Angela Caputo of the Daily Southtown continues to watch the county's education watchdog. Today, she wrote about the County's recent bailout of the patronage plagued office. Here's what she wrote at www.dailysouthtown.com:
There should be no shortage of teachers in suburban classrooms come fall -at least not because they couldn't get certified on time - thanks to a taxpayer-backed loan from one cash-strapped, patronage-stacked branch of Cook County government to another.
The Cook County Board in late June loaned $190,000 to the Suburban Cook County Regional Office of Education - which acts as a liaison between suburban school districts and the state on matters such as teacher certifications.
Regional education officials had told county commissioners that if the board did come up with the cash - and fast - some suburban schools would face a teacher shortage come fall because the office wouldn't have the money to process all of the necessary teacher applications, County Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) said.
There are no stipulations on how the loan can be spent. On Thursday, Regional Supt. Charles Flowers said, via e-mail, that it will provide a "safety net" to "ensure that the services and assurances of the (regional office) will not be interrupted due to the delay in funding by the state."
Commissioner Elizabeth Gorman (R-Orland Park), who cast the sole "no" vote on the loan, said she wasn't buying the plea from the regional superintendent's office, which came on the heels of a spate of patronage hires by Flowers.
"How could we justify this?" Gorman said. "We're raising taxes to bail out another friends-and-family organization?"
Commissioners apparently felt the matter was so urgent that they voted to suspend the rule that requires giving public notice so they could adopt the measure on the spot. A caveat to their approval was that the money must be paid back by June.
In his e-mail, Flowers said his office plans to repay the loan using operations and certification fees. He declined to take phone calls on the issue.
When Flowers took control of the office in July 2007 it had $413,434 in net assets but was already on shaky financial ground. His administration managed to boost revenue slightly through homeless education outreach and universal preschool grants. For months, Flowers has also pledged to turn things around by tapping into the Cook County government for additional resources.
Still, financial troubles persist for the agency, which does background checks, processes certification and conducts school safety inspections, among other things. In fact, the office's financial outlook is so bleak that for years the state's Auditor General has warned that, based on historic revenue growth and spending, officials soon won't have enough money to operate in full capacity.
That hasn't prompted Flowers - a former special education director in Tinley Park-based Kirby School District 140 and Park Forest School District 163 - to cut any corners.
Top-tier administrators now earn more than double in some cases than people who held the same positions under former Regional Supt. Bob Ingraffia - with salaries ranging between $75,244 and $100,325. Flowers also has hired three relatives on his payroll: two administrative assistants and a $15 an-hour floater.
Despite the hires, service from the regional office remain tough to come by, Forest Ridge School District 142 Supt. Margaret Longo said. It's not uncommon for phone lines at the Westchester-based office to register a busy signal or ring unanswered throughout an entire day. After getting the runaround, staffers in Longo's Oak Forest district went straight to the state Board of Education to get their certification and background checks worked out this spring.
"It takes that kind of maneuvering to get it done," Longo said.
Given the office's track record and financial outlook, Gorman is less than confident that the loan will do much for schools in her district. She's even more leery of Flowers' office's ability to repay the $190,000.
"The way that this office is run, I don't see us getting it back," she said. "I hope I'm wrong."