By: Jake Griffin
While all suburban community colleges charge taxpayers for the meals board members and senior administrators share together, none come close to how College of DuPage leaders are eating tax dollars.
COD leaders spent an average of $66.52 per person at each meal during a 16-month stretch from September 2013 to December 2014. That is more than double what the average meal cost taxpayers at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines and more than seven times what is spent at Harper College in Palatine, according to a Daily Herald analysis of food expenses at community college leadership gatherings.
The cost disparity is due to menu selection. At COD, board members and administrators can order $19 foie gras, a $36 filet mignon and a $9 bread pudding for dessert at the on-campus Waterleaf Restaurant.
At Harper, where the average meal cost $9.42 per person, board members can choose between a $1.05 cookie or a different $1.05 cookie.
Along with the highest per-meal average, COD had the highest total cost. The college spent $19,224 during the 16 months on 265 meals. Only McHenry County College in Crystal Lake came close with a total food bill for board members and administrators of $17,840 for 736 meals.
While taxpayers at all seven colleges paid for pre-meeting meals or snacks, some paid for food at parties or retreats as well, the records show.
Combined, taxpayers covered nearly $67,000 in food costs at 169 gatherings of board members and senior administrators of the seven colleges.
Elgin Community College spent $7,508 on 593 meals. Harper spent $7,491 on 795 meals. Oakton spent $6,493 on 237 meals. Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove spent $5,261 on 297 meals. And College of Lake County in Grayslake spent $2,917 on 141 meals.
The average meal for board and administration gatherings cost $21.61 across all seven colleges, according to the analysis.
COD has come under fire in recent months for its spending practices and a $763,000 retirement package the board approved for President Robert Breuder. DuPage County prosecutors are also investigating the college's finances.
Most COD meals occurred ahead of board meetings, but three holiday dinners for board members and senior administrators in 2013 and 2014 accounted for more than $7,000 of the charges.
Adam Andrzejewski, founder of the government finance watchdog group For The Good of Illinois and the transparency website OpenTheBooks.com, blamed the board for allowing what he labeled an "extravagance."
"The COD culture of overspending started with the trustees," he said. "Adding in the board dinners, parties and gifts, and there are tens of thousands of dollars misspent by trustees who have a fiduciary responsibility to spend diligently."
COD administrators declined to comment about the expenses, noting that COD board Chairman Erin Birt has called for a review of spending and reimbursement procedures.
But COD board Trustee Kathy Hamilton, who has been at odds with fellow board members for several months, was surprised the cost wasn't higher. She said she stopped going to the dinners several months ago because of the cost and reimbursed the college for any meals she did eat. The college did not provide Hamilton's reimbursement information.
"What right do they have to expect taxpayers to pay for their meals?" Hamilton asked. "I always thought it was over the top for a community college."
Calls to two other board members were not returned.
McHenry County College President Vicky Smith said she'll look into cutting food costs after being informed of the college's spending history.
"I was under the impression the meals were getting more modest," she said.
MCC board members and senior administrators ate together 49 times in those 16 months, according to receipts the college provided. The fact it cost taxpayers more than $17,000 riled board Chairman Ronald Parrish.
"Don't you think that's a lot?" he asked. "It does need to be looked at to see if it's out of line."
Food costs at MCC are fueled by the fact that the board and administrators meet three times a month and eat together at all those meetings. On average, the meals cost $24.24 per person.
Oakton Community College leaders broke bread together 16 times before board meetings. The average meal for board members and administrators cost taxpayers $27.39. That's the highest average meal cost except COD.
"We are working," said retiring Oakton President Margaret Lee. "The board has a closed session before the board meeting and that's over dinner. I'm not going to get defensive about it. It's an investment in people."
But Lee did object to her college being compared to COD.
"Everybody paints us with the same brush and it's grossly unfair," she said. "What is happening there really does such a disservice to the rest of the community colleges."
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