Harper's frugal, but is Ender? As tuition climbs, president spends
Today, the Daily Herald begins an occasional series looking at how much your community college presidents put on their expense tabs, in line with the newspaper's On Guard mission of telling readers where and how their tax dollars are being spent. Note that community colleges are funded by a combination of tax dollars and tuition, and are governed by the state.
Harper College President Kenneth Ender took office in July 2009, just as the economy was hitting rock bottom.
The road ahead would mean tough decisions, as the Palatine-based community college district would face tight budgets, leading to a hiring freeze and a 9 percent tuition hike in 2010, all while enrollment was surging by 7.5 percent.
The prior November, voters in the primarily Cook County district, which also serves parts of Lake and McHenry Counties, approved a $153.6 million, property tax-backed construction plan for the Palatine campus. Still, that didn't pay the daily bills, so the hiring freeze and tuition hikes were put into place.
"Working through a severe economic downturn, we have successfully managed the budget," Ender wrote in his 2010 self-evaluation.
Yet, some expenses for which Ender received Harper reimbursement — such as $418 for alcohol for a party for his visiting brother at his Inverness home; $553 for a golf outing/social with staff at Lake Barrington Shores Golf Club; and five $99 to $151 two-person dinners at Entourage Restaurant in Schaumburg for interviews of provost and executive vice president candidates — beg the question whether the same tough frugality is being applied to Ender's own expense spending practices and whether his board of trustees is keeping a close enough watch.
Ender and college officials have refused to comment for this story. Board members deferred questions to board Chair Diane Hill, who has not returned calls seeking comment.
The expenses came to light as the Daily Herald begins an analysis of all seven West and Northwest suburban community college presidents' expense spending. In Ender's case, documents show expenses of nearly $24,000 in 2010, covering conference fees and travel, limousine rides, four-star restaurant meals, and food and liquor bills for events at his home. All are entirely allowed by Ender's contract, which also includes a $1,000-a-month car allowance and a $20,000-a-year allowance for housing. And $3,194 of the expense total was covered by the community college's foundation, a fundraising arm of the school.
John Tillman, CEO of the nonpartisan Illinois Policy Institute, suggests that Harper board members should be keeping closer tabs on expenses, referring to a clause in Ender's contract through which his expenses are reviewed by the board chairman and vice chair, but not the entire board.
"Especially in such tough financial times, all of these expenses should be scrutinized more closely," said Tillman, whose Chicago-based group researches and critiques public policy issues.
"Almost every dollar spent comes either from a taxpayer or from paying customers — students trying to get an education. Stewardship on both sides of the revenue stream is crucial," he said.
A Daily Herald analysis shows Ender's 2010 expense tally to be the third highest of the seven community colleges in Cook, Kane, Lake, McHenry and DuPage Counties, about $300 behind former Harper President Robert Breuder, who is now the College of DuPage president. College of Lake County President Jerry Weber's expenses were the highest, at $30,102. Oakton Community College President Margaret Lee's were the lowest, at $2,673.
The problem, Tillman said, is "what you often find is people in these roles, if they don't have good governance on the part of the (school) board, they begin to see their personal expense account as their petty cash fund."
In Harper College's case, from December 2009 through December 2010, Ender's personal business expenses were $24,945. Of that, $8,072 was on food and alcohol, $6,167 on hotels, $1,514 on limousines that brought him and wife to and from the airport. (A separate $1,570 was spent in his account bringing consultants to and from the airport via limo.) Another $2,382 was spent on educational conference registration fees and costs; $2,168 on flights, and $489 on rental cars. Other expenses, according to data collected through a Freedom of Information request, included:
• $1,150 for Christmas candy that Ender and his wife ordered from Virginia Diner — 42 "delicious duo" candy and nut box sets sent to administrators, trustees and Harper College Educational Foundation members.
• $840 for an 11-person dinner later that fall at Blue Restaurant in Charlotte, N.C., where he was attending an Achieving the Dream Conference.
• $756 for dinner on Sept. 28 for 13 people to discuss workforce development at Chicago Prime Steakhouse in Schaumburg.
• $792 for an eight-person dinner at CN Tower on Oct. 20, during an Association of Community College Trustees Conference in Toronto, Canada.
Also in October, Ender hosted his twin brother, Steven, president of Grand Rapids Community College, at Harper for a "twin bowl" football game between the two brothers' schools. Ender hosted a party afterward at his home.
