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Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018 12:22 am

School board blues

I have long believed that the death penalty is insufficient for the most egregious crimes.

Adam Lopez

Don’t send rapists and murderers and former governors to the gurney. Instead, sentence them to attend school board meetings, where they can be strapped down in chairs and gagged so they can’t scream. Force their eyelids open with metal contraptions and station a nurse to apply eyedrops, Clockwork Orange-style, so they won’t miss a millisecond.

This goes for most any school board meeting anywhere. I attended my first while still in high school more than three decades ago and many miles away from Springfield. Back then, I got a lifetime’s fill of acronyms and buzzwords like “stakeholders” and “empower” and “efficacy.” It is hard to imagine anyone going to a school board meeting unless their life or livelihood is at stake.

To be a school board member is to perform a thankless, but vital, job, and you don’t get paid. More than 60 percent of property taxes in a town where property taxes are more than twice the national average go to Springfield School District 186, and the money isn’t nearly as important as the kids, whose futures depend on getting good educations. When things are going well, you read balance sheets and listen to administrators drone about No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top and Every Student Succeeds and a bevy of other laws passed by politicians aiming at telling schools how to do things. When something goes wrong, you hear howls from parents or teachers or whomever else is mad. Always, critics complain that test scores should be higher and that kids need more discipline and that kids need less discipline and that whozits should be the football coach instead of so-and-so and that any fool could run schools better than these fools. Too quickly, we forget about the kids who end up at Harvard or Stanford or Yale on full scholarships, proving that our public schools can deliver every bit the bang that private schools promise. So easily we blame the schools for everything.

Unlike many communities I’ve lived in, lots of people in District 186 want to be on the school board. Since 2007, there have been 24 elections for school board seats, and 18 have been contested. That percentage of contested races in today’s version of democracy is rare – more than half of the 98 candidates for the state House have no opponents in next month’s election.

Adam Lopez, recently fired from his position as a financial adviser while a relative says that $600,000 she gave to him is missing, has twice been elected to the school board without opposition, which makes him, if not popular, something of a rarity. His term ends next year. He says he won’t resign, but, if he truly cares about the district, he should reconsider. He’s missed the last two board meetings and a criminal investigation is pending. The timing is awful, with voters next month set to decide whether to increase the sales tax to fund capital improvements for schools. The district doesn’t need distractions, and board members should be fully engaged and campaigning if the district expects to win over voters.
The district has acted swiftly in reaction to the latest news about Lopez. Signs bearing his likeness and name have been removed from Lanphier High School, which erected them when Lopez three years ago invented the Adam Lopez Thanksgiving Tournament -- the district now is on the hook for $20,000 in fees for schools scheduled to play in November. Where, exactly, games will go on isn’t clear, given that Lincoln Land Community College, where the tournament was supposed to be held, has backed out since Lopez came under a cloud. The college agreed to host the tournament to avoid any appearances of conflicts of interest, given his position on the school board.
The college volunteered last summer after local businessman Frank Vala questioned the propriety of a school board member sponsoring a basketball tournament that splashed his name all over airwaves, signs and the internet. Illinois Times in April published a story showing sloppiness that included a $12,000 deposit in the tournament account, six months after the final whistle in 2016. Contrary to ledger entries, the money wasn’t from gate receipts, district officials told the paper, but rather was a collection of uncashed checks, including $10,000 from Lopez, that had been accumulating since the prior September.

After the story ran, the district paid for its auditor “to perform certain procedures to assist and consult with the review of revenue recognition and expenditure recording processes of the annual basketball tournament held at Lanphier High School.” That’s language only a school board member could love, but it means that the auditor looked only at whether there were loose controls, not where money ended up. Like Illinois Times, the auditor found weaknesses, including inaccurate invoices, failure to follow policies requiring two signatures on checks and failures to properly authorize expenditures. Now, superintendent Jennifer Gill says that the district will pay a forensic auditor for a more thorough combing to ensure there were no financial improprieties.

It’s a good idea. Even Lopez said as much last month, when he called for an audit and pledged to make up any losses the district incurred as well as pay for the cost of the audit, which Gill said could cost as much as $25,000.

“I have and will continue to put my money where my mouth is,” Lopez said during an August board meeting. Let’s hope so.

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