Six months into his term as Lincoln-Way High School District 210 superintendent, Scott Tingley publicly asked the school board to let him hire a consultant for “an independent financial analysis.”
Minutes from the Jan. 9, 2014 meeting show Tingley said he was concerned about the district’s finances. Board members approved Tingley’s request to hire PMA Financial Network, and Tingley said he’d present the firm’s findings at a future meeting.
He did not.
A Daily Southtown review of board meeting minutes found Lincoln-Way’s leaders did not publicly share PMA’s findings, and the district refuses to release the firm’s 2014 reports.
Despite Lincoln-Way’s continued withholding of PMA documents, correspondence between the district and firm released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request shows PMA urged transparency and suggested a referendum measure as a possible solution to the district’s “perplexing financial condition.”
Instead of opening up about the district’s money woes and raising the possibility of major action being needed to solve its problems, the school district’s leaders continued the financial mismanagement that in spring 2015 landed Lincoln-Way on the state’s financial watch list.
On Feb. 7, 2014, PMA officials told top district administrators in an email that, “the need to communicate the financial condition to your many constituent groups will consume a majority of your time and energy in the months to follow.”
Nearly two weeks later, a PMA official wrote Tingley and said, “The only solution to the perplexing financial condition that will need attention is the consideration of a referendum question being placed before the electorate sometime in the future.”
Five months after the district was told to consider a referendum question, its officials presented a balanced budget to the public in July 2014.
Many residents, elected officials and educators expressed shock when the district landed on the watch list in 2015. Some taxpayers have said their positive impression of the district’s finances had been buoyed by Lincoln-Way’s tradition of passing balanced budgets.
Dating back to at least fiscal 2008, Lincoln-Way’s leaders publicly presented and approved balanced budgets, then overspent by millions, and the district’s operating reserves atrophied from more than $26 million in 2009 to about $2.8 million in 2015 — enough to cover a little more than 11 days of district operations.
In a cost-savings move aimed at shoring up the district’s finances, school board officials voted last August to shutter 8-year-old Lincoln-Way North following the 2015-16 academic year, a move that resulted in blistering criticism from local parents and taxpayers.
The district’s leaders pushed a $225 million referendum question in 2006 to build two new high schools in anticipation of massive population growth, which did not materialize. Between fiscal years 2017 and 2033, Lincoln-Way’s annual debt costs will skyrocket from $15 million a year to $41 million, the result of risky choices and faulty assumptions by the district’s board and administration.
Between 2008 and 2012, Lincoln-Way improperly spent more than $5 million in bond funds on operating expenses, disguising the full extent of the district’s financial trouble until it nearly ran out of money.
A Daily Southtown investigation since January has revealed questionable financial practices at Lincoln-Way, private uses of public resources and deals benefiting district insiders.
Robert Ripp, a certified public accountant and member of the community group Lincoln-Way Area Taxpayers Unite, said the district’s refusal to release PMA’s reports even now is “troubling.” Ripp said he believes the district’s problems could have been prevented if the district had disclosed its financial condition sooner.
“If they didn’t withhold it, and they were forthcoming and truthful with the public and board, we would’ve been able to address the problem before crisis strikes,” Ripp said.
Tingley declined to be interviewed for this story or address written questions from the Daily Southtown. In an email, Tingley wrote: “I wish I had the manpower to address your 25 specific detailed questions that you have presented, however my staff and I are still running the day to day operations of the district and the students need to come first.”
Government experts contacted by the Daily Southtown criticized the district’s decision to withhold PMA reports from the public. Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said the district’s decision to withhold the records “(unfortunately) follows a pattern that we’ve seen through this process.”
Ben Silver, a community lawyer with the Citizen Advocacy Center, said the district needs to rebuild public trust in order to solve its financial problems.
“If you’re not willing to disclose this now, it’s not giving constituents a reason to trust,” Silver said. “They need to see you were acting in their best interest when you found out about this.”
On Dec. 10, 2013, a PMA official emailed Tingley and said it was good running into him at a recent luncheon.
That official also asked to schedule an appointment to discuss PMA programs allowing the district to better analyze its reports.
“Knowing that (Lincoln-Way) was forced to issue tax anticipation warrants last year the data available in the (Financial Planning Program) alone will be an ‘a ha moment’ for your team and the Board of Education,” the official wrote.
