State Sen. Don Harmon is “cautiously optimistic” that he’s paved the way for Oak Park and River Forest schools to end required yet fruitless relationships with township treasurer’s offices.
Senate Bill 380, which awaits Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s signature, would allow Oak Park and River Forest High School and Oak Park Elementary School District 97 to act as their own treasurers and to end their involvement with the Cicero Township Treasurer’s Office, an obscure government body that oversees investments for six districts in Oak Park, Berwyn and Cicero. It would allow River Forest Elementary School Dist. 90 out of a similar relationship with the Proviso Township Trustees of Schools.
“I am dancing on the ceiling,” said Barry Greenwald, president of the OPRF school board. “We have the experience in our administration to manage our own funds.”
OPRF has led the charge to either pull away from the Cicero Township board, or dissolve the body altogether.
News last week that the end might be near surprised educators though.
“We have been working toward this goal a very, very long time,” Greenwald said. “But we didn’t realize it was right on our doorstep, and then there it was.”
“We were not anticipating something like this would happen this quickly,” agreed Carolyn Newberry Schwartz, the elementary school board president. “But we’re very happy that it did.”
“Things go bump in the night in Springfield sometimes,” said Harmon, who was re-elected by a wide margin in the November election. “Patience and persistence pays off.”
Harmon said he still doesn’t know why he was successful in adding the measure to an education bill with four other elements in it when his efforts two years ago were thwarted by a strong township treasurers lobby and other political forces.
“I’m still trying to put all the pieces together,” Harmon said, adding that he’s lobbying the governor’s office for a prompt signing of the bill.
Being a part of the Cicero Township Trustees of Schools is more of an annoyance than a financial burden, educators say. Every month, districts’ business offices need to reconcile their numbers with the township’s. OPRF has been especially critical of the township treasurer’s office in recent years, particularly with how it has communicated information back to the high school.
But there may be some financial benefit, too. Don Robinson, asst. supt. for finance and operations for Dist. 97, said the district’s savings of the approximately $60,000 it sends to the township treasurer each year would be offset by having to hire another person in the district’s finance office. However, if the district were to handle its own investments it could “partner with an investment advisor to implement a cash-flow model that would earn a higher portfolio return.”
Or, more simply, “I think it would be better for us both financially and operationally,” Robinson said.
Bill Sullivan, president of the Cicero Township Trustees of Schools, said it’s too early to say how the loss of the two Oak Park districts would affect the treasurer’s office.
“I can’t imagine the complete dissolution process would take a week’s time,” he said. Instead, it would likely take months to extract the millions of dollars and titles to property that the township body holds for each district.
If the bill passes, Sullivan said he would sit down with business officers from all six districts to discuss the pullout.
But Oak Park districts aren’t taking any chances. The other way out of the arrangement-dissolving the entire treasurer’s office-requires participation of all the elementary school districts (Oak Park’s, two in Berwyn, and Cicero’s), and a majority tally of votes from all three communities. Oak Park schools are moving ahead with the necessary steps that would lead up to putting the dissolution question on the April ballot.
Harmon said that, “unfortunately,” the recent firing of the Cicero Township treasurer helped his cause this time. Former Treasurer Martin O’Connor admitted to writing checks to himself and his employees when he learned the board was taking action to fire him. Greenwald said OPRF will ask the township body to recover those funds, which belong to the public schools.
Harmon said River Forest Elementary District 90 would benefit from the bill although it hasn’t had the same complaints about being under the Proviso Township Treasurer’s Office.