COD candidates say more oversight by board needed
Challengers in the College of DuPage board of trustees race say several issues, including financial losses at the school's Waterleaf Restaurant, highlight the need for the board to provide greater oversight.
But the two incumbents seeking re-election insist they have been keeping an eye on spending at the Glen Ellyn-based community college.
There are 12 candidates pursuing three seats on the college's board in the April 7 election: Dan Bailey of Wheaton, Claire Ball of Addison, Charles Bernstein of Wheaton, David Carlin of Naperville, Matt Gambs of Naperville, Roger Kempa of Darien, Deanne Mazzochi of Elmhurst, Frank Napolitano of Bloomingdale, Sandra Pihos of Glen Ellyn, incumbent Nancy Svoboda of Downers Grove, incumbent Kim Savage of Darien, and Joseph M. Wozniak of Naperville.
During interviews with the Daily Herald's editorial board, challengers repeatedly voiced concerns with the lack of perceived oversight at the school.
"The College of DuPage is a great school and ... the board of trustees is there to protect it," Mazzochi said. "They haven't done the job, in my opinion.
"And the reason why the board of trustees has not been doing its job ... is due to a lack of real oversight," she said. "They're not serving as the taxpayers' eyes and ears. They're not questioning the administration."
Bernstein said he has seen "issue after issue" where the COD board failed to meet its oversight responsibility.
He pointed specifically to the Waterleaf, a 130-seat restaurant that opened in October 2011 on the COD campus.
The Waterleaf is described on COD's website as "a hidden gem among casual fine-dining restaurants" in the Western suburbs.
But college officials said the restaurant has never made a profit and lost more than $536,000 in fiscal 2014.
"Since the Waterleaf opened, it lost more than $1.5 million in operating costs," Bernstein said. "Now, you may say it's justified. Personally, I don't think it is."
He said he would like to have a COD board that "will at least question the administration" about the Waterleaf's financials.
Savage and Svoboda, however, say they and other trustees have asked numerous questions about the Waterleaf and the six-room Inn at Water's Edge hotel.
Savage said both facilities are providing a real-world learning experience for students.
In addition, Savage said the Waterleaf helps bring attention to COD and generates foot traffic on campus.
"While it is not making money -- it is currently being subsidized -- there is no high-end restaurant that starts out (making a profit)," she said.
Despite its overall deficit, the Waterleaf is earning more annual revenue than it did during its first year of operation.
"The staff have made quite a few modifications and cuts to make sure that it moves in the right direction," Savage said.
Meanwhile, Ball said she wants to know why COD students aren't more involved in the Waterleaf.
The restaurant is operated as "a learning lab" for students twice a week, officials said. The rest of the time, the restaurant is operated by a professional staff.
"Why is it being utilized for the students only two days?" Ball said. "There could be perfectly good reasons for it, but let's dig into it more."
She said trustees haven't shown a desire to ask questions.
"They are not pushing for the reasons behind these decisions that are being made," Ball said.
Wozniak said he would like to see greater scrutiny of the college's expenses and less use of no-bid contracts.
Napolitano, meanwhile, made his call for greater oversight after criticizing a policy that doesn't require the COD board to get an itemized list for all spending each month. Expenditures of less than $15,000 aren't itemized.
"I think that should be reduced," Napolitano said of the $15,000 threshold. "Because if $10,000 a month goes to somebody without trustees seeing it, over a year's time that person will collect $120,000 without the board even being aware of it. Things can add up very quickly."
While recent issues highlight the problem, Pihos said there has been "a clear lack of oversight" for a long time at COD.
"The trustees need to know they answer to the public," Pihos said. "And any (COD) president in the future needs to understand that he's been empowered to implement the policies that the trustees have put in place to move the college forward."
Svoboda, however, said the board has taken steps to address areas that needed improvement in the past and made changes.
Gambs acknowledges he and other challengers don't know the full story because they're not on the board. But, he said, it's up to the board to promote transparency and communicate with the public.
"If stakeholders ask questions, they deserve an answer," Gambs said. "The more they get put off, the more questions they are going to ask. One of the things we could do very quickly is really open things up."