The Daily Southtown's Sunday edition carried a story exposing new Regional Superintendent Charles A. Flowers. The headline read: Does the Watchdog need to be watched? Here's the article by Angela Caputo, Staff writer:
In his first six months on the job, the office of suburban Cook County's top school official - whose assets are frozen for failure to pay taxes - has grown to include senior staffers with track records of misusing school money and even steering a local district toward financial ruin.
Their mission, they say: to root out corruption in the 143 school districts they oversee.
Suburban Cook County Regional Supt. Charles Flowers has put school officials on notice: Get on board with his reform agenda or face the legal consequences.
"If it doesn't apply to you, don't listen to it," is Flowers' message to any superintendent who's operating aboveboard.
But the warning has struck a nerve with some Southland administrators already angered by a sharp decline in service at the office - which acts as a liaison between school districts and the state board of education - since Flowers took the post this past summer.
"Where's the corruption?" said Orland School District 135 Supt. Dennis Soustek. "The regional office of education is saying they're targeting corruption. Are they on a witch hunt for it?"
Rolling out reform
When south suburban school administrators gathered for a breakfast meeting at the Doubletree Hotel in Alsip this fall, Charles Flowers launched his reform campaign by introducing himself and his new director of ethics and fiscal compliance, Willie Mack.
That's when school officials realized the event was anything but routine.
Mack, who earns $87,900 a year, put the school officials on notice that it's his job to crack down on the region's corrupt administrators.
What type of corruption the regional superintendent's office is trying to root out is vague. Flowers said he's fielded calls about residency and homeless enrollment disputes but declined to specify what complaints he's forwarded to the Cook County state's attorney's office for investigation. A state's attorney's office spokesman declined to elaborate on any information received from the superintendent.
Mack is a familiar face among the region's administrators. He worked as the superintendent of Calumet School District 132 in the late 1990s but was forced from the job. He also briefly held the top administrative job in west suburban Bellwood District 88 in 2005 but was fired just months into his contract for suspected misuse of money, according to the Maywood Herald, a Sun-Times News Group publication.
Evergreen Park High Supt. Jim Gallagher, known for aggressively guarding District 231 from non-resident enrollment, said he thought Flowers' warning went too far.
"Nowhere in the school code does it say that the regional superintendent can get involved (in residency issues)," Gallagher said. "It's a local decision."
Flowers won a seat on a west suburban Maywood-Melrose Park District 89 school board for his reputation as a reformer nearly a decade ago. Initially, he led the charge to scrutinize spending. He railed against a lax attitude toward academic accountability among the administrators. And he heeded the public's advice on how to turn the situation around.
After being named the board's president two years later, however, Flowers' reputation began to spoil because he authorized frivolous spending and hired friends at salaries higher than their previous jobs, according to an analysis by the Maywood Herald.
He came under fire in 2002 for hiring eight administrators - including a new Supt. Elizabeth Reynolds - from Park Forest School District 163, where he had worked the year before as director of special education.
While the district was grappling with a $3 million budget shortfall that school year, the board approved a new laptop computer and cell phones for themselves.
Other questionable expenses revealed by an audit include $16,764 on food and snacks, $26,200 on cellular telephone bills and $30,000 for out-of-town conventions where alcohol and room service were purchased through the school district's credit card during the 2002- 03 school year while Flowers was the school board president and Elizabeth Reynolds was the superintendent.
And after buying 200 new laptop computers during that school year, 194 sat in unopened boxes in a storage room. They were found by the Oak Brook-based auditing firm PTW & Co. The district spent $277,000 on the unused equipment.
'They don't even answer the phone'
The reputation of the regional superintendent's office has suffered under Flowers' leadership, according to some Southland school administrators.
Decisions such as assigning Deputy Supt. Harry Reynolds to conduct an inspection at Calumet School District 132 - where his wife, Elizabeth, presides as superintendent - have generated criticism.
But the real frustration lies in the office's inability to answer phone calls and return messages, school officials say.
"The general feeling is that we don't know where they're at or what they're doing," District 218 Supt. John Byrne said. "They don't even answer the phone."
In District 218, for example, 60 sophomores are waiting to enroll in a geometry class, but that can't happen until certification for a new teacher is complete. Under the former regional superintendent, certification would have been done by now, Byrne said.
Flowers attributes the holdups to staffing shortages at the state board of education.
In a spartan office tucked in the corner of an aging Westchester school building, Flowers' office buzzes with activity. Teachers line up at a reception desk with questions about their certification status. Staffers dig through battered filing cabinets for answers while juggling a steady stream of phone calls.
Most of the current staff is new under Flowers, who said the office and its employees are just hitting stride.
Six months into the fiscal year, however, a budget has yet to be drawn, meaning administrators don't have a clear plan for how they'll spend the roughly $1.2 million, mostly in tax revenue, they'll receive this year.
"It continues to be a work in progress," Flowers said via e-mail in response to a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the financial information. "I can't provide information that does not exist."
