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Regional schools office misses payroll
Missing paychecks, unpaid loans among the financial woes at Flowers' regional schools office

Friday, May 01, 2009
SouthtownStar
by Duaa Eldeib

When Charles Flowers took over the reins of the Suburban Cook County Regional Office of Education two years ago, critics were skeptical of his baggage.

Flowers, a former special education teacher and administrator, has a history of questionable financial dealings from his days as board president at west suburban Maywood-Melrose Park District 89. But he came into office in 2007 vowing to root out corruption and bring reform to Cook County public schools.

Once he became regional superintendent, Flowers hired relatives and friends and then began giving employees salary advance loans. Then he went to Cook County government for an emergency loan, which the regional office has yet to repay.

In April, the regional office couldn't make payroll and earlier this year the department didn't pay its group health insurance premiums on time, leading the company to temporarily cancel workers' health benefits.

So where's the money?

After several unsuccessful attempts to reach Flowers in the past weeks, he said in a brief conversation this week that he would not comment.

"I am not in front of those documents," Flowers said.

Numerous calls to top administrators in the office also were not returned.

The office was more than $413,000 in debt when Flowers was elected. According to the last available financial audit from June 30, 2007, "If the regional office continues to operate at the current level ... its ability to continue ... may be questioned in future years."

Instead of slashing expenses, the office initially added staff and approved raises for administrators, all of whom at the time held doctorates. Salaries then ranged between $75,244 and $100,325, which in some cases was more than double the pay for the same positions under former Regional Supt. Bob Ingraffia.

Many of the problems at the regional office echo Flowers' troubles as a Maywood-Melrose school board member. In 2002 and 2003 Flowers came under fire for stacking the staff with friends who were paid more than their predecessors and for authorizing frivolous spending on laptops and cell phones for board members in a district with a $3 million deficit. All but six of the 200 laptops were later found in unopened boxes in a storage room by an auditing firm.

Flowers himself had his assets frozen for failing to pay $51,188 in income taxes in the past few years, which Flowers had previously said he was contesting.

Pay advance loans

After Flowers became superintendent in July 2007, he put his two sisters and a nephew on the payroll.

Less than a year on the job, he approved a salary advance of $6,000 to his sister Barbara Flowers, who is also his executive assistant, and $9,000 to friend Arbdella Hayes-Patterson, who oversees the truancy program, according to documents obtained by the SouthtownStar.

Approving what is in essence a loan for employees is unusual, said Marc Kiehna, the president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools.

"I think common sense and law tell us we should have contracts and pay our employees accordingly," he said. "It's not a procedure that I would do. Typically people earn the money that we give them."

As for the legality of it, Kiehna said "I would question it."

Neither Barbara Flowers nor Hayes-Patterson returned calls this week for comment about the loans.

Missed paychecks, cut-off insurance

Last month, the regional office couldn't make payroll, forcing employees to go almost two weeks without pay. Staff received paychecks Monday, which was just within the window allowed by an Illinois Department of Labor law that outlines just how late employees can get paid.

In the April 15 memo Flowers sent to his staff informing them payroll would be delayed, he wrote, "I regret having to take this action, but the funds simply are not there at this time."

With the next round of paychecks due today, a number of workers have said they are worried those checks will also be late - if they come at all. This comes in addition to layoffs within the past couple of weeks and switching some employees from fulltime to parttime, which also occurred in the past few weeks. It's unknown how many workers from the staff of about two dozen were laid off or had their hours cut.

Health insurance for those same employees was temporarily interrupted due to nonpayment earlier this year, a spokeswoman for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois confirmed. Coverage has since been restored.

Since the SouthtownStar started asking questions, employees have described the work environment as "hostile and tense." They've said administrators are "interrogating" employees, looking through phone records and e-mails to see who leaked information to the media.

Unpaid loans

In 2008 and 2009, Flowers, who currently makes $103,234, submitted budgets identical to his predecessor from one year prior - with the exception of a more than $10,000 increase for rent after the office moved, according to documents acquired through a SouthtownStar Freedom of Information Act request .

The approximately $670,000 operations budget does not include about $2.5 million in state and federal grants Flowers expected for 2009, as well as revenue from certification and fingerprinting, among other programs.

But of that expected revenue, the office will not receive $1.7 million from a state truancy grant. For years, the office won the competitive grant, but after Flowers took over and the amount requested went from about $100,000 in 2007 to $1.7 million, the state didn't approve the grant.

What was approved in June 2008 was a $190,000 taxpayer-backed loan from the Cook County Board.

That money was used for operations and has been spent, Flowers said. It is unclear if the office will make the June 30 repayment deadline.

Cook County Commissioner Elizabeth Doody Gorman (R-Orland Park) cast the sole "no" vote when the request for the money came in last year.

"All Flowers did was pad it (the staff) with his friends and family and then come to us, to (board president Todd) Stroger, for a loan. How ironic," Gorman said.

After the dissenting vote, Gorman said Flowers' office contacted her to discuss the loan. She said her office called back daily, then weekly, to set up a time, and no one got back to her, which made her even more comfortable with her vote.

"If they can't sit down and meet, that just shows their inaccessibility and ineptness." Gorman said. "If they're this unresponsive to elected officials, I can only imagine what it's like with the community and teachers they have to serve."

Delays for certification

The office is responsible for services to 143 school districts and 400,000 students in suburban Cook County. One of its larger roles is to oversee teacher certifications and licensing.

However, at the top of Southland administrators' list of complaints are long delays in teacher certification and a difficulty getting anyone at the office to answer the phone.

The SouthtownStar attempted to retrieve a list of uncertified personnel in the county through a Freedom of Information Act request, but the regional office said it did not maintain such a list. In addition, the office did not provide a list of personnel for whom the office has received applications but have yet to be certified, saying, "The Illinois State Board of Education certifies educational personnel."

Also in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the ISBE said it also could not provide those lists.

In contrast, the teacher certification specialist at the Will County Regional Office of Education said she could provide a list of certification applications waiting to be processed.

It's gotten so bad, districts are circumventing the office that should act as an arm of the state board of education.

"We go directly to ISBE," Forest Ridge School District 142 Supt. Margaret Longo said of teacher certifications.

In Community High School District 218, Supt. John Byrne said the district has lost potential teachers because the office didn't verify certification in time. Reports and surveys the district passes on to the office on time often arrive late to the ISBE, he added.

"Many of those have to do with financial deadlines," Byrne said.

In his 20 years dealing with the regional office, Byrne said he has never had so many problems.

"I'm trying not to assess blame, but something is missing here. It always worked before."

Duaa Eldeib can be reached at deldeib@southtownstar.com or (708) 633-5960.



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