Is a free dinner for school staff members at a nice venue a good way to build employee morale or a wasteful use of taxpayer money?
That’s the question the Riverside Elementary District 96 Board of Education has been wrestling with and arguing about for the past month.
For the last 27 years, Riverside Elementary School District 96 has hosted an end-of-the-school-year employee recognition dinner to honor retiring staff members and employees hitting various employment milestones.
Last year the dinner at the Riverside Golf Club, where the dinner has been held for the last 11 years, cost the district a little more than $9,200.
At the August meeting of the District 96 school board, one board member harshly criticized the dinner and the expense.
“It’s outrageous,” said school board Vice President Rachel Marrello, who was chairing the meeting in the absence of President Mary Rose Mangia. “It’s not an appropriate use of funds. I talked about it to [Superintendent] Dr. [Bhavna] Sharma-Lewis, and we’re probably not going to do it again.”
That comment generated immediate push back from board members David Kodama and Michael O’Brien.
“You don’t speak for the board,” said Kodama.
Kodama and O’Brien said that if anyone had issues with the dinner, it was a matter to be discussed and considered by the entire board. At a finance committee meeting on Sept. 3 the issue was discussed further.
The matter will be a topic for discussion and a possible vote at the board’s Sept. 17 meeting.
Marrello, who works as an investigator for the Cook County Office of Inspector General, says that public funds should not be used to buy meals for public employees.
All District 96 staff members are invited to the dinner. Their meals are paid for by the district, but if they bring a spouse, the spouse must pay. School board members and their spouses are also invited; both board member and spouse don’t have to pay.
Typically spouses of board members do not come, but in the past some have come. Last May, four board members, Mangia, Kodama, O’Brien and Lisa Gaynor, went to the dinner. The only board spouse who was there was O’Brien’s wife, Meg, who was there in her capacity as a teacher at Central School. There is a cash bar. Last year 136 of the district’s roughly 230 employees attended the dinner.
Retirees are honored and typically receive a gift. Staff members who have reached their 10th, 15th, 20th and 25th anniversaries in the district receive a gift card valued at either $25 or $50.
“It’s a positive event to honor staff for the years of service and those that are retiring,” said Donna McLachlan, the administrative assistant for human resources in the district office.
But Marrello says the free dinner and gift cards are not appropriate.
“It just shows a total disregard for the taxpayer and their money,” Marrello said.
Board member Randy Brockway, who, like Marrello, was elected to the school board in April, agrees with Marrello.
“I’m going to vote against having an employee recognition dinner at the country club at the same level and expense that it was this year,” Brockway said.
Brockway also noted that the Riverside Golf Club has appealed its property tax assessment, a move that could cost the districts thousands of dollars in tax revenue.
“Why have a $9,000 event at a place that is appealing their taxes,” Brockway said.
But other board members have a different view about the dinner.
O’Brien says that that all the uproar is about a tiny part of the overall budget.
“This is $9, 000,” O’Brien said. “To me it’s a drop in the bucket.”
Kodama said that he thinks the dinner is valuable, especially because it honors all staff, not just teachers.
“It’s a great time to appreciate those staff that have served the district for decades who have contributed to the education of our children,” Kodama said. “The secretaries, the support staff, the custodians, the maintenance staff — they’re a key part of our district and it’s a great district-wide event.”
But Kodama also said that how much to spend on the dinner is worth discussing.
“We need to do it in a fiscally responsible way,” Kodama said.
Mangia, who was also elected in April running on a slate with Brockway and Marrello, said that she went to the dinner in May as part of her duty as board president and found the event unremarkable and not objectionable, although she said that she understands Marrello’s point of view.
But these sorts of events are common in the private sector, Mangia said.
“Almost universally employers have decided that these sorts of things matter, marking these kinds of occasions and the question is what is appropriate,” Mangia said. “I don’t mind examining it, but I wouldn’t want to get rid of this until I know what we’re doing instead.”
A quick survey of other local districts shows a variety of approaches. In Brookfield,-LaGrange Park District 95 all employees are treated to a dinner at a local restaurant at the end of the school year. Last year’s event cost about $4,000.
At Komarek School District 94, employee milestones are honored the day before school starts. After an institute day, the District 94 school board orders in Italian beef and the staff chows down in the Komarek School Library at a cost of about $800, according to District 94 Superintendent Neil Pellicci.
In Brookfield, LaGrange, LaGrange Park District 102 district staff gathers in the Park Junior High Auditorium at the end of the school year. Teachers marking their 25th year with the district get a $250 gift card from the district, Superintendent Warren Shillingburg said.
At Riverside-Brookfield High School employee milestones are noted at an institute day during the school year, Superintendent Kevin Skinkis said. An end-of-year dinner to honor retirees is paid for by the Riverside Brookfield Education Association, the union representing teachers and support staff at the school.