By Bob Skolnik
The Riverside School District 96 Board of Education hired a new law firm on Wednesday — one that is investigating "troublesome irregularities" regarding compensation the district paid to former Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson.
After meeting in closed session for two hours, a closely divided Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education voted 4 to 3 at 1 a.m. on April 2 to hire the law firm of Franczek Radelet as the school district's attorney and to dismiss the firm Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn, which was hired by the school board just 11 months ago.
President Mary Rose Mangia joined with board members Randy Brockway, Rachel Marrello and Michael O'Brien to vote to replace the district's law firm.
"I felt they did not do a good job of representing the interests of the school board in particular," said O'Brien of why he voted to replace Hodges Loizzi. "[There were] a couple of requests that Mary Rose [Mangia] had made on behalf of the board, and I don't think Hodges and Loizzi followed up or did a good job responding to our requests and concerns, and I felt it was time for a change."
One of those requests is believed to have to do with the pay of former Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson. For the past few months the board and the District 96 administration has been trying to find out why the district had to pay slightly more than $200,000 in additional contributions, to the Illinois Teacher Retirement System when Lamberson retired last year.
Of the total amount, $77,087.17 was a penalty, because Lamberson apparently received pay increases, as TRS calculated them, in excess of 6 percent annually during his final contract, even though his contract called for him to receive 4-percent annual raises.
"We have uncovered troublesome irregularities, and we have turned them over for investigation," Mangia told the Landmark.
At its March 19 meeting, the school board voted unanimously to hire Franczek Radelet to look into TRS and contract issues involving Lamberson. An early version of the agenda for the March 19 meeting that was posted on the district's website had Lamberson's name next to the agenda item involving TRS and contract items.
That version of the agenda was taken down and replaced with an agenda that did not mention Lamberson. At the March 19 meeting, Franczek Radelet partner Shelli Anderson met with the school board in closed session.
Brockway confirmed that one reason he voted to hire Franczek Radelet to handle all of the district's legal matters was that he was not happy with how Hodges Loizzi responded to questions about Lamberson.
"They failed us recently with this Lamberson thing," said Brockway, who added that Hodges Loizzi didn't submit to a full response to questions the board raised about Lamberson's pay until after Franczek Radelet was hired.
"It wasn't until we hired Franczek that we got an email from [attorney Stanley] Eisenhammer," Brockway said. "It wasn't satisfactory. It didn't go into the detail that we wanted. It alludes to the fact that there were some overpayments and the penalties likely resulted from that."
The Landmark has learned from two sources that on March 31 the board sent a letter to Lamberson, who is now superintendent of the Cedarburg, Wis., school district, apparently containing questions about Lamberson's pay.
"We found some errors that [Lamberson] has to explain," said Brockway. "We'll see if he has an explanation. We wouldn't have pursued this if we didn't think there was some wrongdoing."
Lamberson did not respond to a phone call or an email message asking him for comment.
Franczek Radelet has represented Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 since 2006. Late Tuesday night, right before the board vote, five Franczek Radelet attorneys met with the District 96 school board.
Franczek Radelet is now the third law firm to represent District 96 in the last 12 months. Hodges Loizzi was brought in last May to replace the firm of Scariano, Himes and Petrarca. All three firms are large, respected firms that represent many school districts in the Chicago area.
During its time working for District 96, Hodges Loizzi negotiated the resignations of former Ames School Principal Colleen Lieggi, former Hauser Principal Leslie Berman and former Special Education Director Mary Polk, and also negotiated separation agreements with former Technology Director Vern Bettis and Blythe Park School Principal Bob Chleboun.
Mangia said the majority of the board just had a greater comfort level with Franczek Radelet than it had with Hodges Loizzi, which was hired last year before Mangia, Brockway and Marrello came on the school board.
"We just wanted our own," Mangia said. "This was something the old board gave us. We worked with them for a year. … We did not want to work with the one the last board bequeathed to us."
Lisa Gaynor, David Kodama and Art Perry voted to keep Hodges Loizzi.
"I'm sure Franczek Radelet will do a fine job," Perry said. "Their credentials are solid gold and they're very well-known, just like Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn."
But, Perry said, the school board didn't follow its own policy in making a change in law firms at this time.
"We have a process in place, per policy, to review our professional services like legal counsel and other things every other year, and I didn't feel like this process was followed in this particular case."