There may be no better
object lesson on the state's fitful search for a balanced budget than
in a scenario that played out in Cook County.
The Cook County Board last year lent the county's
regional superintendent of schools office $190,000. Today, the office
is nearly $1 million in debt and there is no clear answer as to where
it will get the money to pay back the county, let alone continue to
operate in whatever it is that requires so much money every year.
Yet, according to a state audit, the office's
superintendent, Charles Flowers, managed to divert thousands of dollars
to pay for airplane flights, meals and cash advances. He says he paid
all the money back, but the auditors say there's no clear way to tell
if that's true.
The Cook County Board - as "shocked, shocked" as
Captain Renault when, in the movie Casablanca, he heard gambling was
going on at Rick's Cafe - has demanded an investigation. No doubt, one
will be undertaken, as of course it should, and we'll all be "shocked,
shocked" at whatever its results.
But the larger issue isn't whether one public servant
was misusing his authority in a single little-known government bureau.
The issue that few in government seem to grasp is that we taxpayers are
growing weary of being expected to accept that such situations are rare
exceptions in the operation of government.
It surely came as a surprise to no one to learn that
the office of County Board President Todd Stroger put the regional
superintendent of schools loan on the county agenda and that Flowers is
a friend of Stroger. And it likely comes as a surprise to few to hear
Stroger's office respond that the friendship is irrelevant because the
full county board, with only Elizabeth Doody Gorman dissenting,
approved the money.
Stroger, like Gov. Patrick Quinn at the state level, is
constantly crying that if forced to make the spending cuts required to
keep his government solvent, he will have to devastate programs for the
poor and infirm. The only place to find the money to balance the
budget, he says, is in those programs most desperately needed.
At the state level, Quinn is singing the same song. The
only way Illinois can close its $12 billion budget gap is to ravage
programs for schoolchildren, the sick and the elderly.
And yet, with barely the need for a search, the Flowers
story emerges - a story, by the way, that may feature its own tales of
waste and nepotism.
Flowers says he won't resign because he's got too much
to do. We can't wait to hear what he does that isn't already being done
or couldn't be done by the state Board of Education. Don't look for
help in the "frequently asked questions" of the office's Web site. It's
No, the bottom line is that these archaic regional
superintendents operate all across the state with vague, duplicative
duties, and they are ripe, as Flowers has shown, for misuse.
Yet, there is no place in the budget that can be cut
except in the agencies that directly help people? We would be shocked,
yes shocked, if that were really true.