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Kadner: Time is now to stop big payday for Bremen Township school official

Bremen Township school board member Deborah Stearns

Bremen Township school board member Deborah Stearns

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Updated: February 14, 2013 6:46AM



Bremen Township school trustees are considering a 13 percent pay hike over two years for township school Treasurer Joseph McDonnell, according to a source.

McDonnell currently earns $148,000 a year, according to the 2013 Bremen Township trustees annual budget report, so the raise (if approved) would put him at $167,000 a year.

The Bremen Township School Board was reconstituted by state law after a scandal erupted over an illegal attempt by then-township school board president Joseph Bertrand to award himself $220,000 to pay his attorneys’ fees.

The new board includes seven representatives appointed by each of the local school districts whose tax money is invested by the Bremen Township school treasurer.

When I asked Deborah Stearns, the new president of the board, if a pay hike had been approved for McDonnell she said, “No.”

“It’s not true,” she added. “That information is false.”

But later she said, “Whoever told you that violated the Open Meetings Act because it was an executive session discussion.”

Stearns, who is also president of the Bremen High School District 228 Board, ought to know better.

There is nothing in the Illinois Open Meetings Act that makes it illegal for a board member to reveal what was discussed in a closed session of a school board meeting. In fact, that would be a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.

And this is an excellent example of why board members ought to talk about such things. The public generally doesn’t attend the meetings of a township school board, which meets about three or four times a year.

Although Stearns contends that no action was taken, I was told there was some sort of poll taken of the board members, and they indicated support for the new contract for McDonnell.

But no public vote was taken on the issue, which means the contract renewal is not finalized.

This newspaper editorialized for the abolition of the Bremen Township school treasurer’s office when the Bertrand controversy erupted, and former state Sen. Maggie Crotty (D-Oak Forest) seemed prepared to sponsor such a bill. But Stearns led a successful effort to maintain the office, while abolishing future elections for the board mebers.

She maintained at the time that McDonnell had done a terrific job of investing millions of dollars in school funds on behalf of the seven school districts and a cooperative for developmentally disabled children.

She told me the same thing Thursday. Stearns said McDonnell had outperformed other offices in the state with his investments and had not had a pay raise “in nearly four years.”

Actually, McDonnell told me he hasn’t had a raise in three years, and in the final year of his last contract asked the board to give him a 2 percent raise instead of the 4.5 percent he was allowed because he thought it was too generous given the financial condition of many local school districts.

McDonnell told me he was unaware the board was considering a new contract for him but said he had returned $15 million more on investments over five years than might normally be expected.

Stearns told me the township school board is conducting a study of what “other school superintendents and township treasurers in the area make.”

School superintendents in the suburbs supervise large staffs, negotiate union contracts, deal with parents and angry taxpayers and make difficult decisions about education curriculum and student discipline matters.

McDonnell’s staff consists of four people. In addition to investing money, he handles payroll and accounts payable for the school districts.

There’s no comparison between what he does and the duties of a school superintendent.

As for other township school treasurers in the area, there aren’t many of them left in Cook County. The position in Orland Township, for example, was abolished years ago.

McDonnell may well be the best township school treasurer in the state of Illinois.

He’s impressed me as not only a smart person but a good guy. He was a voice of reason when his old board acted illegally.

The SouthtownStar printed a story in November, hailing McDonnell as a hero when he pushed a stalled car off Tinley Park railroad tracks as a Metra train was approaching, saving the life of a teenager. McDonnell didn’t wait around for a reward. He just got the teenager and his car to safety and drove off.

The problem I have is with the existence of the township school treasurer’s office, which seems antiquated because many school districts have financial officers.

The Bremen Township School Board (which is separate from Bremen Township government) includes Stearns and fellow appointed board members J. Kay Giles, representing Country Club Hills School District 160; Kathy Novak, representing Posen-Robbins District 143 1/2; Dionne Freeman-Cooper, representing Prairie-Hills District 144; Jason Hedke, representing Forest Ridge District 142; Joanne Keilman, representing Midlothian District 143; and Tina Moslander, representing Arbor Park District 145.

The hold-over elected trustees who remain in office until their terms expire include Bertrand, whose term expires May 21; Michael Duggan, whose term expires May 18, 2015; and Julienne Mallory, whose term expires May 16, 2017.

I’m hoping that before the next township school board meeting in April they reconsider not only McDonnell’s generous pay hike, but the decision to keep the terms of McDonnell’s contract a secret.

As for Stearns, she’s running for Bremen Township supervisor against Crotty in April.

I’m hoping she studies the Open Meetings Act and realizes it’s not a violation of the law for someone to talk about what happens in a closed session.

In fact, it might be the duty of a public official to do exactly that.



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