Chicago TV news crew dropped by a Calumet City School District 155 board meeting last week for a story about retiring Superintendent Troy Paraday’s compensation.
Fox 32 Chicago’s report was the type of piece that makes many people mad about the outrageous taxpayer-funded salary and benefits awarded to some public servants. A crew from CBS2 Chicago did a similar piece about Paraday in 2016.
A system that rewards public servants with excessive compensation should rile south suburban homeowners struggling to pay high property taxes and other bills. Paraday’s base salary this year is $309,306, but that’s only part of the story.
The cost of health insurance, an annuity, pension contributions, a car allowance and other expenses drove Paraday’s total compensation for the year to $407,145 — making him the highest-paid superintendent in Illinois.
Paraday oversees 1,130 students in three schools, which were delayed from opening in August due to mold in the junior high. Yet, Paraday makes more than the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, who oversees 371,382 students in 644 schools.
Open the Books, a Burr Ridge-based watchdog group, discovered that on top of his other compensation, Paraday is set to receive a "golden handshake" of $762,615 for unused paid days off.
"Unused, earned sick leave, unused vacation days and unused personal business days shall be allowed to (accumulate), without limit," Paraday’s contract states. "The superintendent, at his discretion, may submit for payment, at the current per diem, any unused sick, personal or vacation day(s)."
Paraday, 56, who has been superintendent since 2005, accumulated 567 days at a rate of $1,345 per day, Open the Books said, based on information it obtained from the district through the Freedom of Information Act.
"The bloated Illinois education bureaucracy rewards those who know how to play the pay-and-pension lottery," Adam Andrzejewski, Open the Books founder and CEO said in a statement. "It’s time the dollars start following the children rather than the bureaucracy."
I spoke with Andrzejewski by phone Wednesday. We talked about how the system seems to allow some individuals to earn excessive compensation.
"We found of the more than 130,000 educators in 900 school districts in Illinois, he had the No. 1 salary," Andrzejewski said.
Total compensation for Paraday’s five-year contract, approved in 2013, is just shy of $3 million, Andrzejewski said.
Paraday did not immediately respond to messages left Thursday seeking comment.
If taxpayers are outraged, there are two ways they could act, Andrzejewski said. One is by electing people of integrity to serve on local school boards.
"People need to go to school board meetings, give public comment and demand answers from elected school board members," Andrzejewski said.
Citizens in Calumet City deserve credit for paying attention. Last year, a slate of three reformers ran for the District 155 school board and two of them won. They were the first minorities elected to the seven-member school board in a district where 57 percent of students are black, 39 percent are Hispanic and 1 percent are white.
Three seats on the board are up for election on April 2. People interested in running could be gathering petition signatures now and begin filing on Dec. 10.
Since most of the money paid in property taxes is used to fund local schools, it’s vital that elected school board members do their best to devote precious taxpayer resources to students and hold the line on excessive administrative costs.
School board members should insist that a district’s finances be as transparent as possible. Every district should publish on its website information about budgets, tax levies, capital expenditures and employee compensation.
The second way taxpayers could channel their outrage over excessive compensation is by demanding state lawmakers act on pension reform to close loopholes and cap benefits, Andrzejewski said.
"It’s time to cap excessive salaries," he said. "We believe a good threshold to begin with is $180,000, equivalent to any governor in the United States."
That seems sensible. Why should taxpayers pay a superintendent who oversees 1,100 students twice as much as a governor who serves millions of people?
Andrzejewski believe Illinois legislators should also cap property taxes at a certain percentage of a home’s value. Other states do this. In Indiana, for example, the cap is 1 percent for homesteads. That means owners who live in a $200,000 home pay no more than $2,000 a year in property taxes.
"That forces school boards to live within a budget," Andrzejewski said.
Anyone paying attention to the fiscal crisis in Illinois knows pension costs are consuming the state’s revenue. Police and fire pensions are funded locally, but taxpayers statewide share the costs of funding retirement benefits for educators.
Former Lincoln-Way High School District Superintendent Lawrence A. Wyllie collects the highest annual pension through the Teachers Retirement System. His pension was $321,444 in 2017, according to a Better Government Association database.
Wyllie, who is scheduled to go on trial next month on federal fraud charges, has quietly repaid the cash-strapped district $16,000 for a retirement bonus he took but wasn’t entitled to, records showed. Federal prosecutors last year alleged Wyllie, 80, hid the "true financial health" of south suburban Lincoln-Way High School District 210 by misusing millions in bond money and fraudulently spent school district funds on personal pet projects, including Superdog, a dog training school he ordered built.
They also alleged Wyllie illegally pocketed more than $30,000 in unused vacation days and a retirement bonus. Wyllie has maintained his innocence.
Meanwhile, lawmakers need to protect taxpayers from irresponsible school boards that reward school administrators with excessively generous compensation packages. They need to tighten loopholes that allow end-of-career bonuses and supplemental compensation that figure into a retiree’s pension.
Paraday will soon join the ranks of people collecting the biggest taxpayer-funded pensions in the state. Open the Books and Fox32 Chicago called attention last week to Paraday’s "golden handshake" — a one-time hit to taxpayers of $762,615.
But as CBS2 Chicago reported in 2016, Paraday’s pension may end up costing taxpayers much more. If he collects his pension until age 80, taxpayers will cover more than $9 million in total costs, according to CBS2 Chicago.
If that outrages you, then you must vote in local school board elections and demand state lawmakers address pensions.