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First in an occasional series
Door to door, Harper College President Kenneth Ender's commute to work from his Inverness home is 2.75 miles.
But Ender's monthly car allowance - $1,000 - is just enough to make a round trip from home to Harper to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and back once a month, based on federal employees' mileage reimbursement rate of 50 cents per mile. The $12,000 annual car allowance is one part of Ender's roughly $350,000 total compensation package.
Such driving perks are fairly common for top school administrators across the suburbs, as a privilege once de rigueur in the private sector has become an expectation in taxpayer-funded public school districts. A Daily Herald survey of 69 suburban school districts turned up 30 that reported providing car allowances to one or more administrative employees. The remaining 39 responded that they compensate for business travel by the miles driven or not at all.
The allowances for top-ranking district officials averaged $6,274 this year per district - and ranged from $1,800 in Gurnee-based Woodland Elementary District 50 up to $12,000 in Harper and West Aurora Unit District 129.
Total budgets for car stipends ranged from $1,800 in District 50 to $90,400 - spread over 79 people - in Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300.
And while several districts across the suburbs indicate that allowances are on the table for discussion in preparing next year's budgets, just one district - Elgin Area School District U-46 - moved to cut back on them.
While the numbers are not large in comparison to multimillion-dollar budgets, tax watchdog groups say the information revealed by the Daily Herald's Driving on Your Dime series is incongruent with the many layoffs, program cuts and budget trimming public schools across the suburbs have been doing to stay financially afloat during the recession.
And critics say school districts could be making a big mistake if they leave such perks in place.
Now might be the time when they start getting a closer look, one school association group says.
At Harper, officials defend the expenditure for their president.
Harper Trustee Laurie Stone was board president when Ender's contract was approved last year.
"His request was very reasonable," she said. Ender, she noted, "is traveling around a lot. His philosophy is one of creating community alliances and being very visible - not only with the high school districts and the superintendents."
Still, with $1,000 a month you could pay for a lease on a nice luxury import - a BMW 535i - including the initial $5,484 payment spread over 36 months. And you'd still have $239 leftover each month - enough to buy more than four tanks of premium gas, which translates to 1,738 miles a month.
Harper has instituted a hiring freeze for full-time faculty. And in February, the board voted to raise tuition 9 percent to $98.50 per credit hour, beginning this summer.
"Working through a severe economic downturn, we have successfully managed the budget," Ender wrote in his recent self-evaluation of his performance this year. "Most notably, the college cut $2.4 million in spending and did not fill vacant positions, despite our 7.5-percent enrollment surge."
Ender declined an interview for this story.
'Everything's on the table'
The trend of providing travel stipends and take-home cars in the private sector has been headed in the other direction for some time, one compensation expert says.
What used to be a standard part of the compensation package for top corporate executives now is increasingly limited to employees who travel extensively, such as those in sales, said Don Delves, president of the Chicago-based Delves Group, an executive compensation consulting firm.
Another firm, Saddle River, N.J.-based Compensation Resources Inc., says that while private corporations have cut down on the number of employees receiving vehicle allowances in recent years, it's not a major concern.
"They're cutting out the number of people," Managing Director Paul Dorf said. "We know that some organizations may have gone back full circle to having a couple of company cars available for use on an ad hoc basis.
"But companies are clearly looking to save money, to try to cut back on expenses. We've found that's one area. I don't know that it's gotten as much attention, though, as other things."
If anything, it's received even less attention in schools.
Ben Schwarm, government relations director for the Illinois Association of School Boards, said his organization has never studied trends in car allowances.
Still, he noted, with the economic downturn, "all school districts, when they are going into contract this year - superintendent contract or teachers contract - you are certainly going to be looking at things a lot differently. Everything's on the table this year."
While school officials who receive the extra cash and board members who approve it say annual allowances are a simpler solution to tedious monthly mileage reimbursements, the math doesn't always add up.
Only one district - Elgin Area School District U-46, the second largest district in the state - cut its vehicle allowance budget this year in response to budget problems, according to the Freedom of Information Act requests returned to the Daily Herald.
Expecting to begin next school year with a $41 million deficit, U-46 this fall pared down car allowances from an originally budgeted $25,600 districtwide to $16,400.
Auto allowances were eliminated for all administrative employees except Superintendent Jose Torres, who receives a $9,600 annual allowance, and assistant superintendents Carmen Rodriguez and Greg Walker, who get $3,400 each.
Torres' allowance is the second highest amount given to an individual school official, but board President Ken Kaczynski said he believes it is "more cost-effective instead of us providing him a car."
"The expectation of him is to move around the district," Kaczynski said. "There's clearly evidence that he doesn't sit in his office."
A day in the car
In an interview, Torres outlined a fairly typical day. On Tuesday, May 18, he said, he began his day at Huff Elementary and Ellis Middle School, both in Elgin.
In the afternoon, he headed to Elgin Community College on the city's west side for a career readiness reception. In the evening, he stopped at the Hanover Township offices on the east side of the district to see one of his principals accept an award, before heading to Larkin High School on the west side for a meeting with a student group.
Torres keeps track of how many of U-46's 53 schools he visits each year.
In the 2008-09 school year, he made the rounds twice. This year, he visited every school once, and got most of the way through his second lap.
"Is the amount adequate? I don't know. Everything we do is scrutinized," Torres said. "It's just a way to support the work I had to do. Typically, superintendents get these."
