For years, tiny General George S. Patton School District 133 in the predominantly black, largely low-income south suburb Riverdale has struggled financially, routinely spending more than taxes brought in.
Last year, Supt. Carol Kunst said the one-school district had to make “difficult decisions,” including staff cuts, to reduce expenses and “rectify our financial situation.”
But the struggling district has continued to send school board members and occasionally staff members to conferences. It’s spent at least $65,000 over the past four years, records show, for travel ranging as near as downtown Chicago and also to Boston, Nashville, New York and San Diego.
The total cost could be higher. Receipts for transportation and hotels were missing for some of the trips.
Those attending conferences are given $100 a day for food and other expenses, which Patton pays in advance — though district records show they don’t always provide receipts to account for that per-diem allowance.
Receipts that were filed included $40 and $55 meals at the Chicago steakhouses Wildfire and Zed451 and a $150 registration fee for a “Dinner/Broadway Show Package” in connection with a seminar in New York.
The district also has spent about $2,500 since 2013 on catering for board meetings, according to records and interviews.
Patton operates a single elementary school with just 315 students, most of them from low-income families. Census figures show the median household income in Riverdale is about $38,000 a year.
Given its circumstances, the spending on travel is out of line, says Cynthia Whitehead, a District 133 board member.
“Sixty-five thousand dollars, and our kids don’t have updated books or updated computers? Unbelievable,” says Whitehead, after being told what the travel expenses added up to. “That’s really, really sad.
“There are so many other things that that money could be used for.”
Whitehead says she won’t go to any of the out-of-town conferences because she doesn’t think they’re worth the money. For events held in Chicago, she says she won’t stay overnight in a hotel, to help keep the cost down.
As for other board members, she says, “They’re spending money because it’s not theirs.”
Riverdale Mayor Lawrence Jackson
Riverdale Mayor Lawrence Jackson calls the spending “shameful.” Jackson has been an advocate of dissolving the school district since it raised property taxes last year.
School board members recently voted to increase the tax levy again — up 4.98 percent from last year.
Jackson says Patton’s spending, coupled with a tax increase, will hurt the “underserved, impoverished” community.
He points out that for Riverdale’s upcoming winter coat drive for Patton students, “We have a request for 90 coats, meaning their parents can’t afford to buy them coats, hats, scarves. It doesn’t help when you have the school board mismanaging these funds that should go to needy children. That’s one-third of the student body there.”
Louis Peyton, the school board’s president, defends the spending on travel and conferences. He says it’s not excessive and that school officials go to learn.
“I can understand saying, ‘Is this necessary?’ ” Peyton says. “But we’re not spending that much money, and we’re not going that often. It’s not a waste.”
Kunst, the superintendent, says the board “needs the opportunity to engage in professional development.”
After being asked about the spending, Kunst sent a letter to board members Nov. 13 alerting them that their spending is under scrutiny. She also wrote: “As a reminder, board members must account for all expenditures from their per-diem money through the submission of receipts.”
This was written by the Better Government Association’s Katie Drews.