The annual school board and district administrators conference in downtown Chicago is more than a month away, but it's already cost Grayslake Elementary District 46 taxpayers $2,300 more than last year.
And that's just preliminary costs for registration and hotel deposits. Once travel, food and final hotel bills are figured in, the price tag will balloon beyond the $5,760 already spent this year by the school district.
But District 46 isn't the only one spending more. A Daily Herald analysis of 93 suburban school districts' registration records shows that eight districts have already spent more on the conference than they did last year. So far, 62 of those districts have registered 532 school board members, administrators and employees for the weekend conference slated for Nov. 22 through Nov. 24. The combined pre-conference cost for those districts amounts to $307,647. Officials in several districts said they have not yet registered anyone for this year's conference but plan to before the Oct. 25 deadline.
Last year, 90 of the 93 school districts sent 735 representatives to the conference, costing taxpayers a combined $574,197. Some of those costs included limo rides, in-room movie rentals and gourmet popcorn. Batavia Unit District 101 spent nearly $2,000 on a dinner at Morton's Steakhouse for 16 people that included $15 lobster bisque appetizers and "hot chocolate cake" desserts.
Pushing costs up this year is a $15 per person increase in registration. Registration costs $390 per person this year. Organizers are also hitting school districts with a $10 surcharge each time a credit card is used to register and reserve hotel rooms. That's $10 more when registering for the conference with a credit card and another $10 when they put down a deposit on hotel rooms.
"That's two different transactions," explained James Russell, a spokesman for the Illinois Association of School Boards, one of the organizing agencies of the conference. "We were incurring costs of over $80,000 a year in credit card processing fees. The other option was to do away with credit cards, but we are trying to maintain the convenience."
Some suburban districts that didn't register all the conference attendees at once or requested additional hotel rooms paid as much as $70 in credit card processing fees to conference organizers.
School board turnover following April's elections is also being blamed for the higher costs in some districts. That's the reason given by District 46 school board President Steven Strack, who is one of four new board members there.
"From our perspective, it is a form of professional development, particularly for the new board members," he said. "Being in the realm of education, it sets a good example for the board to further its own education to better serve the district."
Aptakisic-Tripp Elementary District 102 in Buffalo Grove is one of the eight districts already spending more this year than in 2012. Superintendent Theresa Dunkin said the convenience of the conference is its greatest attribute.
"Board members need to go through training and stay current, so it's nice to have a conference that meets those needs and is geared toward board members," she said. "One of the things my board is really all about is having the professional training."
District 102 has already spent $6,100 on registration and hotel costs, which is nearly $1,500 more than the district's final tab last year. Dunkin said the district might cancel some registrations and receive refunds.
West Chicago Community High School District 94, Emmons Elementary District 33 in Antioch, Geneva Unit District 304, Antioch High School District 117, Indian Prairie Unit District 204 in Naperville and Aurora and Mundelein High School District 120 are the other districts that have already spent more this year than in 2012.
State law requires new board members to take classes on complying with transparency requirements, performance evaluation of teachers and leadership training for board officers. These classes are offered at the conference in addition to other seminars. However, these classes are also offered online at much cheaper rates.
Villa Park Elementary District 45 is sending 18 people to the conference this year. The district has already spent $10,220 on registration and hotel reservations, the highest pre-conference figure among the 93 districts surveyed. Superintendent Anthony Palmisano, who is in his first year, said the district has a number of new people in critical positions who will take advantage of the advanced training offered at the conference.
"I find it extremely useful especially considering the changes in legislation," he said. "It's a bargain against the potential cost of not being in compliance and not following the law."
After last year's conference, critics like David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and Kristina Rasmussen of the Illinois Policy Institute called the conference a costly "junket" and accused school district leaders of taking a "vacation" on the taxpayers' dime.
When a Daily Herald investigation revealed invoices for a $170 limousine ride, movie tickets and $1,600 in valet parking fees were among Fox Lake Elementary District 114's $13,756 conference tab last year, district officials said the board would "review our policy regarding board and administrator reimbursements and determine whether or not any changes are warranted." It's unknown what, if any, changes were implemented, though. Superintendent John Donnellan did not respond to calls for comment about the upcoming conference. According to district records, 11 people have been registered for the conference this year and $6,290 has already been spent.