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Lawmakers to Debate Future of Regional Schools Office

Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Chicago Public Radio

Lawmakers are debating legislation today that could eliminate a regional education office. This comes a day after Cook County prosecutors filed a lawsuit accusing the office and its head, Charles Flowers, of scheming to defraud the county.  Corruption has provoked calls to eliminate the office.

LUTTON: I’m standing in a quiet parking lot at the back of a local school in Westchester. There’s a little sign on the brick wall of the school that says, “Suburban Cook County Regional Office of Education.” This is an obscure office, but it performs some vital functions for schools. Bus drivers get licensed here, teachers come here for their certificates, and the office does background checks on people who want to work in schools.

MIKE: You know you try to call here, you try to come in person. I mailed the documents here…they said they never received them. So I hand delivered them. But still, it was close to half a year before I had my certificate.

That’s a teacher named Mike, who doesn’t want to give his last name. He doesn’t want to out the school district that hired him last year without his certification in order. He’s not the only one who’s been having problems.

Still, other teachers visiting the office this day are in and out for their paperwork.

But any good work done here is being overshadowed right now by scandal.

An audit released last month found that Cook County Regional Schools Superintendent Charles Flowers spent the public’s money like it was his own. He bought airline tickets to Mississippi for relatives, took out thousands of dollars in cash advances, and padded his payroll with family members, like his sister.

PATRICIA FLOWERS: Can you wait outside please? I have a client.

REPORTER: Can I just record the sounds of the office?

PATRICIA FLOWERS: No.

ambi: door slam

That’s one of two Flowers sisters working here…

Flowers says his office is now following general accounting principles. But there’s still an open criminal investigation against him.

FLOWERS: It was a bad audit. And we provided a corrective action plan that’s in the audit.

Flowers racked up a half million dollars of debt in his first year on the job. His predecessor had a similar problem, though he didn’t spend as fast. Both superintendents have argued the regional office is underfunded.

 

NEKRITZ: That’s not a complaint that I have heard from anyone including my school districts saying to me, ‘We can’t get these services because that organization is underfunded.’

Representative Elaine Nekritz introduced the legislation that would abolish the entire regional office and transfer duties to the Illinois State Board of Education.

NEKRITZ: I would question that it took a scandal to bring that to light.

Despite the scandal Flowers insists the regional office should stay open.

FLOWERS: Some of the choices, decisions that were made, were not good choices. But I would ask individuals to take a look at the needs of the office and the people that it serves before charging the Illinois State Board of Education with the authority of the office.

It’s not clear that the Illinois State Board of Education wants the duties of this office, especially given the state’s current budget situation.

Jeff Aranowski handles certification issues for the state board.

 

ARANOWSKI: We do not have sufficient staff or human resources and capital at the moment to be able to take on all those functions if it were to happen right now. You’re talking probably 30,000 additional educators.

That’s more than double the number the state board processes now, Aranowski points out. And the timing is bad: summer is peak season for teachers to get their certificates.

There is a precedent for the state to take over regional office operations.

ARANOWSKI: We have staff here who answer telephone calls, accept applications, issue certificates...

Back in the early 1990s, lawmakers abolished Cook County’s regional education office, thanks to other scandals. Political deal making brought it back. But the State Board has handled certifications from Chicago teachers ever since.

Representative Nekritz says scandal has tainted the regional office beyond repair. But she says it would be a mistake to hand off functions to the State Board if the agency is unprepared to handle them.

The State Board says it’s taking one new action regarding the regional education office: it’s begun the process of revoking Charles Flowers’ certification.



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