Tingley emailed back on Jan. 3 asking for a phone call, then presented PMA’s hire to the board on Jan. 9.
At a school board meeting on Jan. 18, Tingley said the district would craft its goals “based on the analysis of PMA Financial Network.”
That’s the last time Lincoln-Way officials publicly discussed PMA before landing on the watch list, a Daily Southtown review of meeting minutes found.
On Jan. 24, former assistant superintendent for business Ron Sawin wrote to PMA and said he believed he’d sent them all the data they would need.
On Feb. 7, the district met with PMA officials. In a subsequent email, a PMA official wrote Tingley and said, “the need to communicate the financial condition to your many constituent groups will consume a majority of your time and energy in the months to follow.”
That same day, a PMA official emailed Sawin with a login to PMA’s web site and wrote: “Ron & Scott, Your projection is on the web and the report for the base scenario is attached.”
That night, at 11:05 p.m, Tingley sent an email with the subject “Pma” to Sawin. In it, Tingley wrote: “Just finished going over the stuff. I still think we can get closer to $5 million (deficit) each year. Sell (land at 191st and Harlem) buys one more year. We could still have 3 years to see what happens.”
The Daily Southtown filed a FOIA request for “the stuff” being discussed by Tingley and Sawin. District FOIA officer Brian Murphy released a projection by PMA for New Lenox school district 122 and said “it is related to a different school district.”
Tingley declined to answer questions this week seeking clarification over whether the material from Feb. 7 was actually the PMA records involving Lincoln-Way.
Tingley’s Feb. 7 email also generated public criticism recently as it shows Tingley expected multimillion dollar deficits but nevertheless presented the public with a balanced budget months later.
On Feb. 19, Tingley emailed PMA and said then-board president Arvid Johnson was available to meet on March 3. Tingley said the plan would be to meet with Johnson first, then two unspecified board members.
On Feb. 20, a PMA official wrote the district and raised the possibility of a referendum question. He said he didn’t believe the district would be able to issue working cash bonds without a referendum measure.
“The only solution to the perplexing financial condition that will need attention is the consideration of a referendum question being placed before the electorate sometime in the future,” the official wrote.
On Feb. 27, another PMA official wrote Tingley and Sawin with a “presentation” for their review.
“Let me know if you have any changes or additions you would like included,” the official wrote. “I will have the Excel files with me so we can review them with the board members if needed.”
On March 31, Tingley told the board in a private memo that he sent some revised information to PMA, “so they can provide the most accurate and up to date projection possible. The five-year financial outlook will be available in the next couple of weeks.”
The Daily Southtown first filed a FOIA request on July 1 seeking “any and all reports from PMA to Lincoln-Way.”
On July 11, the district denied the request in its entirety, saying the final report had been posted on the district web site and “all other versions are considered drafts and therefore are exempt.” The “final report” is a PowerPoint from June 2015.
The Daily Southtown appealed that denial with the Illinois attorney general’s office.
After reviewing Tingley’s memos to the school board, the Daily Southtown on Aug. 25 requested “any and all correspondence between PMA and Lincoln-Way officials from 2014, including emails” and “any and all financial outlooks or projections, as referenced in the March 31 memo, whether created by PMA or not.”
The Southtown later amended its FOIA request to also seek “any and all reports, memos, studies, analysis, projections or other financial reviews provided to Lincoln-Way officials by PMA in 2014.”
On Sept. 9, the district denied the request, citing an exemption for preliminary drafts and collective bargaining records.
Brian Murphy, the district’s FOIA officer, said in one of his denials: “This document was used for planning purposes with Collective negotiations with our teacher’s contract.”
Late last month, the Daily Southtown asked district spokeswoman Taryn Atwell if Lincoln-Way ever received information from PMA in 2014.
Atwell confirmed the district did but said “that information was used as planning in negotiations for a teacher contract extension, which is why it was not released to the public. It was based upon projections that assumed the continued contract and no reduction in personnel.”
Before appealing to the attorney general, the Daily Southtown asked Murphy to reconsider the denial and argued that the PMA records were meant to be shared with the public, according to Tingley’s public statement.
The district did not address the Southtown’s appeal.