Trip prompts call to look at gifts policy

A Hinsdale High School District 86 Board member is calling for a policy review after the district’s law firm helped underwrite a trip Superintendent Tammy Prentiss and board member Terri Walker took to the Dominican Republic last October through the Illinois Association of School Administrators.

The IASA Global Service Project trip has come under scrutiny after it was learned the district’s law firm, Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn, was one of the three sponsors of the nearly $4,000-per-person trip. As a result of the funding from the sponsors, which also included International Contractors Inc. and DLA Architects Ltd, the district paid only $700 each for the two to go.

At the Feb. 23 board meeting, Debbie Levinthal suggested the board review the language of the ethics and gift ban policy after some questions were raised about technicalities in its wording.

“I think at some point in the future we should look at that type of scenario to determine if our policy needs to be changed,” Levinthal said.

Prentiss disagreed.

“Legal already weighed in on that and said that there was no changes needed,” she said.

“I think the full board should have a conversation on that,” Levinthal replied.

Resident Yvonne Mayer, who filed a Freedom of Information Act request in January seeking documents related to the trip, has questioned the propriety of the law firm sponsoring the trip in emails to the board, which were copied to The Hinsdalean. Mayer cited Policy 2.015, which prohibits a board member or employees from accepting any gift from a prohibited source, including vendors. The policy provides an exemption for “educational materials and missions.”

Board President Erik Held emailed Mayer and others last week, quoting a statement Hodges Loizzi provided.

“HLERK was never solicited nor did it provide any gift or thing of value to any individual employee or board member. HLERK did provide a donation to IASA, a 501(c) organization, to support the mission,” the statement read.

A July 18 email shows the IASA owed $3,925 each for Prentiss and Walker to make the trip. Held confirmed the district paid a total cost of $700 per person, including $200 to upgrade each to single rooms, for a total outlay of $1,400.

The IASA published an invitation to apply for the 2022 trip to the Dominican Republic in a Jan. 10 email.

“The IASA Global Service Project brings together superintendents and school board members from across out state in a common purpose for global-minded service learning,” it stated.

A subsequent email in March identified making a difference in the lives of residents of the Dominican Republic and inspiring school districts to create opportunities for students and staff in their communities to give back locally, nationally and globally as other purposes of the trip.

Prentiss and Walker were notified in an April 7 email that the district had been selected to participate. Prentiss notified board members about the trip in an email sent the next day and asked if board members were interested. Walker responded in the affirmative.

Mayer also questioned whether the student tours the firm offers are focused heavily on vacation activities with limited service opportunities.

The student trip with the same name as the one Prentiss and Walker attended, Service Learning in the Dominican Republic, is an eight-day trip with an estimated eight service hours. The firm lists seven other trips to the Dominican Republic with service hours ranging from eight to 25 over the six- to eight-day experiences.

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean