By Allison, Maxwell and Jeffrey Wang
In June 2015, Rockford Public School District 205 (RPS205) denied the FOIA request for a copy of a legal opinion on a potential conflict of interest. The Illinois Attorney General looked into this denial and issued an order for RPS205 to release all documents and communications regarding the opinion. On December 23, instead of engaging in legal maneuvers in court, RPS205 complied with the Attorney General and released its extensive legal analysis of Superintendent Jarrett’s conflicts of interest with Stenstrom Companies. Because of this released legal opinion, we can be assured that this ethical conundrum was properly considered by the school district. We would like to laud RPS205 for taking this positive step, and we sincerely hope that this will be part of an ongoing trend of increasing transparency from RPS205.
RPS205’s Superintendent Ehren Jarrett is married to a majority owner of Stenstrom Companies, one of the many construction companies in Rockford. Since Superintendent Jarrett came to the school district in 2011, expenditures to Stenstrom Companies have ballooned exponentially.
By 2014, Stenstrom Companies became the largest payee of the school district according the district’s check registry.
In 2013, Atty. Thomas Bueschel, who has worked for the district as a contractor since the 1980s, wrote the legal opinion on potential conflicts of interest between Superintendent Jarrett and Stenstrom Companies. Using the legal opinion as a justification, RPS205 legal counsel Lori Hoadley concluded that there was no conflict of interest and Stenstrom Companies could be awarded the construction projects.
Transparency is a vital aspect to shape any sort of discourse on public education. Before the 2014 referendum to approve the construction of new school facilities, Superintendent Jarrett appeared on TV and radio stations and promised the community that there would be no cutbacks on any educational programs or tax increases. In fact, Superintendent Jarrett had also recommended that the district should speed up the timeline of the facility plan to 2015 from 2017.
Unfortunately, after the election, the district disclosed its budget deficit. Afterwards, the district took a heavy dose of cuts across the entire budget, including more than half of the building Reading Specialists, Bilingual Specialists, etc., according to the FY16 Budget Book. Many of these specialists have been shown in research studies to help disadvantaged students break out of the poverty cycle. These cuts come at the same time as the district has delayed the purchase of middle school math textbooks despite the fact that Illinois completely changed its curriculum to accommodate for a changing job environment. Although new buildings are an important feature of attractive schools, these do not translate into better student performance. Both Lewis Lemon and Ellis Academy have won awards for their new construction, but only 5-6 percent of their students meet the minimum state standards to date, while in 2003 Lewis Lemon’s performance was amongst the best in Rockford.
With a potential sales tax increase coming, Rockford citizens will shoulder most of the costs for this facility plan, contrary to original statements made by RPS205. While predicting economic downturns is difficult even for the best of us, we hope that in the future, the district will be more open about how they come to their conclusions so that we as a community can be prepared for the effects of what we vote for. Thankfully, the school district has been taking measures to better inform the public. For example, after August, 2015, RPS205 started publishing its Construction Bid Pay Request Log at every board meeting, allowing the public to easily track payments between the district and various construction companies. We hope that RPS205 will continue to make encouraging progress and promote enthusiastic, informed discussions towards improving public education.
Records mentioned in this article, including FOIA documents and the Attorney General’s order can be found at RealNorth.us/conflict-of-interest.
Allison Wang is a high school student pursuing a research project on budgeting inefficiencies in K-12 public education.
Maxwell Wang was an ROTC cadet from Auburn High School and is currently attending Washington University in St. Louis on a US Congress endowed Goldwater Scholarship.
Jeffrey Wang graduated from Auburn High School and Harvard University summa cum laude and is an MD/PhD student at Stanford University.