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Beleagured Regional Office of Education again faces calls for its demise
School districts cite lack of help

Friday, July 10, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah

Last year, Glenview Public School District 34 hired 80 new teachers, but about a quarter of them were not certified to teach until just a few days before school started.

"It was right down to the wire," said District 34 Supt. Gerald Hill, who is in a similar position this year, waiting for the Suburban Cook County Regional Office of Education to approve certificates for some new hires. "It was nerve-racking. Those teachers couldn't work without their certification."

His district is not the only one having problems with the Regional Office of Education, which last week was raided by the Cook County state's attorney's office as part of an ongoing investigation into alleged misuse of funds by its superintendent, Charles Flowers.

"For the past year, we've had problems with the R.O.E., trying to contact people or have them follow through on the status of certifications," said Supt. Dennis Soustek of Orland Park District 135. "If there's any indication we have to contact the R.O.E., it becomes very frustrating for us."

Concerns over delays in the certification process and other shortcomings, combined with reports of corruption at the regional office, are again triggering calls for the agency's elimination.

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) introduced a bill two weeks ago proposing the office be shut down and the state take over its duties. The proposal will be deliberated Tuesday.

Cook County commissioners also are calling for the Illinois State Board of Education to take over teacher certification duties and get rid of the suburban Cook County office, which receives nearly $130,000 from the Illinois State Board of Education for operations, not including salaries for Flowers and his assistants.

A state audit last year found the office was nearly $1 million in debt because of irregularities, including Flowers' personal use of an office credit card and a $6,000 advance Flowers made to a relative he hired. County commissioners last year lent the office $190,000, money that has not been repaid.

Cook County Commissioner Peter Silvestri said dozens of teachers have told him that they bypass the suburban Cook County office and get certification from neighboring regional offices of education, such as one in DuPage County, or applying online through the state.

"They've misused public funds, and they've failed in the certification process, two good reasons to abolish the office," said Silvestri, who in the early 1990s served on a school board and lobbied to have the office eliminated. "It's unnecessary government."

The office originally oversaw Chicago Public Schools as well. Silvestri said that for a while in 1994, the regional office was closed and the state took over its responsibilities, but the office was soon reinstated for suburban Cook County only. The Illinois State Board of Education handles regional office responsibilities for Chicago schools.

But the state's budget crunch means the Illinois State Board of Education lacks the resources to take over the duties of the regional office in suburban Cook, said spokeswoman Mary Fergus.

Soustek said his Orland Park school district has had difficulty getting the regional office to answer the phones or return calls and has started seeking help from other regional offices. Hill said he believes Glenview's certificates came through only because the state Board of Education stepped in.

Most teachers at Cicero Public School District 99 apply electronically for teaching certificates or renew them on the Illinois State Board of Education's Web site, rather than visit the regional agency's Westchester office, said Supt. Donna Adamic.

The suburban Cook County office also is responsible for providing first-time school bus driver training and annual refresher programs to school districts that maintain fleets or the companies with which they contract.

Sandra Baker, a manager with Westway Coach in Villa Park and Richlee Vans in Arlington Heights, said the companies that provide buses for a number of suburban Cook County school districts have not had problems with the regional office.

The Cicero K-8 school district maintains a fleet of 50 buses, and Adamic said their drivers have been trained through the regional office. She said she wonders who will do that now or who will review teachers' credentials.

The office also is responsible for auditing school curriculum and safety inspections for about 1,200 schools.

Most documents headed to the state Board of Education must be reviewed by the regional office as well, Adamic said.

District officials needed documents signed for a $21 million bond taxpayers had approved, but no one at the Westchester office was answering phones, Adamic said. On Tuesday, district employees hand-delivered the document to Westchester so it could be signed by Flowers.

"Who will do these if the regional office is not doing them? " she said.

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