School board shouldn't ignore big picture

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.

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pattsi wrote on January 27, 2013 at 10:01 am

This editorial stopped short on three points, unfortunately.

1. Including a historic review as to how the present superintendent's application was urged/accepted after acceptance of applications had closed. The given argument was that those potential candidates chosen by the consulting firm were not inspiring. So instead of re-opening the process to seek more applicants, the then board accepted Weigand's way after the fact.

2. Including a policy suggestion that at a minimum there must be a calendar year between when an individual has severed on the board and is hired to be part of the Unit 4 administration, or some such wording, aka congress persons upon leaving congress and moving to lobbying.

3. Including an invitation to the taxpaying public to express reasons/explanations for the very low level of involvement as to how their taxpayer monies are being spent by the board.

rsp wrote on January 27, 2013 at 3:01 pm

They don't care to have the public involved. They don't want our opinions, just our money. The new meeting about the high schools includes transportation from Shadowood and Douglas Park. For appearances sake. Folks in Garden Hiills aren't invited. I don't know why they can't just have it centrally located. Maybe I have to leave early or get there late. But it's an 1 1/2 hour trip on my own. That's one way. 

quincy2 wrote on January 27, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Appearances aren't deceiving. The Board is. Look who is in charge now. The group who brought us the Consent Decree.

sacrophyte wrote on January 27, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Quincy, can you elaborate just a tad? Who is in charge that brought us the Consent Decree?


-- charles schultz

rsp wrote on January 28, 2013 at 6:01 am

Most people don't know who was involved with the consent decree. So anyone who was there at that time gets the brushstroke. Especially when they don't know what it was about. The school board was there, so the board is at fault. Doesn't matter if it's the same people or not. People don't have time to sort it out when the Board doesn't take time to do what's right or communicate. Does that help?

sacrophyte wrote on January 29, 2013 at 6:01 am

I'm sorry, but these brustrokes are way too broad - I am having a hard time biting into any of this. For an analogy, it's like you are telling me that some bolt or screw is loose somewhere, but not telling me if it is a hex head, phillips or flat. Plus the sarcasm is distracting.


Isolate and identfiy a problem and then offer constructive criticism and/or a viable alternative. I totally get that there are big problems and issues we need to be talking about; I do not believe general complaining and griping is productive.


-- charles schultz

45solte wrote on January 27, 2013 at 8:01 pm

"I'm not sure what else there is to say," Lockman said.

Brilliant. That kind of says it all. These people just don't 'get' it. Not even the learned attorney who can presumably look up 'impropriety' in his legal dictionary. And the entire board had no issue voting on this appointment? No conflict of interest alarm bells going off? With that kind of judgment you best keep your distance from our wallets.   

pattsi wrote on January 29, 2013 at 10:01 am

Along the lines of the previous post, Arlene Bland once upon a time was a Unit 4 administrator and then a board member. Question is what was the length of the time between the two roles?

quincy2 wrote on February 18, 2013 at 2:02 pm

I've watched Unit 4 for a long time.  Both Blank and the late Greg Novak were district employees, waited over a year and ran for the board. They were not Board members who knew about a new job, resigned and got the job with a questionable process (no current law license, no education law experience).

Blank and Zola were administrators during the time the consent decree was filed. They were both involved in school choice, which was the major challenge to the district. Wiegand was there too, but to be fair, she was a lower level administrator. Notice how she was not a candidate, then she had the job of superintendent? Transparency. Oh, yeh.

District made some good improvements,ie. magnet schools, curriculum improvements, improved minority achievements. Made some bad choices, too. The public engagement  firm they hired now should have been done years ago. The board needs that kind of information.   I remember watching a board meeting a few years back where Blank blasted the administration for suggesting hiring a public engagement firm.

 Going back to the good ole days of insider hiring and then saying Who Me?, is a bad choice. Looks like we will get a new board in April. I will be paying close attention.

Really, the NG called it like it is. The board is just too arrogant to care.