Update 1/28 -
Almost six inches of snow and the frigid weather weren't enough to stop the 150-plus residents who packed Lincolnwood Village Hall during a District 74 school board meeting on Thursday.
The standing-room-only crowd was the result of an open letter that questioned the spending of taxpayer dollars by superintendent Mark Klaisner, school board president David Koder, as well as other school board officials and administrators.
Some of the items included gas money, travel expenditures and a 2011 Cadillac CTS.
For one dinner, school board President David Koder charged $616 to his district-issued credit card after ordering six bottles of wine and dinner for three other guests during a conference trip in San Francisco, according to district records.
When asked about the charges, Koder told Skokie Patch that he "doesn't recall" the specifics of the dinner in question.
Koder also charged two "Grandview Breakfasts" to his hotel room during his stay in San Francisco, totaling about $100. He also took a $139 limousine ride from his home to O'Hare Airport, according to district records.
"This is my third year serving as school board President," Koder told Skokie Patch. "I returned because my seat was uncontested - there was nobody else to fill my seat ... I won't be seeking reelection next year because I know I'm not going to win."
In 2013, five school board seats will be up for election.
Residents speak out
Lincolnwood resident Kathy O'Brien was one of many who shared disappointment in the school's elected officials and administrators.
"I feel some members of this school board knowingly violated taxpayers," O'Brien said. "You do not have respect [for] the taxpayers' pocket."
Another resident told school officials, "I'm appalled of what I've heard. Do you think we're stupid? Don't forget, we elected you. The sense of entitlement by our school administrators is sickening."
Lincolnwood resident Joel Perzov, who requested numerous Freedom of Information Acts from the school district and compiled much of the data supplied in the open letter, requested that school board officials not renew Superintendent Klaisner's contract, which is due June 30 of this year.
"There's the issue why he's charged the district [$4,400 over 22 months] for every bit of gas for his car. The express language of his contract does not provide for that," Perzov said. "How long has that been going on?"
After hearing the residents speak out, board members took action by passing a motion to temporarily suspend all travel by school administrators, teachers and board members until specific guidelines are set in place.
The root of the problem
A lawsuit over a new junior high school has incited criticism of District 74 and Superintendent Klaisner.
A $25 million expenditure that would have torn down the current Lincoln Hall Junior High and replaced it with a new building has led several residents to take legal action against Lincolnwood School District 74.
"They were doing all sorts of legal gymnastics to build [the new school]," said Lincolnwood resident Mark Collens. "You can't build a $25 million building without asking the community."
The lawsuit contends that the district tried building the new school without a referendum passed by votes of residents in the district.
Technically speaking, District 74 could have built the new school by building a hallway that would have connected Lincoln Hall to nearby Rutledge Hall. By doing this, the district would have only been building an extension. A referendum isn't needed when a school district is building an extension, according to superintendent Klaisner.
The residents, however, didn't see it that way.
Collens would soon gather with about 20 other residents that shared his perspective. The group pitched in and hired a lawyer to take legal action against the school district.
Meanwhile, Klaisner said the school did its due diligence by informing the community about the school's expansion.
"We've been talking about this for about three or four years now," Klaisner said. "We mailed out 4,000 postcards to every Lincolnwood resident informing them of important meeting [regarding the expansion.]"
Now, a motion to build a new school has gone to a March 20 referendum.
"What [the school district] is considering doing here is violation of the law," Collens, an attorney, said. "You have to have a referendum with the community, but they thought they could get around that."
Collens said the group won't drop the lawsuit until after the March 20 referendum.
An Open Letter
The group of Lincolnwood residents began asking more questions, and it wasn't long before they began submitting Freedom of Information Acts. The group started looking into the spending habits of both district officials and school administrators. (To read the letter in full, click on the PDF image to the right of this article.)
Some of the group's claims include:
· A 2011 Cadillac CTS for the superintendent (Part of the superintendent's package includes a vehicle paid for by the district.)
· An insurance claim for $1,968 to repair rear-end damage done to the Cadillac
· A yearly average of about $2,000 in gas charges made by the superintendent
· A $14,000, 16 person trip to Orlando, that included a visit to the John F. Kennedy Space Station
· A $13,500 trip to San Francisco that included a $600 dinner tab for four people
Yet, many of those charges were taken out of context, Klaisner said. He added that his vehicle was actually cheaper than his predecessor's. And while the school district pays for Klaisner's insurance, the policy also covers several of the district's larger vehicles, including trucks used to remove snow.
Thus, the insurance deductable would have been $2,500 to repair his rear end damage, which cost more than the damage done to his vehicle, Klaisner said.
As for the group's gas claims, Klaisner said, "I'm actually going to plead ignorance there."
"This all ends up coming down to perspective," Klaisner said. "You could have easily just taken out the gas privileges and just upped my salary — then it becomes a shell game. Other superintendents do that and I can see why.
"But we handled things the way we did because we felt it was honest and transparent. I didn't do anything knowingly inappropriate," Klaisner added.
Klaisner said he's "sad and frustrated that things are being misinterpreted or misunderstood without [the residents] asking for any clarifications."
"It's insightful and inflammatory," Klaisner said regarding the open letter. "I never once questioned what we did."