of school officials agreeing to early payouts without adequate explanation isn't limited to the past year.
• For serving just three months in 2003 as superintendent at Addison Elementary District 4, Richard Best received a one-time $50,000 payment and kept his $12,500 monthly salary in a consultant role for the next eight months.
The board never said why Best was put on leave and agreed to a clause in his separation agreement forbidding members from discussing its contents. To fill his role, the board rehired retired District 4 Superintendent Larry Weck at $500 per day.
• Former College of Lake County President Richard Fonte's $195,000 salary remained unchanged from June 2007 to March 2008, even though after only six months as college president his new task was to assist the board president in obtaining federal grants.
CLC refused to disclose documents about his work after the job change.
"Though some may question the action, the board continues to believe that the decision was made in the best interest of the college," then-board President William Griffin said.
• McHenry County College trustees didn't hesitate to grant former President Walt Packard's request in February 2009 for a less demanding post so that he could take care of his ailing wife.
But officials couldn't say in great detail what exactly Packard was up to in his modified role as president emeritus, though he pulled in the same $188,564 salary until just a couple weeks ago. MCC also had to pay an interim president, who collected the same salary as Packard.
After several Freedom of Information Act requests, the board released his new contract, but it didn't detail his new duties. It showed both parties agreed to not make any "derogatory or disparaging comments" about each other.
Better Government Association Executive Director Andy Shaw said not everything in a personnel file should be aired, but that those exemptions are few.
"When the financial obligation is placed on taxpayers, they have a right to know the details. The basic principle of good government is transparency," Shaw said. "If you're spending my tax dollars, I need to know on what and why."