'We did what was right': Outgoing District 59 superintendent's new job over before it starts
Outgoing Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 Superintendent Art Fessler's next job at the Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization is over before it even began.
The announcement by Fessler and officials at the Mount Prospect-based cooperative comes less than a week after a Daily Herald story revealed the new gig was being arranged to help Fessler work the 170 remaining days he needs to get a full pension.
Fessler, who will step down from the helm of District 59 on June 30, was set to work a staff position at Sunrise Lake Outdoor Education Center, the Bartlett day camp-like facility run by the special education organization.
"We were not at a position where we felt we wanted to continue in that," said Judy Hackett, superintendent of NSSEO, which provides services to students with special needs in eight area school districts. "They were just discussions about what are opportunities for him in the future."
"It did not make it to our board," Hackett said. "We have no employment contract for Dr. Fessler. We didn't have one. We had discussions but that is as far ... if it was going to go any further, we would have brought it to our board."
In fact, it may have been concerns raised by member districts -- each of whom get a representative on the cooperative's governing board -- that ended up scuttling the deal.
Northwest Suburban High School District 214 Superintendent Dave Schuler and board member Lenny Walker, the District 214 representative on the NSSEO board, said they first learned of Fessler's potential job arrangement in the May 8 Daily Herald story.
"My attitude is boards never want to be surprised, and I as a partner organization never want to be surprised," Schuler said. "So I think when it first came to light in the paper, it seemed like it was moving down the track pretty quickly."
That led to a conversation with Hackett, who Schuler said answered all of his questions very well.
"I would never say personally that he should or should not have been employed by NSSEO," Schuler continued. "If he would have applied and been the best candidate, that's one thing. But it would be very, I think, unusual -- without having a lot of conversations -- to enter into an agreement like that between several parties."
The job prospect came to light after the District 59 board on May 3 unanimously approved an agreement that would pay NSSEO nearly $40,000 for Fessler's 35 remaining vacation days. The plan, according to District 59 officials at the time, was to have the cooperative in turn pay Fessler after drawing up a new contract.
But two nights later, at the monthly NSSEO board meeting, the topic didn't come up. So it blindsided Walker and other board members when they learned about the possible deal in the newspaper days later.
"I would never approve anything like that. In my opinion it was wrong, and it should've never gotten started," said Walker, of Wheeling, who just won reelection to a second term on the District 214 board. "I called Dr. Hackett and said help me understand what I missed. I don't fall asleep during meetings."
During a 214 board meeting Thursday night, Walker publicly praised Hackett for "clearing up the matter" when asked about it.
"We did what was right," he told Hackett, during the District 214 board's annual review of the NSSEO budget. "So I appreciate you having that moral compass."
In an interview with the Daily Herald afterward, Hackett sidestepped questions about the role NSSEO may have played in helping Fessler secure 170 working days to obtain full pension benefits. She also didn't answer questions about what job Fessler would have filled at the Bartlett day camp, or if a new position would have been created for him.
"None of that really jelled out because it was just ideas on 'where would you work?'" Hackett said. "I think his love for children is one that you have heard and seen in his work, and that would continue. There's lots of opportunities at Sunrise to do lots of things. It's a very small staff there, but we never got further into any of that because it was simply ideas that we were discussing and no formal action."
The nixed job deal means District 59 will pay Fessler directly for his remaining vacation days. As a result, the district will be on the hook for at least a $10,000 penalty to the Teachers' Retirement System.
The penalty was created by a 2005 state law designed to limit school districts from boosting the pensions of teachers and administrators close to retirement. The extra cost is triggered by District 59 giving Fessler a raise greater than 6% when the payment for unused vacation is added in.
As of last week, Fessler had 35 remaining vacation days, after he was able to use only a minimal amount of vacation "due to the complexity and time-consuming demands of COVID-19," according to his now-moot vacation payment agreement with the school board.
After a tenure marked by controversial curriculum changes and sometimes-raucous school board meetings, Fessler and the board agreed last summer that they would part ways at the end of his $292,908-a-year contract in 2021.
Fessler, who has headed the K-12 district since 2013, said that while he's no longer pursuing an employment opportunity with NSSEO, he will continue to look for an opportunity where he can support students in education next year.
"I have spent over 30 years in public education, and it has been a true honor to get to serve the students, staff, families and communities throughout the Chicago suburbs for my entire career," Fessler wrote in an email. "I believe there are few, if any, better opportunities to make a difference than by investing in the lives and education of our students."