School board shouldn't ignore big picture
School districts squander public support when they make self-defeating decisions. Perhaps it's because school administrators and board members do not see themselves as public officials in the traditional sense that they can be so tone deaf.
After all, educating students and overseeing school districts isn't like serving on the county board or in the legislature. School administrators and board members generally make decisions based on what they think is the right thing to do and leave it at that.
But there's more to it — appearances matter.
That's why the recent hiring of former Champaign school board member Thomas Lockman Jr., as the district's new in-house legal counsel at a substantial pay increase from his employment at the University of Illinois, looks bad.
From the inside, it may be perceived, and indeed may be, an arms-length hiring of a talented young lawyer who just happened to be a school board member. From the outside, it looks like insider trading — a board member who sees an attractive job opportunity and leverages his position to secure employment from a superintendent and board with whom he has had a close association.
This is the second time in a roughly a year that members of the school board have shown their indifference to perceptions.
A year ago, the school board passed a $14.5 million school renovation plan they financed without voter approval through a working cash fund property tax increase.
The problem was not just that the school renovation plan had nothing to do with creating a working cash fund, a subterfuge permitted by an intellectually dishonest change in state law. Also its timing was terrible, coming on the heels of a voter-approved 1-cent countywide sales tax increase that financed $80 million-plus in school improvements to Champaign's schools.
As part of that campaign, local school districts, including Champaign, promised to use part of the sales tax revenues to pay off bonded indebtedness. In effect, school districts traded a property tax cut, achieved by paying off old debt, for a sales tax hike.
But once the sales tax increase was in hand, the Champaign board raised property taxes to finance their full renovation wish list.
School officials insisted they need the additional $14.5 million. But considering the district already had obtained $80 million-plus, it was reasonable to ask how much was enough. In our view, the board's answer was a product of tunnel vision that ignored taxpayers' concerns.
The same applies to the Lockman hiring.
Obviously, school officials do not agree. Lockman characterized the hiring as an above-board process, stating that the "district went through the process it always goes through when filling a position of this kind."
He also stated that he "resigned from the board when I was considering applying" for the job.
"I'm not sure what else there is to say," Lockman said.
We have no doubts about Lockman's personal character. A graduate of Central High School, a college swimmer at Northwestern University and a graduate of the St. Louis University law school, he's the kind of person the public needs to serve in important positions like the school board. However, his enthusiasm for this job must have blinded him to the complications of seeking employment from the entity on whose board he served.
In our view, Lockman should not have applied for this position; Superintendent Judy Wiegand should not have recommended him for board approval as the district's new lawyer, and, finally, the school board should not have approved the recommendation.
This appointment, unfortunately, reflects a trifecta of misjudgment. Everyone missed the boat.
How they did so is a mystery. The appearance problem seems obvious from the outside looking in. It's doubly peculiar coming from a school administration that has repeatedly described building trust in the Champaign schools as one of its most important goals.