Regional schools office misses payrollMissing paychecks, unpaid loans among the financial woes at Flowers' regional schools office
Friday, May 01, 2009
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (708) 633-5960.