Cicero is about nine miles west of downtown Chicago, a 15-minute drive in light traffic.
But last November, during a three-day education conference in the Loop, Cicero Public School District 99 officials apparently didn’t hop in their cars each night and zip home.
Instead, Supt. Rodolfo Hernandez and two board members charged taxpayers a total of $1,969 to stay at the Hyatt Regency Chicago on Wacker Drive during the conference.
Another board member, Derek Dominick, son of Cicero Town President Larry Dominick, expensed $559 for two nights at the swanky InterContinental Chicago on the Magnificent Mile for the same event, according to school district records obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act by the Better Government Association and FOX32.
In all, District 99 has spent more than $35,000 since Jan. 1, 2012, on airfare, rental cars, hotels, meals, taxis and other costs related to local officials attending education conferences in Boston, Chicago, Nashville, New Orleans and San Diego, according to the District 99 records, which show no evidence that the vast majority of the expenses were ever reimbursed.
Two board members, Thomas Tomschin and Derek Dominick, accounted for a majority of the expenses. Both also work full-time for the Town of Cicero.
Legislation that would limit how much public officials can spend on travel is on its way to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk. The bill was prompted by reports from the BGA and other media outlets about lavish or questionable spending by some officials, says state Rep. David McSweeney (R-Barrington Hills), the bill’s House sponsor.
Speaking generally, McSweeney says, “A lot of the meals and travel are outrageous. This is one way to reduce unnecessary expenses.”
In Cicero, school officials have not only stayed at high-end hotels, they’ve rented SUVs and dined on lobster, oysters and a $68 porterhouse steak, records show.
Meantime, District 99 spends $5,195 on instruction per pupil at its 15 elementary schools, lagging behind the statewide average of $7,419, while more than 94 percent of the 12,857 students come from low-income families, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education. Just 11 percent of students met or exceeded expectations on recent academic achievement tests, versus the statewide average of 33 percent, according to the state board of education.
District 99’s records also reveal that:
- Taxpayers picked up the $1,076 tab for Derek Dominick to stay four nights at a San Diego hotel in 2013 so he could attend the National School Boards Association conference. His first night at the hotel was two days before the start of the event.
- Also while in San Diego, Derek Dominick expensed $356 to rent a minivan for a week, even though the conference lasted three days. Other expenses included $22 at the Rainforest Cafe Disneyland – visited in Anaheim, 95 miles north of San Diego, the first day of the conference.
- Tomschin’s expenses for a 2015 conference in Nashville exceeded $2,500. That included $1,276 for five nights at the prominent Gaylord Opryland Resort, $365 for the rental of a 2015 GMC Terrain and $217 for meals.
- Taxpayers covered Derek Dominick’s $2,100 worth of expenses at last month’s National School Boards Association conference in Boston. That included $1,355 for lodging, $399 for meals and $20 for an April 11 Uber ride that ended about a block from Fenway Park.
April 11 was the last day of the conference – it was also the Boston Red Sox’s home opener. It couldn’t be determined if Derek Dominick saw the game at Fenway Park, but the conference was held about five miles from the ballpark.
He did not return messages.
Tomschin would say ONLY: “All our conferences are done in order to give us more education and to better serve the public.”
In February, the BGA and FOX32 reported that the school district awarded a no-bid security contract to a company that employs Larry Dominick’s “bodyguard.”
District officials wouldn’t respond to questions about that deal.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter and FOX32’s Dane Placko. Schroedter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.