For more than a year the Riverside School District 96 Board of Education has been negotiating with former superintendent Jonathan Lamberson about alleged over-compensation and questionable expenses from his tenure as chief of the district.
Lamberson, who left the district when his contract expired in 2013, hasn’t been able to come to terms with the district, apparently. But that might be a moot point now that the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has gotten involved, convening a grand jury to look at those matters.
It’s really a remarkable situation and caps off what turned out to be a controversial end to Lamberson’s career in Illinois. All of that trouble seemed to begin when Lamberson was able to convince the school board at the time that he deserved a spectacularly expensive contract to run a school district of 1,500 students.
By the time he left the job in 2013, Lamberson’s salary was more than $300,000 — one of the highest-paid public school administrators in Illinois. And he played the school board like a virtuoso.
The lesson of the Lamberson era is that locally elected school board members are the superintendent’s boss and there needs to be critical oversight of that office. It got to the point late in Lamberson’s tenure that he didn’t even bother cluing in the board on a particularly serious personnel issue until it got out of control and ended the community’s confidence in both Lamberson and the board itself.
That turmoil of 2012-13 was partially to blame for the board’s relationship with its next superintendent, a person a majority of that board didn’t hire and didn’t entirely trust. With her departure at the end of the 2014-15 school year, the school district appears to be in something of a reset mode, with a pair of interim administrators who are seeking to calm the waters.
The school board-superintendent relationship is a delicate thing. There needs to be a clear line between the two, and the superintendent needs to understand he or she is not running the show; that person is there to implement the policies approved by the elected board.
Unfortunately, the fallout of the Lamberson years continues for D96, which could use a clean break from that era. At some point, that’s going to come. In the meantime, those years will be an ever-present reminder of why elected officials need to keep a close eye on what their employees are doing.
They shouldn’t feel the need to interfere in the day-to-day operation of the schools, but the financial stewardship role of the board can’t be underestimated. Any taxpayer can look at his bill and realize what percentage comprises public education funding. It is far greater than local government’s share of the tax pie, and yet somehow people hold local government officials to a higher standard of financial stewardship.
But public schools are just that — public. Their administrators and boards are just as accountable to the public. And it was high time in 2013 and 2014 when the school board delved into what its past superintendent was doing and called him on it.