Jul 28, 2014

School District Spending Spurs Resignation, Reimbursements

Lincolnwood School District 74 board member Richard Ruderman resigned during an "emergency" meeting in the basement of Lincoln Hall last Saturday.

School District Spending Spurs Resignation, Reimbursements

Charges for limousine rides, first-class airfare upgrades and fine dining on school district credit cards have been reimbursed by several board members and administrators in Lincolnwood. One board member has resigned over the issue.

"We didn't handle the internal controls well," superintendent Mark Klaisner told Skokie Patch. "I will tell you no one has done anything malicious."

As Lincolnwood School District 74 addressses credit card purchases made by its employees, school officials reimbursed the district more than $6,000 for expenses -- some dating back to two years. The payments were made last week on Jan. 25.

The move came after Lincolnwood residents began investigating credit card transactions within the district. Freedom of Information Act documents were filed and residents soon uncovered charges that ranged from unused airfare to high-end dining.

Among the items reimbursed were several first-class airfare upgrades for both board members and their spouses, limousine rides, dining charges and unused airline tickets.

Lincolnwood residents Joel Perzov and Mark Collens drafted an open letter, detailing those expenses, and emailed it to friends and neighbors. As the issue snowballed, during a recent school board meeting.

Superintendent Klaisner said that if it weren't for the group's efforts, board members and administrators would have never made the reimbursements.

"I think the simple answer to that is 'no,'" Klaisner said. "If it wasn't brought to [our] attention, I don't think anyone would have paid them. It's unfortunate."

In the midst of the accusations, several changes have been voluntarily made on the board level. Richard Ruderman resigned during an "emergency" meeting in the basement of Lincoln Hall last Saturday. Ruderman - who wasn't accused by residents of any wrongdoing - cited ethical reasons for his resignation during the meeting.

Lincolnwood resident Perzov, who requested numerous documents from the school district through the Freedom of Information Act, was also present during the emergency meeting on Jan. 28.

"It was a special meeting called a few days before hand," Perzov said. "Trustees were there. The crowd was, I would say, disappointed and upset with the board's decision to renew [Klaisner's contract] prior to the evaluation.

"[Board member] Ruderman quit that day," he added. "He said it was 'impossible to continue' and tendered his resignation right then and there before walking out of the meeting."

( Watch Ruderman's resignation on YouTube by clicking here.)

Meanwhile, board president David Koder will be stepping down from his current position, but will still remain part of the school board, Klaisner said.  

Koder's move comes just days after the board renewed superintendent Klaisner's contract despite some community members' pleas to not bring him back for the 2012 school year. Klaisner was originally slated to be up for review in June 2012, but will remain in his position until March of 2013.

"There were some very angry people at that meeting," Klaisner said about Saturday's school board meeting. "In their mind, there are questions about my leadership - but if there are questions about that, then why would they renew my contract?"

The school board voted 4-3 in favor of renewing Klaisner's contract.

Other questionable charges included Klaisner's 2010 Cadillac. The superintendent originally told the community that his vehicle was less than his predecessor's. While true for his first car - which he received in 2007 - the same couldn't be said about his current vehicle that cost the district almost $7,000 more than his previous lease.

The district also didn't seek a non-profit tax exemption for the lease, and paid the dealership $3,922 in taxes instead of $15, according to documents obtained via FOIA.

Klaisner told Skokie Patch that he was "completely unaware" of any of the details regarding his lease agreement. He added that he never even walked in the showroom or signed any documents, adding that the entire transaction was made by school district business manager Kevin Nohelty.

Skokie Patch reached out to Nohelty for comment, but he did not return calls.

Looking forward, superintendent Klaisner said he's aware that the school district's reputation is tarnished.

"In the course of February, there will be significant changes in the board," he said. "We should have handled things differently. Some of the community has lost trust in the leadership ... We've taken steps to address those issues. Now, we just have to get the smoke out."

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