Government

Officials working to move McHenry County Regional Office of Education beyond troubled past

Interviews for a new regional superintendent are expected to begin shortly

Interim Regional Superintendent Mike Freeman works inside of his office on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, at the McHenry County Administration Building in Woodstock.

McHenry County officials are trying to turn the page on a troubled past few years at the McHenry County Regional Office of Education that resulted in the removal of the last regional superintendent in November.

State audits of the office found repeated accounting and organizational errors for six straight years, and an internal county audit in July identified 27 problems. Then-Regional Superintendent Leslie Schermerhorn blamed the county for the problems, but county leaders said she was responsible for the problems and failure to address them.

“It all could’ve been corrected with a basic understanding and ability to understand running an office and knowing what the statute is and communicating,” McHenry County Auditor Shannon Teresi said. “We can’t do the steps for them.”

The bulk of the issues involved an improper accounting of funds. The Regional Office of Education manages five bank accounts that are largely outside the county’s reach. Teresi recommended in her audit that the accounts be consolidated and moved under the county’s control to provide the ROE’s small staff with better financial management, but that never happened.

“The individual in that position doesn’t need to go alone and have all the financial knowledge themselves and [should] utilize the resources that are provided,” Teresi said.

A month after Schermerhorn was removed from office, the county is moving forward with changes.

The McHenry County Board will consider a resolution later this month that would close two of the ROE’s bank accounts and reopen them under the county’s control. It also would add the McHenry County treasurer as a signatory to three other accounts under the state’s control.

Regional offices of education are a unit of government created by state law. McHenry County ROE is one of 34 in the state but one of six that covers only one county.

Interim Regional Superintendent Mike Freeman has been with the office since 2013 and supports consolidating the bank accounts, noting that with the office’s small staff, it will help them “more accurately account for the funds,” and “we can address some past findings.”

“I think it was a good first step going forward,” he said.

Since taking over responsibilities last month, Freeman said he has been in contact with the Illinois Auditor General’s Office on plans to correct issues in the state audit.

“I do think Leslie misrepresented not getting help a little bit,” Freeman said. “She seemed to make it sound like there was no help offered, and I’m taking that help up with them now.”

The Regional Office of Education is seen on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, at the McHenry County Administration Building in Woodstock.

Schermerhorn declined to comment for this story, but she previously said she would pursue legal action to fight her removal, which she argued was an illegal move by the County Board. No legal action had been filed as of Friday.

For all the problems the office had, many of the findings in the audit were related to similar issues, and officials are hopeful they can be corrected soon.

“If they follow the recommendations that we put in the internal audits, I do think a lot will change very quickly,” Teresi said.

Freeman said he hopes he is the one to lead the McHenry County ROE into its next chapter. He is one of three applicants to become the next regional superintendent.

“I believe the Regional Office of Education is a very important part of the education in the county,” Freeman said. “We’re here to promote quality education for the citizens in the county. With the right leadership for the county, we can provide those services effectively.”

County Board Chairman Mike Buehler said interviews with the candidates will begin soon. The county has until mid-January to make a hire, according to state law.

“[The candidates] know the issues,” Buehler said. “It’s been on the front page twice in the last three months, and I think people are well aware of the issues. I would think a good candidate would go the extra step and read the audits and see what the solutions are.”

McHenry County Board Chairman Michael Buehler

The position of regional superintendent is an elected one that will be up for reelection in 2022. Schermerhorn was appointed to the job in 2012 and ran uncontested in 2014 and 2018. County officials have said they want to find some stability with the next superintendent by identifying someone willing to run for the office.

State Sen. Craig Wilcox, R-McHenry, who is a former County Board member, is working to to make changes to state regulations that govern what qualifies a person to be regional superintendent.

“It has not been a very competitive position for elections, and it’s difficult to find people that are looking to do that position and meet all the qualifications,” Wilcox said.

The legislation still is conceptual, and Wilcox said he isn’t sure how much it will affect the 2022 election by the time it could become law.

He said his bill would try to better tailor the qualifications for the office to what regional superintendents do. It would include allowing people to have a superintendent endorsement or business endorsement on their educator’s license to attract candidates who are better equipped to manage office and financial operations.

Wilcox said his legislation is not entirely a response to problems at the McHenry County ROE, but “an acknowledgement that even when the current member had run, it was an unopposed position.”

Officials now hope they will be able to find the right kind of leadership to fix several years of problems and get the office back to working with schools.

“Unfortunately, the whole thing with Leslie and the County Board was a big distraction around here,” Freeman said. “I wish Leslie the best, but I think it’s good to look toward the future and rectify the things that need to be taken care of.”