It's safe to say that Stevenson High School District 125 officials aren't doing as much driving within district boundaries.
The one-school district, which has its administrative offices on the high school campus in Lincolnshire, gave four people $7,200 car allowances this year: Superintendent Eric Twadell, Assistant Superintendent Mark Michelini, Principal Janet Gonzalez and Assistant Principal John Carter.
District spokesman Jim Conrey said officials were going to "take a pass" on commenting for this story.
Describing the top stipends as "abuse," Ralph Martire, executive director of Chicago-based nonprofit Center on Budget and Tax Accountability, said that in a healthy economy such perks might not be cause to balk. Stevenson has not had the same budgetary problems as many other suburban districts.
But few suburban districts are in that boat.
With a rise in foreclosures, the state behind $1.4 billion in payments to schools and flat home values, districts across McHenry, Cook, Lake, DuPage and Kane counties are slashing their budgets, cutting programs, raising fees and laying off teachers.
"It's not enough to justify that you have the financial ability to provide these perks. You have to justify that this is an essential investment," said Laurence Msall, director of the Civic Federation of Chicago.
"Even if the district (has the funds), it's still facing a citizenry and taxpayers who are finding it very difficult to keep up with their property taxes and maintain their household. In order to maintain the public's trust and confidence, a wise and transparent school district would be able to explain why these allowances are necessary rather than the history or the ability to provide them."
In these tough times especially, he said, "you cannot ignore the administrative costs."
Of the six community colleges surveyed in the five-county area, McHenry County College in Crystal Lake has the leanest car allowance package.
Interim President Kathleen Plinske's contract stipulates that the college pay $375 a month to lease a vehicle, a total of $4,500 a year.
Plinske said she agrees car allowances for top school officials have become an expectation.
Her situation, one she calls "more than adequate," is an exception.
The Chrysler Pacifica, a sort of crossover between an SUV and minivan, was first used by President Walter Packard and then his replacement, Larry Tyree.
The car stays parked on the Crystal Lake campus and is used only for business when Plinske needs it.
On a weekly basis, Plinske says, she does some traveling around McHenry County, to the college's satellite facility in the city of McHenry, to various work force investment boards. There are less frequent monthly meetings with the Illinois Presidents Council in either Springfield or Chicago. And occasionally, she says, she'll drive the car to the airport when she goes to a college conference.
"There are many days where I don't even use it," she said.
"I think the reality is, it's part of the compensation package now," Plinske said. "My contract is very basic. I basically have my base salary. That's really it. No housing allowance, no extra vacation days."
Whether to cut back
Grappling with slashing $15 million from next year's budget, Carpentersville-based District 300 has pink-slipped 180 nontenured K-12 teachers and made cuts to transportation, building budgets and literacy programs.
Car allowances look to be on the table, too, school board President Joe Stevens said.
He said the practice of car allowances was in place long before he joined the board six years ago. But change is coming next year.
Current Superintendent Ken Arndt has received a $600-per-month allowance for the past several years, plus the ability to rent a car on the district's tab when out of town on business. But his replacement after next year, Michael Bregy, will get a $400-per-month allowance, Stevens said, and no rental clause is in the contract.
"That's an acknowledgment we're looking in that area," Stevens said.
"The board had pretty strong feelings about cars and car allowances. And yet we also had a recognition that a superintendent had a need to travel around the district and there would certainly be gasoline costs."
With 27 schools, District 300 covers 118 square miles. It's the sixth largest district in the state.
"We're bigger than a lot of districts. We're really all over the place," Stevens said.
Arndt, Stevens said, "is getting a pretty hefty allowance. I would think it's more than enough to cover the cost of the vehicle and the gas. But I don't know. I haven't tracked it."
Stevens said he, too, believes car allowances have become an expectation for superintendents.
"I'm not a big believer that because it used to be that way it should always be that way," he said. "Just because it's an expectation doesn't mean we're going to go along with it."
That's not the case everywhere.
Wheeling Elementary District 21 provides only one person - Superintendent Gary Mical - with an annual allowance, totaling $8,364.
"I know how certain perks certainly inflame the public," school board President Bill Harrison said. "But I look at the total package and whether the individual has earned it."
In Mical's case, he is on the second year of a three-year contract that ends with his retirement. In Mical's case, Harrison said, the contract stipulates a salary freeze for this year and next year. His compensation package was already set to be frozen before the district began encountering major budget troubles.
In January, District 21 officials announced they were facing a $12 million deficit in the next five years. To combat the deficit, the board announced a list of eight possible cuts - with the two biggest cost-saving choices being to increase class sizes and to cut all before- and after-school activities.
By District 21 teachers agreeing to forgo any type of raise next school year - base salary, or increases for education and years' experience - the district was able to keep class sizes down and after-school activities in place.
Officials didn't consider renegotiating any aspects of Mical's contract because it was a retirement deal, Harrison said. The car allowance, too, he said, had been in place long before Mical took the helm of the district.
"Teachers are tenured," Harrison noted.
Superintendents aren't eligible for tenure and can be fired at will. To be a successful superintendent, he said, "that should be rewarded."
At Harper, Ender announced this spring that he would not be taking a fiscal-year 2011 raise, college spokesman Phil Burdick said. After trustees gave Ender his annual review June 4, Burdick said, the president's three-year contract rolled over into its second year without any changes, including to salary and car allowance.
• Daily Herald staff writers Sheila Ahern, Bob Susnjara and Justin Kmitch contributed to this report.