Editorial | Opaque Unit 4

Editorial | Opaque Unit 4

The camouflaged purchase of a $3.4 million building by the Champaign school district invites public suspicion about its professed commitment to being open with the public.

When public bodies, particularly in less-populated areas of the state, spend big money, it's news. When that spending comes on top of other massive expenditures — a $208.4 million renovation and building plan — it's big news.

So when public bodies appear to go out of their way to avoid examination or discussion of a large expenditure of tax dollars, it's implausible the secrecy is not a product of design.

That, of course, is the problem that surrounds the Champaign school district's purchase of the building at 502 W. Windsor Road, a decision ratified by the school board without discussion at its Feb. 12 meeting.

The measure was buried at the end of a long agenda on new/unfinished business, simply labeled "approval of contract by deed — 502 W. Windsor Rd."

That was it — no fuss, no muss and certainly no explanation by anyone in the know.

If this measure was expected to slip by, it didn't. Now, having invited suspicion, school board members and district officials unsurprisingly find themselves under suspicion as to their motives.

Were they, as it appears, trying to downplay a big-dollar acquisition in the aftermath of passing the huge property-tax increase needed to finance the school improvement plan? With property-tax bills scheduled to come in the mail within a few months, was the district trying to insulate itself from criticism about its spendthrift ways?

Nothing, district officials say, could be further from the truth.

The district's lawyer said the $3.4 million purchase was a routine expenditure that is "not a part of the referendum" and not particularly noteworthy because the money to pay for it comes from the district's building and maintenance fund.

That claim doesn't hold water.

The new building will be used to house Unit 4 employees currently working out of the Columbia Center. The district needs Columbia to house Dr. Howard Elementary School students and staff, who will be displaced at the end of this school year, when the school will be torn down and a new one will be built in its place.

So the purchase of 502 W. Windsor Road is not as separate from the referendum as the district asserts.

Further, a $3.4 million spending proposal, no matter which fund the money comes from, is sufficiently large to justify an explanation.

Here's another gripe: Readers of The News-Gazette's Feb. 25 story on this issue may have noticed the glaring absence of Superintendent Susan Zola from the story.

Even though Zola is the public face of the district, Unit 4 arranged for the district's lawyer and public-relations spokeswoman — hardly disinterested observers — to answer questions that she, as superintendent, should have answered.

Indeed, what happened here is inconsistent with district officials' claims that they are devoted to transparency.

Suspicion falls not just on administrators but also board members. They acquiesced to whatever was going on here — either mendacious secrecy or astounding blindness to appearances.

Unfortunately, this kind of administration/board complicity is not new. It's common for administrators to turn — or try to turn — board members from watchdogs into shills.

Elected school board members need to remember that they are the public's representatives, not tools of the administration.

If board members had remembered that rule in this case, they could have spared everyone the embarrassment of being seen as trying to pull a fast one and, in the process, shredding the credibility they desperately need to maintain.

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rsp wrote on March 04, 2018 at 12:03 pm

Elected school board members need to remember that they are the public's representatives, not tools of the administration.

Unit 4's board is functually part of the administration. That's why they've had so many problems. If they weren't so cozy it might be different.