Metro-East News

PREVIOUS STORY: East St. Louis schools spend $3.1 million on consultants (4/25/10)

Two million dollars for consultants? It's actually more than $3 million. And it could be considerably more than that.

East St. Louis School District 189 spent $3.1 million to pay consultants for the academic years 2005-10, according to documents obtained by the News-Democrat. That's at least $1 million more than the $2 million the newspaper previously reported March 28.

The discrepancy comes from the district's failure to provide all the contracts the newspaper requested for the years 2005-10 under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

District officials claimed they gave the newspaper copies of the contracts for all the consultants paid by the school district, but they didn't.

While district officials provided a list of 130 consultants, the envelope handed to a reporter by a school district security guard on March 11 at the East St. Louis School District headquarters contained only 51 contracts.

Since that time, the newspaper independently confirmed through public financial documents for the academic years 2005-06 and 2006-07 that additional contracts existed.

The records showed:

* An additional $1,145,489 was paid in consulting fees during the time period.

* The names of at least 17 consultants turned up that were not on the district's consultants list provided March 11.

"The district sent you all of the contracts we had consummated at the time of your request," Superintendent Theresa Saunders said Thursday.

A follow-up Freedom of Information request sent by certified mail last month brought no response. It sought copies of the contracts for the 79 consultants listed on the original contracts list but whose contracts were not provided.

The consultants were paid with federal money, which is intended "to help the teaching and learning of at-risk children, so they can acquire the knowledge and skills needed to meet challenging academic standards developed by the state," according to information from the U.S. Department of Education.

Yet, here are some examples of District 189 consultants who were paid from the additional $1.1 million that do not appear to be directly related to learning of at-risk children:

* Computer network administrator Michael D. Davis was paid at least $80,000. The financial documents show Davis received $8,000 payments for at least 10 months in 2007. The list of consultants provided by the district show that he was a paid consultant for the years 2005-08, meaning he could have been paid at least $240,000 if his pay was consistent for the entire period. Davis could not be reached for comment. The News-Democrat included only the verified $80,000 in the $.1.1 million total for 2006-07.

* Insurance consulting firm Warmer Witter Kriesler Gregov & Associates, of O'Fallon, was paid $143,092. This total includes nine payments during 2007, ranging from $5,000 to $10,000, and the current 2008-09 contract for $45,637. Warmer Witter Kriesler Gregov & Associates was missing from the district-provided list of consultants.

* Former Deputy Superintendent Stephanie Carpenter was paid at least $400,000 during four years for consulting services. It was not clear from the payment documents what type of services she provided to the district. She has declined to comment about her duties.

East St. Louis School District 189 encompasses one of the poorest areas in Illinois, but benefits from an infusion of federal money as well as state funding.

"The funds that we get are primarily grant funds and are designed to be used with what we're using them for," Saunders said. "We couldn't make progress without them. For us, it's very necessary."

Richard Mark, former chairman of the three-member state financial oversight panel that monitored District 189 spending for nearly a decade until 2004, said: "These federal funds have always been grossly mismanaged in this school district. We tried to get something done about it when we were there, and it stays the same. In fact, it appears to me to be even worse. Those federal tax dollars are spent recklessly."

Mark said District 189 gets one of the largest amounts of Title 1 and Title 2 federal money because 90 percent of its approximately 7,500 students come from homes below the poverty line.

"The dollars East St. Louis has for education aren't really being used to educate children. It's wasted," he said.

Mark said the federal system should send watchdogs to the district to monitor the spending of federal money.

The earlier News-Democrat story reported how these consultants in East St. Louis are paid to give speeches and provide publicity, professional development and tutoring. Superintendents from other metro-east districts said they do not hire consultants to perform such tasks.

"We could not do what we do without those consultants," Saunders said. "Some of the students come to us underprepared to start a specific grade level, so it takes an extra effort to get them up to speed."

Consultants are hired to work with students in math, science, reading and language arts. In addition, consultants work with teachers to help them address the needs of struggling students. Plus, "we have a whole technology initiative," Saunders said.

Mark took issue with how the district is using the money.

"In this day and age, when dollars are precious for the education of children, school districts can do a lot of good to help children," he said. "But here, we have millions of dollars that are misspent and are being used so that administrators, teachers and other employees can go on junkets and get these big checks for consulting contracts in addition to their retirement pensions."

Saunders said the money is not wasted. Pointed out that on April 13, State School Superintendent Christopher Koch presented 13 schools in District 189 with certificates for making the Illinois Honor Roll. Some of the schools were recognized as high-performing schools with high rates of low-income students and others as schools that have shown substantial gains over a three-year period.

However, just 9 percent of East St. Louis Senior High School students met or exceeded state minimum academic standards in 2009.

"The track record speaks for itself," Saunders contended.