CHAMPAIGN — The Champaign school district's chief financial officer maintains that he has yet to be told why he was placed on paid administrative leave by the district 24 days ago.
But documents obtained by News-Gazette Media via an open-records request show that Superintendent Susan Zola expressed concerns about Tom Lockman’s job performance on at least two occasions prior to placing him on leave last month.
A week after Lockman alleged that the district’s action was done in “retaliation” to his going public with concerns about employee spending, Unit 4 released eight pages of documents related to his job performance.
In a May 6 memo from Zola to Lockman, the superintendent stated: “I have lost confidence in your ability to provide me with clear, accurate and timely information to support my leadership of the district."
“Several members of the board of education have lost confidence in your ability to provide them with information and recommendations and do not believe you are capable of doing the job at the level that is required at such an important time for the district.”
In the same memo, Zola noted that the district contracted a retired chief school business officer in July 2018 to “support you with the issues you were having,” and he “suggested you approach your work very differently than you had been.”
But, she went on to say, “Despite dedicating significant supports and resources to your professional growth, you have not made the progress I would expect of someone at this level of the organization.”
Unit 4 officials aren’t saying why, and Tom Lockman said he was given no official explanation, but he believes it involves his role in calling attention to rampant credit-card spending by district employees.
‘Elevated voice and tone’
She went on to cite “poor planning” and “poor leadership skills” as concerns she had with Lockman’s performance after he suggested during an April 4 meeting of Zola’s cabinet that the continued increases in referendum project budgets would eventually “require significant cuts to department budgets, building budgets and staff/programming.”
Since district voters approved a six-school referendum bill of $208.4 million in 2016, increases in project budgets have raised the cost to $239.8 million.
Zola called Lockman’s statement about eventual cuts “inaccurate.”
“If such a message needs to be delivered, it must be carefully considered and planned, given the impact it has on the district staff and morale,” Zola stated in her memo. “For you to carelessly and inaccurately make these statements was irresponsible.”
Then, at an April 9 meeting during which increased referendum costs were discussed, Zola said Lockman used an “elevated voice and tone” when addressing Deputy Superintendent Laura Taylor after a dispute about which district fund the extra money would come from.
Zola wrote: “... you said to Laura, ‘You made the decision to up the high school construction budgets! Laura responded by stating that no one person has ever made any of the decisions to up the budgets and that it was not fair to make this statement. You stated that no one was taking the responsibility to make these decisions and we just keep adding more money to all the projects. ... We discussed how lack of clarity in your messaging was the root cause of the problem.”
Lockman’s tone toward others within the district was pointed out in another memo, dated April 11, 2018, in which Zola wrote: “Please speak to employees in a tone and manner that is respectful and professional and reflects your role as chief financial officer for the district.”
More than a year later, Zola noted, his behavior hadn’t changed to her satisfaction.
In the May 6 memo, Zola wrote that Lockman was “warned about your unprofessional conduct toward others (raising your voice, throwing papers, etc.). Your continued disrespectful behavior toward colleagues is unacceptable and must end.”
The district’s response to the open-records request came a week after Lockman accused Unit 4 of putting him on leave because of his role in calling attention to concerns about “the conduct of the superintendent” and to employees’ spending on purchasing cards, or P-cards.
The latter led to a News-Gazette Media analysis of 19 months’ worth of 81 users’ expenses, which revealed the lack of a formal policy governing their use; scores of personal food purchases made by Assistant Superintendent Angela Ward; a criminal investigation into her purchases; and thousands of dollars in public money spent on catered meals, working lunches and snacks, flowers for funerals, and gift cards for student and staff “incentives.”
On Wednesday, Lockman said he stood by his earlier statement — that the decision to place him on leave was retaliatory for his role in publicizing the P-card issue.
“The day after the News-Gazette article on P-cards ran, Dr. Zola, with the district’s Chicago-based lawyer in attendance, issued this write-up to me, which is the first I received in over six years with the district,” Lockman said. “Many of the references made misrepresent conversations and events that happened and entirely ignore repeated and documented requests I made to Dr. Zola for direction on these issues since at least October 2018.”
Lockman said he is still employed by the district while on leave; a letter from Zola had recommended that he be terminated following Monday’s school board meeting. The board, however, did not hold a vote on the matter but did vote to make business office employee Seth Hansen the district’s treasurer in the interim.