College of DuPage trustees say close Waterleaf, make it fully educational
College of DuPage trustees have agreed to close the school's Waterleaf restaurant at the end of the month so it eventually can become a fully educational facility.
Thursday night's 5-1 vote came after board discussions in June and July about what should happen to the fine-dining restaurant. Trustee Joseph C. Wozniak cast the only "no" vote. Trustee Erin Birt was absent.
The board sought to make changes because the Waterleaf has become a focal point of ongoing controversies at the Glen Ellyn-based community college, which continues to face state and federal investigations and questions about its administrative and spending practices.
Since opening in October 2011, the 130-seat restaurant has lost at least $2.18 million, officials said.
It also became a symbol of perceived excess at COD when it was learned school administrators spent more than $183,000 in taxpayer money on meals and alcohol for themselves at the restaurant. COD President Robert Breuder, now on paid administrative leave, spent $86,171 at the Waterleaf between October 2011 and January 2015, according to the school.
During that time, the Waterleaf was used for training students only two days a week, officials said. The rest of the time it was operated by a professional staff.
More than 20 of those staff members, including chefs, servers and dishwashers, are losing their jobs as a result of the closing.
School officials say the decision to temporarily shutter the restaurant will give them time to reposition the facility so it can provide more academic opportunities for COD students.
"We are redirecting the use of the Waterleaf for educational purposes to maintain consistency with the mission of the (Illinois Public) Community College Act," board Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton said.
Making the transition from a professionally run restaurant to a learning lab for students is expected to take months.
Hamilton said the recommendation to close the restaurant in the meantime came from Acting Interim President Joseph Collins and others responsible for overseeing the Waterleaf.
"It makes more sense from an operational standpoint to close it for a semester and think through the curriculum," Hamilton said.
Waterleaf employees were notified last week about the plan to close the restaurant at the end of the month.
After a string of resignations in recent months, the staff at the Waterleaf had been reduced to 21 employees, including seven full-time positions. Two more workers are slated to have their resignations take effect on Sunday.
The closing calls for almost all of the remaining employees to be terminated on Aug. 30. The final day of work for general manager Jean-Pierre Leroux and administrative assistant Lisa Pastore is Sept. 4.
The college will offer severance packages to all the employees who are terminated. COD trustees approved those severance agreements Thursday night. The total cost of the severance packages is $49,232, officials said.
Hamilton said closing the Waterleaf is necessary because the restaurant is "a money loser" for the college.
"The most important thing is that we've stopped an operation that's dramatically losing money for the college and is not central to its purpose," Hamilton said.
According to the college, the school lost about $570,000 in fiscal year 2012, about $550,000 in fiscal 2013, about $530,000 in fiscal 2014 and roughly $530,000 in fiscal 2015. COD's fiscal year starts July 1 and ends June 30.
But Trustee Charles Bernstein, who examined the operation of the Waterleaf, says he believes the actual financial losses for the college exceeded $3 million.
Bernstein said official numbers from the school don't include the depreciation of the $1 million in equipment that COD purchased for the Waterleaf.
"The college was depreciating these assets at a rate of about $240,000 a year," Bernstein said. "But they weren't showing those on the Waterleaf's books."
Costs for insurance, rent and utilities also weren't factored into the expenses for the Waterleaf.
"If this had been a real business and they had to pay rent and utilities and insurance, these losses would have been a good deal more," Bernstein said.
Had a private entrepreneur opened the Waterleaf, the restaurant would have been closed before the end of its first year, Bernstein said.
Even after it's closed, the Waterleaf will continue to be open for academic use two days a week during the transition period, school officials said.
In the meantime, the faculty will develop a new courses that will be taught at the Waterleaf. School officials also might explore other options for the space as long as they don't interfere with the academic use of the restaurant.
As for whether the Waterleaf should keep its name when it reopens, Hamilton said that's a marketing decision.
"My opinion is probably we'd have to change the name," she said, "but I don't know."