Local state officials, who have stayed out of the fray involving the decision to close Lincoln-Way North High School in Frankfort Township after this school year, hope to address through legislation some of the concerns that parents and officials have raised both before and since the vote to close the school.
State Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Tinley Park, said his staff filed a bill Friday that would set into law the “best practices” for closing or consolidating schools that would guarantee public input, financial transparency and a transition plan.
“There is never a good way to close a school, but my bill would outline guidelines to follow,” Hastings said, adding that it is not designed to target any specific school district, nor is it designed to keep Lincoln-Way North High School from closing.
Since other districts in the state are facing similar financial issues, “I want to ensure that there is a process and a plan for the future,” Hastings said.
“It’s not a bad idea in terms of what school districts are facing in the state,” Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210 Supt. R. Scott Tingley said. “It’s tough to find a textbook on this (decision-making process), but we have researched this.”
The board voted in August to close North, one of the district’s four high schools, to reduce a $5.2 million deficit and get off the state’s financial watch list.
The district, which relied on revenue from growth over the years, now faces declining enrollment.
Hastings, a former Consolidated High School District 230 Board member, said his office has received hundreds of calls and emails from Lincoln-Way parents who are concerned about the closing of North.
“Their biggest concern is that they felt they had no say,” he said.
The bill would require public hearings conducted by an independent moderator, and notification to municipal and local state leaders about potential closings.
The District 210 Board conducted several regular and special meetings over the summer, some of which were held to solicit public comments. Some parents believed the decision to close North had already been made, however.
Hastings’ bill — which as of Friday had yet to be assigned a number — would require a transition plan to address student issues such as class rank, a facilities master plan for life safety and handicapped compliance issues, and a five-year capital improvement plan — and all of it should be posted online.
“I can’t change the decision of the school board, but there has to be a process to disclose certain information about finances and building conditions,” he said, calling his bill “a good step forward.”
One of the “best decisions” the District 210 Board made was to hire District 230’s former assistant superintendent for business, Steven Langert, as a part-time business manager, Hastings said.
“If there is a way to fix things financially, he will find it,” Hastings said.
“These are uncharted waters,” District 210 Board President Kevin Molloy said. “We will not be the last school district to go through this. (Hastings’ bill) could be a blueprint for others. We didn’t have a blueprint.”
Molloy said he has a “lot of respect” for the state senator, who understands what it is like to be a school board member.
State Rep. Margo McDermed, R-Mokena, said she also met with Lincoln-Way parents and plans to file a resolution urging the board to request an audit from the Illinois Auditor General’s office. She is researching a bill to create a new office for an inspector general at the Illinois State Board of Education.
The state’s auditor general cannot audit another government agency unless it requests it, she said. District 210 Board members would have to agree to let the state auditor inspect its books and would have to pay for the service, McDermed said.
Earlier this year, officials at the College of DuPage, which came under fire for alleged abuse of taxpayer dollars, requested such an audit from the state without waiting for legislative support, according to the college’s website.
Lincoln-Way’s problems are different than COD’s, Tingley said, adding, “We are working things out. We’re doing the best we can.”
At its last meeting, the board agreed to seek proposals for a forensic audit and an additional independent audit.
McDermed hosted a town hall meeting last week to listen to parents’ concerns and said she told them, “Just because you don’t like the outcome (the decision to close Lincoln-Way North High School) doesn’t mean something is wrong.”
About 40 to 50 parents attended the two-hour session, participants said.
“The parents were happy. They just wanted some elected officials to listen to them,” McDermed said, adding that she has no authority over the elected school board and can only make suggestions.
An inspector general could be allowed to look into schools’ or districts’ misdeeds and allegations of financial abuse, and make sure school officials are following the law, McDermed said. Currently, the state board of education has no authority in this regard, she said.
“I’m not sure where this will get us,” she said of her proposals.
McDermed “had no real concrete solutions,” but she “showed she cared and said she would do what she could,” said Robert Ripp, a parent from Tinley Park.
Parents have formed Lincoln-Way Area Taxpayers Unite and have urged the board to rescind its vote to close Lincoln-Way North. Chris Zimmerman, a group member, said parents are urging the state not to accept Lincoln-Way’s Deficit Reduction Plan, which calls for closing North to save $5.2 million annually.
“We wonder if the right decision was made, if it will save money, and we are concerned about past financial practices,” Ripp said of the concerns the group presented to McDermed.
“If we do not figure out what happened, how will we fix it?” he said, adding that a forensic audit will discover whether financial mistakes were covered up.
“It’s important for us to have someone believe that what is happening is not right,” Lisa Snyder, a Mokena mother of two Lincoln-Way East students, said of the meeting with McDermed. “The community wants to help, but we do not feel that the board is taking our comments to heart.”