Jailed School Superintendent Denied Bail

Published November 1, 2005

Thomas Ryan, superintendent of Community Consolidated School District 168 in Sauk Village, Illinois, was charged August 23 with stealing more than $100,000 from one of Cook County’s poorest districts. He remained in jail at press time after being denied bail September 13 until his October 18 trial.

According to an August 24 Chicago Tribune article, investigators found $730,000 in cash in Ryan’s home. The state’s attorney charged him with several felonies, including bribery, harassing a witness, intimidation, obstruction of justice, and official misconduct. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Ryan, whose annual salary was $183,000, resigned as superintendent after the charges were brought. Of the $100,000 he allegedly stole, he reportedly spent $70,000 on college tuition for his three daughters, $2,000 on gifts for them, and $1,000 on hockey tickets.

New Claims Arise

Many colleagues and parents now say they saw patterns of abuse and wrongdoing early in Ryan’s 16-year tenure as superintendent. In particular, parents and some lawyers criticized Ryan’s “zero tolerance” discipline policy.

According to an August 24 news release from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), Ryan expelled a fourth-grader after the child failed to tell a teacher he found two box cutters in the lunch box he borrowed from his aunt, a factory worker, and suspended another child for bringing a water gun to school. He also took disciplinary action against homeless children who were unable to meet the schools’ dress code, the release said.

Sued Three Times

Ryan’s discipline policy wasn’t the only problem people had with him. Patricia Nix-Hodes, a senior attorney with the CCH Law Project, had her first run-in with Ryan five years ago over his treatment of homeless children attending schools in his district. After a family lost its housing during the school year, Ryan wouldn’t let the children return to class. By law, a child who starts the year in a school district is allowed to finish the year in that district, Nix-Hodes said.

District 168 is the only one in the county the CCH has sued three times. It won all three cases.

“We had issues with fee waivers,” Nix-Hodes said. “Families who were entitled to get fee waivers were denied fee waivers; and then because they hadn’t paid their fees the children were punished in some way–not being allowed to participate in graduation or go on field trips or go on other activities–all in violation of the law.”

“We in no way concede to the allegations,” Ryan’s attorney, Patrick Cotter, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted mob boss John Gotti, told the Daily Southtown, the Tinley Park, Illinois newspaper that investigated Ryan for a year before his indictment in late August after the charges were filed. But at Ryan’s court appearances, no school board members have stepped forward to support him.

Parents Had Many Complaints

Brenda Core, a Sauk Village resident whose four sons attended schools in the district, said she was glad to see Ryan leave.

“[Ryan and I] didn’t really see eye to eye on a whole lot of stuff that was going on in Sauk Village,” Core said. “I know I cussed him out on several occasions and told him where to go.”

Core compiled a litany of problems with the district, including not having access to book-fee waiver forms, broken promises on cap and gown refunds, and the school throwing away one of her son’s personal belongings from his locker without his permission at the end of the school year. She also pointed out the district “doesn’t have basketball for the boys.”

According to the Chicago Tribune‘s August 24 story, the district went without many other sports as well and had no music program.

Core said if she could have afforded it, she would have moved out of the district to send her children to better schools.

Now that Ryan is gone, the district is focused on cleaning up the mess he left behind. That could prove difficult, however, because many people in the district have no confidence in the school district’s board of directors. Former School Board President Louise Morales was indicted in July on charges including theft, but the rest of the board remains intact.

“There’s no way today that I’m going to take their apology for not being there and not doing what they should have done, because they knew. They knew [what Ryan was doing],” Core insisted. “How could they let this one man run all of them?”

Nix-Hodes said the board of directors was audited last year, and investigators discovered irregularities in Ryan’s accounting. However, the board seems to have ignored it. The state’s attorney’s office told The New York Times on August 25 witnesses said Ryan bullied subordinates into altering the documents. According to an August 24 Daily Southtown article, prosecutors said Ryan threatened to break witnesses’ legs as investigators closed in.

Board Members Under Fire

Many concerned residents in the district are looking at the options available to remove the remaining board members.

“There’s sort of an issue,” Nix-Hodes said, “of should they even be acting as board members [now that we know] all of this was happening?”

The three remaining board members who served under Ryan refused to step down from their posts at a September 22 meeting, asking parents to give them another chance.

Greg McConnell ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Palatine, Illinois.

For more information …

For more information on fraud and corruption in Illinois government, see “Ill. Governor Implicated in Pension Probe,” Budget & Tax News, October 2005, http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=17820.