For that occasion, Ender purchased $418 worth of alcohol from Binny's Beverage Depot in Schaumburg — Heineken, Amstel Light and LaBatts, a case of cabernet sauvignon at $15.99 a bottle, a 1.75 liter bottle of Ketel One vodka. The items were listed as "twin bowl refreshments."
Such expenses are cleared by the terms of Ender's contract, which runs through 2015. And, expenses aside, Ender took a pay freeze on his $240,000 base salary last year. He will receive a 3.5 percent raise on July 1, under the terms of his new contract.
Harper Faculty Senate President Tom Dowd, a chemistry professor at Harper, said he thinks "every dime the college spends should be scrutinized," noting he believes that "Harper does a very good job of doing just that."
Dowd points to administrative salary freezes, and Ender's move to freeze his own salary in 2010. "I think (Ender) has been putting his money where his mouth is," he said.
"Ultimately the boards are accountable," Tillman said. "The challenge is most of these boards become very clubby in partnership with the president."
Former Harper board member Laurie Stone, who was board chair at the time Ender was hired, noted that "the board had a very ambitious agenda for Dr. Ender at the time that we hired him and so much of the student success that you hear about all the time is the direction that we requested of him. So much of his travel can be related back to that."
As for parties and events at his home, she said, "Those are few and far between. Few and far between. The other thing that was very important to us is to have a person in place who reached out to the community, the students, to the faculty. Someone who would create a sense of community that emanated directly from his office. He felt by opening his home that he was opening Harper to so many people in a relaxed setting."
Ender's predecessor, Robert Breuder, did not have such a clause in his contract allowing reimbursement for entertainment at his home, said Stone, who was also board chair for three years under Breuder's tenure.
"He had a housing allowance. The (events) were never in his home, they were outside and he got reimbursed for those. But he certainly did his share of entertainment. ... Ender's been really following our direction."
Many aspects of higher eduction — from recruitment to advancement to branding — can be viewed in a businesslike light, says Ruth Alderman Schlossberg, a Barrington attorney whose Crystal Lake-based law firm of Zukowski, Rogers, Flood & McArdle conducted a seminar last month on the dos and don'ts of government for newly elected officers and other public servants.
However, she said, "when times get tough, we should be looking at and generally questioning, what value you get from that."
As part of his contract, Ender gets $1,000 a month for a car allowance, yet primarily takes limousines to and from the airport.
"If they're taking limos rather than driving their own car, that makes one wonder," Tillman said. "Long-term parking at O'Hare is $13."
As for the "twin bowl refreshments," Tillman says, whether cleared by Ender's contract or not, the appearance of using the community college's money to fund a party at his own home where his brother is participating "gives the appearance of a complete disconnect from the kind of financial decisions and pressures the students live under. That's bad judgment."
Still, Schlossberg said, boards can't just rip up active contracts.
Citing the culture of collaboration, community and completion he's created, Harper board members on Wednesday unanimously extended Ender's contract through June 30, 2015, with a 3.5 percent raise to his $240,000 salary beginning July 1.
"We feel that the president has far exceeded expectations and goals, and has clearly communicated a strategic vision centered around student success," board Chairman Hill said. "We're committed to him to see that vision through."
The board does not see Ender's expense report — a policy also noted in his contract. Instead, they are provided to the board chair and vice chair.
"The board's job isn't to do line item reviews. But they need to look at what message they're sending to the public and what goals they are meeting," Schlossberg said.
Ender "respectfully declined" an interview request for this story, as did college spokesman Phil Burdick.
"I think you spoke with our Faculty Senate President, so we're declining any further comment on this story," Burdick wrote in an email.
Schlossberg says it comes down to accountability, especially in times when those attending community colleges are more financially strapped than ever.
"There's a lot of scrutiny right now in terms of operations," Schlossberg said. "Community college are somewhat of an exception. They're somewhat less accessible to the public. At your house you know if your plumbing is working, your lights are on. You don't have that here. There's less accountability built into the day to day operations. It's possible that the public pays less attention."
Now may be the time to think about changing past habits, suggests state Sen. Matt Murphy, of Palatine, a former Harper trustee.
"I think you've got to be careful what you're doing dinner-wise and drinks-wise and entertaining. If you're interviewing somebody, I don't think you necessarily need to do it over dinner. Especially at this time, I think anybody who has a say over tax dollars has to be extremely sensitive."
• Daily Herald staff writers Jake Griffin and Kimberly Pohl contributed to this report.
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