Thursday, January 18, 2007

School Supt. van der Bogert paid 357K: What were they thinking?

Links added and fixed at 1:00 pm on Friday.
Winnetka Public School’s District 36 [2100 students] is paying it’s superintendent, Dr. Rebecca van der Bogert, $357,668 this year, her last year at the District. In the summer, Dr. van der Bogert starts a new job at the Palm Beach Day Academy [See here], a school that has been reported to be conveniently located to her Florida property.

This high level of compensation is perhaps even more surprising when put in the context of recent Winnetka School District 36 events, involving the Superintendent, the School Board and the Board's President Anne Kelly, taking us to tonight’s town meeting in Winnetka [7:30 pm, Skokie School auditorium, Winnetka] when the town will be asked to vote and confirm Anne Kelly as the Caucus’ slated candidate for another term on the School Board.

Not too long ago, Superintendent van der Bogert actions startled many in her own community, as well as others, when it transpired that she had recommended a new principal [for Greeley School] to the School Board, without informing the Board that the person, at the time, was a defendant in a wrongful death action filed by a family of a student who had died at a Glenview Public School. The family had sued the District and the person who had applied for the Winnetka Public School principal position, alleging failure to exercise ordinary care on the part of the defendants [See here].

When the Winnetka Greeley school community learned of van der Bogert’s failure to disclose by reading about the wrongful death lawsuit and it’s upcoming trial in the Chicago Tribune and other media, many parents and other residents in the community rose up in anger, but the School Board, including then and current School Board President Anne Kelly, publicly defended its Superintendent. Then, the Board made van der Bogert the top compensated North Shore, if not state, Superintendent. What was the Winnetka School Board thinking?

The $357,000/ year School Supt. van der Bogert is now back in the news with her Board, with a complaint being filed with the office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, alleging illegal electioneering by the District 36 Superintendent on behalf of School Board President Kelly, Open Meetings Act violations by her Board and improper use of confidential information by a School Board member relating to an issue raised by a parent about her child. See here and here.

Supt. Rebecca van der Bogert's compensation is tops for all superintendents on the North Shore, where 13 of the 15 superintendents earn more than 200K per year, and the median compensation is 241 K. Supt. van der Bogert barely edged out a nearby competitor, who earned 344 K this year. [See the Winnetka Talk, December 14, 2006 at pp. 34-35, article not on line], for the title of top ranking compensation on the North Shore. Van der Bogert’s compensation this year managed to exceed even the last year top North Shore superintendent compensation of long time New Trier High School Supt. Hank Bangser. What was the Winnetka School Board thinking?

Dr. Bangser retired last year as the 2nd highest paid Supt. in the State, with a pension of about 230 K per year for the rest of his life. The exact figure of van der Bogert’s annual pension was not available, but it will be substantial, depending, in part, on how much the Board’s purchased in terms of “out of state service credits,” for Supt. van der Bogert. Of course, Dr. van der Bogert will collect her pension along with her compensation from her new job in Florida.

Further, Winnetka’s School District 36 plans to go to referendum in the spring, asking its community to support the issuance of bonds for facilities renovation and other work that will cost Winnetka almost 80 million dollars to re-pay over the next twenty years. These interest and principal costs will add to Winnetka’s current average total cost of about $15,000 per year for educating its K-8 students in public schools.

Arne Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, has a total compensation in the range of 220K for overseeing the education of 420,000 students. Supt. Van der Bogert, overseeing the education of almost 2100 students in Winnetka, is earning about 60% more than Duncan. Which educational system faces the greatest challenges to be handled by its Superintendent? Chicago or Winnetka? You don’t need a Ph. D. from the University of Chicago to answer that one. What was the Winnetka School Board thinking?

During the last decade, van der Bogert’s compensation has increased at a rate equivalent to an average of about 20 K per year, as Winnetka School Boards have pushed her total compensation from about 140 K to 357 K. Moreover, there are other affluent and middle class suburbs around the State whose school boards replicate the bizarre financial decisions of the Winnetka School Board [See here]. What are those school boards thinking?

Now, let’s take a look at the above referenced compensation decisions in the context of a major education funding campaign during the next few months, which will be led or joined by a number of civic groups, politicians and organizations such as A Plus Illinois, the Commercial Club and the Metropolitan Planning Council (“MPC”). These groups are or will be championing a multi-billion dollar tax increase for public schools across Illinois, and not just those in low income areas [Go here to watch on your computer MPC President MarySue Barrett discuss some of these education funding reform issues with Public Affairs show host Jeff Berkowitz, airing this week in Winnetka and 34 other Chicago metro suburbs, and on this coming Monday night, 8:30 pm, Cable Ch. 21 in the City of Chicago].

The “education funding reform,” campaign will seek to acquire broad based political support by promising some of the “new money,” to schools in middle class and affluent districts, as well as low income areas. These entities and politicians who advocate substantial increases in taxes for public education will state that various school districts, including those in Winnetka and other affluent suburbs as well as those in low income areas, need "State financial help," because they are in dire financial straits. Budget items such as “Special Education,” they will argue, are draining, financially, even the school districts in affluent areas. Only a massive infusion of state taxpayer money can save the public schools, they will argue.

However, it would seem many of these school districts need, instead, major financial reforms, starting with superintendent compensation, or does it really make sense to award a superintendent $357,000 dollars for overseeing the instruction of 2100 students and another [Sunset Ridge District 29’s Supt.] $344,000 for overseeing 515 students in two schools, and on and on it goes on the North Shore and no doubt, in many similar affluent and middle class suburbs around the State.

It certainly seems that the above referenced districts should not be put forth as “needy suburban schools districts,” to justify raising the state income tax by 66% [from 3% to 5% of your gross income], expanding the state sales tax to include services, e.g., legal, accounting, auto repairs, haircuts, private education, etc., installing a casino in Chicago and then taxing the heck of its customers and/or leasing the state lottery.

In short, given the way public schools are spending money, there is no reason for the state legislature to raise taxes by two to four billion dollars for education across the board in Illinois, and certainly not before major financial and other reforms are articulated and implemented. If the Illinois legislature and the Governor pass such a tax increase, then the voters will surely ask, “What were they thinking?”

Instead, school boards around the state should start compensating their superintendents, principals and teachers at reasonable levels, commensurate with their skills, productivity and performance. The Illinois state legislature should help parents and residents not by raising their taxes, but by removing public school monopolies.

To do this, state legislators and Governor Blagojevich should permit the dramatic expansion of charter schools and they should institute school voucher-school choice plans to provide parents with true public school-private school choice, so that competition in K-8 education can emerge and the public can find out how many superintendents overseeing 2100 students will be rewarded in a true free market with $357,000 per year compensation—similar to the decision of the Winnetka School Board to take good care of Supt. van der Bogert, at the expense of taxpayers.

Without this infusion of competition into the K-12 education business, the above aberrant school board compensation behavior will continue, and residents will continue to ask about their school boards and school superintendents, “What were they thinking.”
Jeff Berkowitz, Show Host/Producer of "Public Affairs," and Executive Legal Recruiter doing legal search can be reached at