Abuse lit­i­ga­tion a rea­son Smith­ton leaves dis­trict con­sol­i­da­tion talks

Belleville News-Democrat - - Front Page - BY LEXI CORTES [email protected]

Although con­sul­tants rec­om­mended the schools in Free­burg, Smith­ton and St. Li­bory con­sol­i­date into one dis­trict, an­other board has de­cided to stop dis­cussing it.

In a board res­o­lu­tion, Smith­ton's lead­ers stated that they didn't think their tax­pay­ers should be on the hook for po­ten­tial lit­i­ga­tion costs that might come up in the fu­ture by con­sol­i­dat­ing with a dis­trict that has a his­tory of child sex abuse al­le­ga­tions.

They learned from a study last year that Smith­ton res­i­dents would have to pay for fu­ture law­suits filed against a con­sol­i­dated dis­trict be­cause of al­le­ga­tions against for­mer Free­burg Dis­trict 70 su­per­in­ten­dent Rob Hawkins.

Dis­trict 70, which serves stu­dents in el­e­men­tary school like Smith­ton, has signed set­tle­ment agree­ments as re­cently as April with five men who ac­cused Hawkins of sex­u­ally abus­ing them when they were be­tween 9 and 15 years old.

They also ac­cused the school ad­min­is­tra­tion at the time of fail­ing to doc­u­ment or in­ves­ti­gate boys' com­plaints against Hawkins, which the dis­trict and for­mer su­per­in­ten­dents have de­nied. Dis­trict 70 also de­nied any li­a­bil­ity in the set­tle­ment agree­ments.

To date, the set­tle­ments to­tal $11.5 mil­lion.

The St. Li­bory Dis­trict 30 School Board opted out of talks with Free­burg and Smith­ton even be­fore the study be­cause it had “no in­ten­tion” of con­sol­i­dat­ing, Su­per­in­ten­dent Thomas Rude said in 2017.

“We be­lieve we're serv­ing our stu­dents well. We're in good fi­nan­cial shape. So there's no real driv­ing force to make us want to con­sol­i­date right now,” he said at the time.

Be­yond the po­ten­tial for lit­i­ga­tion, Smith­ton Dis­trict 130 school board mem­bers didn't think con­sol­i­da­tion would save a sig­nif­i­cant amount of money to make it worth giv­ing up lo­cal con­trol, ac­cord­ing to the res­o­lu­tion.

There could be sav­ings for tax­pay­ers in con­sol­i­da­tion if it re­sulted in a lower tax rate,

fewer per­son­nel or fewer build­ings. There could also be costs.

Teach­ers would move to the high­est pay scale that had been used in the orig­i­nal districts. The districts would cut their su­per­in­ten­dents down to one but might have sev­eral new ad­min­is­tra­tive po­si­tions.

Mike Weil­muen­ster, the at­tor­ney for four of the five men who filed fed­eral law­suits against Free­burg Dis­trict 70, said he isn't cur­rently rep­re­sent­ing an­other John Doe with ac­cu­sa­tions against Hawkins.

Daniel Bradley, who rep­re­sented John Doe 4, couldn't im­me­di­ately be reached for com­ment.

Al­most all of the set­tle­ment pay­ments have been cov­ered by Dis­trict 70's in­sur­ers. The set­tle­ments in­clude:

$2.1 mil­lion to John Doe

1.

$124,000 to John Doe

2.

$3.1 mil­lion to John Doe

3.

$200,000 to John Doe

4.

$6 mil­lion to John Doe

5.

Dis­trict 70 agreed to pay $1 mil­lion of John Doe 5's set­tle­ment, which is the sub­ject of a civil law­suit the dis­trict filed against its in­surer. The in­sur­ance com­pany has been or­dered to re­im­burse Dis­trict 70 for the law­suit, court doc­u­ments show.

Hawkins had been a teacher in Free­burg Dis­trict 70 be­fore be­com­ing an ad­min­is­tra­tor. He worked as the dis­trict's su­per­in­ten­dent un­til his death in 2009, which was ruled a sui­cide.

His suc­ces­sor, Su­per­in­ten­dent Tomi Diefen­bach, de­clined to re­spond to Smith­ton's con­cerns about the po­ten­tial for fu­ture lit­i­ga­tion.

Free­burg Dis­trict 77 Su­per­in­ten­dent Greg Fr­erk­ing said the two Free­burg districts would con­tinue talk­ing about con­sol­i­da­tion.

All four districts still plan to work to­gether to make sure their cur­ricu­lum is con­sis­tent from St. Li­bory to Free­burg and Smith­ton, be­cause most of those stu­dents go on to at­tend Free­burg High School to­gether.

Mean­while, Smith­ton is also try­ing to ad­dress a grow­ing stu­dent pop­u­la­tion.

It is plan­ning to ask tax­pay­ers in the April elec­tion for per­mis­sion to spend $5 mil­lion on a build­ing ex­pan­sion. The bal­lot mea­sure failed in Novem­ber by just 21 votes, ac­cord­ing to the St. Clair County clerk's of­fice.

READ SMITH­TON’S BOARD RES­O­LU­TION SUM­MARY

“The Smith­ton Com­mu­nity Con­sol­i­dated School Dis­trict #130 board of ed­u­ca­tion does not be­lieve sig­nif­i­cant op­er­a­tional ef­fi­cien­cies and cost sav­ings will re­sult from con­sol­i­da­tion, does not be­lieve in­cen­tive pay­ments (if ap­pro­pri­ated) would com­pen­sate for the loss/ shar­ing of ex­ist­ing funds held in cer­tifi­cate of de­posit and sav­ings ac­counts, does not be­lieve Smith­ton res­i­dents should share the bur­den of fu­ture lit­i­ga­tion li­a­bil­ity re­sult­ing from fu­ture al­le­ga­tions due to past mis­con­duct and does not be­lieve ced­ing lo­cal con­trol of el­e­men­tary ed­u­ca­tion is in the best in­ter­est of Smith­ton tax­pay­ers, staff and, most im­por­tantly, stu­dents.”

LEXI CORTES [email protected]

Free­burg Pri­mary Cen­ter in Free­burg Dis­trict 70, an el­e­men­tary school dis­trict

LEXI CORTES [email protected]

St. Li­bory El­e­men­tary School in St. Li­bory Dis­trict 30, an el­e­men­tary school dis­trict

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