Last week’s Landmark article titled “District 96 hot over crossing guard cuts” casts a revealing light on the mindset of D96 Board members and their interpretation of district’s role as an isolated, crisply separated branch of government, detached from the broader concerns and challenges of the overall Riverside community.
As reported, the village of Riverside has decided to no longer fund crossing guards for school children due to looming and large budget deficits. Another Riverside taxing body, District 96, is taking offense at this cut, labeling it “ridiculous” and “deplorable” and invoking the importance of public safety for “the most vulnerable.” In terms of monetary magnitude, the cost of the crossing guards at stake is $63,000.
At its most basic, the board members’ outrage is an acknowledgement that the actions taken by one taxing district often do affect the other taxing districts in our municipality, and the overall community of Riverside itself.
More specifically, the board’s statements are hypocritical given that a significant number of their weighty decisions involving pensions affect taxpayers of a different taxing body entirely, namely the State of Illinois. Throwing stones when living in a crystal tower has always been a risky proposition.
According to publicly available information as to the calculation of Illinois school administrator retirement benefits, the 20-percent retroactive pay raise alone granted to Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson earlier this year will cost Illinois taxpayers a premium of over $600,000 pension payout over the 27.9 year life expectancy when he retires in 2013 at age 58.
This decision alone, to grant an arbitrary and excessive pay raise, has resulted in a $600,000 gift to one District 96 employee, to be covered by state taxpayers.
Widely reported in the media as a fiscal train wreck of massive proportions, the excessive pension disbursements to retired public employees are the key contributor to the state’s dismal financial health.
The current year pension contribution for Lamberson, paid for by local property taxes, totals $28,626. In comparison, the total cumulative pension payout over Lamberson’s expected 27.9 years of retirement will be in excess of $9.4 million, paid for primarily by state taxpayers.
The statewide budget shortfall, in turn, has led Illinois legislators to cut a significant number of social services earlier this year. Talk about the needs of the most vulnerable.
The root cause for the carefree spending habits that define the current school board lies in the voter approved D96 property tax referendum of 2004. Proposed to avoid impending education and instruction cuts, the referendum has created a surplus of over $15 million by the end of the current school year, and has led the board to lose sight over the value of our taxpayer money.
Large-scale discretionary spending like excessive salary increases and the purchase of laptop computers for fifth-graders, an initiative adopted by the board without a documented cost-benefit analysis, poses a stark contrast to the village of Riverside board which, akin to a family in dire budgetary straights, is trying to figure out which of the essential services to cut.
This District 96 board is remarkably far out of touch with the leadership role any elected body of officials ought to play within the larger Riverside community. So far, this board has failed to acknowledge the role of education within the community’s broader purposes and other taxing bodies, and is choosing to act and speak with the proverbial blinders on.
In fairness, however, it is also not clear what kind of leadership the village of Riverside has displayed once the idea of cutting the crossing guards came up. How much dialogue did the village board initiate, and was early notice given to the D96 Board?
How to move forward? Recommendation No. 3 in an open letter sent to the D96 board in August and signed by over 190 local residents proposed that “the board shall proactively engage in coordination and planning meetings and activities held among the major taxing bodies, and initiate them in case such efforts do not exist.”
The crossing guard discussion exemplifies the need for this to occur. The three main local taxing districts, village of Riverside, D96, and D208, must all be held to this higher standard.
There is consensus that crossing guards represent an issue of public safety that is to be met in the interest of the community. Elected officials, do your job, talk to each other, and lead. D96, the money is there: ours.