Nonetheless, the office has managed to bulk up staff to include two new administrative assistants, both of whom are Flowers' relatives. Top-tier administrators, all of whom hold doctorate degrees, also have received pay raises - with salaries ranging between $75,244 and $100,325 - more than doubling in some cases when compared to the same positions under former Regional Supt. Bob Ingraffia. In Ingraffia's administration, for example, the office's third in command earned $55,822 per year compared with $87,901 this year.
Flower's assets were frozen for failing to pay his income tax - totaling $51,188 - in recent years, a fact that brings into question his ability to provide financial oversight, according to the Better Government Association, a watchdog group.
"If he can't manage his own finances how can he manage his office's finances?" said BGA director Jay Stewart.
Flowers told the SouthtownStar he's contesting the taxes, which accrued during his employment as a special education director in Tinley Park-based Kirby School District 146 and Park Forest District 163. He declined to elaborate on why he has such an overdue tax bill.
Whatever the reason may be, his chance for contesting a lien is likely over, according to Dan Pavlik, director of Loyola University's federal tax clinic. "The government only resorts to freezing assets like property after it's unable to collect a voluntary payment," he added.
Like Flowers, most of his top staffers come to the office with professional baggage for having been fired from local superintendent posts.
Assistant superintendents Nichelle Rivers and Predonna Roberts were removed from administrative positions in recent years for the way they handled staff conflicts.
But Flowers' second in command, Harry Reynolds, who earns $90,293 a year, is perhaps best known for decisions that ultimately steered Hazel Crest District 152 1/2 to the verge of bankruptcy four years ago.
For the first time in Illinois history, the state bailed out a district and imposed its own oversight. Annual spending under Reynolds ballooned from $9 million to $15 million in just two years. A decision to rent mobile classrooms for $1,000 a day in an effort to reduce class sizes and improve instruction was among Reynolds' most expensive missteps.
But test scores declined. And some of the trailers sat empty because the schools where they were parked were closed to help balance the budget. Despite lagging scores and increased spending deficits, the board of education awarded Reynolds a $30,000 pay raise in 2003, his final year in the district. A spokeswoman with the state's teachers' retirement system couldn't confirm if Reynolds is currently collecting a pension.
The district continued to pay for the portable classrooms until this fall when the lease finally expired, according to the district's current superintendent, Sheila Harrison-Williams, who was hired by the state-imposed school finance authority. Under Harrison-Williams, the district has become financially solvent. Students in all of the district's schools have posted double-digit gains on standardized tests since she was hired.
Flowers attributes the previous firings and failings of his staff to "politics" and doesn't put much stock in them, including the cause for Reynolds' departure.
"I don't hire people based on rumors," he said. "I hire people who could get the job done."
Angela Caputo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (708) 633-5993.
The Flowers Staff
Following Charles Flowers' election to oversee the Suburban Cook County Regional Office of Education as superintendent, he's tapped a handful of top-tier administrators with controversial tenures as local school administrators.
director of ethics and fiscal compliance
Mack's most recently was employed in Illinois as the interim superintendent of Bellwood District 88 in 2005. His year-long, $150,000 contract began in July of that year but he received $750 per day in the three months before his contract took effect, according to the Melrose Park Herald, a Sun-Times News Group publication.
He only held the job for six months but came under fire first for signing off on a portion of $310,000 worth of legal bills, most of which were accrued before he took the job.
Mack was put on administrative leave shortly thereafter. The school board didn't publicly disclose the reason why it was suspending him, but one board member said it was because of a suspected misuse of money.
Rivers followed Mack into the superintendency in Bellwood District 88 in 2006. She was suspended from the job 11 months later for the way she handled an administrative matter that involved a principal storing pornography on a school computer.
She was fired from her job as a junior high principal in Naperville District 203 over staffing conflicts.
In 2001, Roberts moved to the Southland. She landed an administrative job in Hazel Crest District 152 1/2 in 2002 under Harry Reynolds' administration.
In 2006 she went to Bellwood District 88 to fill another administrative job.
Reynolds retired from Hazel Crest District 152 1/2 in 2003 after working in the district for three years, two of which he served as superintendent.
Under his leadership, the district's spending grew to exceed revenue by $6 million. The district was left in such bad financial shape when Reynolds departed that the state legislature formed a school finance authority to step in and save the district from collapse and dissolution.
Reynolds' wife Elizabeth, who is now the superintendent of Calumet School District 132, was working in Maywood-Melrose Park District 89 at the time, where Flowers was the school board president. The two are former colleagues in Park Forest District 163.
When Flowers was elected as the regional superintendent last year, Elizabeth Reynolds threw a semi-formal victory party for him, which, at the time, was frowned upon by some school officials and parents because of her own district's financial woes.
Flowers hired Reynolds' husband soon after.
The Reynolds are no stranger to conflict. The couple relocated to Illinois after a scandal-ridden stint in the Chattanooga Public School System, according to press accounts there. Reynolds, who then went by her maiden name, Gaines, resigned from her position as assistant superintendent there after it was revealed she had secretly married the superintendent.