Support Letter from Holly Hutto

From: Holly Hutto 
Date: Sun, Jul 10, 2022 at 5:14 PM

As the mother of a Waters graduate I want to speak on behalf of Mr. Leki and the garden that he has put his heart and soul into creating. Asking Mr. Leki to do the same job he has been doing for a 30% pay cut is a slap in the face. I know there are those out there arguing that it is not a pay cut because he wasn’t paid through CPS before, but that is an argument of semantics. However you want to phrase it, he is being asked to do the same job for less money. I do not think any person out there, if put in the same situation, would not feel undervalued and unappreciated. Many would seek employment elsewhere. We do not want to lose Mr. Leki. We want him to continue helping the garden and ecology program thrive and to be able to train someone to take over the reins when he chooses it is time. 

I know I speak for many families when I say that the garden was one of the main reasons why we chose to go to Waters. It is a school treasure, a community treasure, and a model for garden projects throughout the city. It is truly a one-of-a-kind program that has brought positive attention to Waters and helped the school to grow. Even though other schools may have gardens, they do not compare to the Waters garden and ecology program. They are smaller, more restricted in scope, and are often unattended during the summer, with plants left to wilt and die. Some of my daughter’s fondest memories of Waters are her trips to Sauganash and times spent in the garden. Although now 21, she still has her Mighty Acorns journal. A previous tomato and potato hater, the garden taught her a love of the vegetables coming from the earth – plucked fresh off the vine or dug out from the dirt and roasted. It taught her countless valuable, if unmeasurable, lessons—lessons that more of us need. 

I attended the garden gathering on Saturday and feel that the Principal and former LSC representative did not make their case to those in attendance. As number pushers, they are trying to make the ecology program fit into the previously established CPS boxes, without taking into account that the program is unique and does not fully fit into any of those boxes. The principal kept comparing Mr. Leki’s pay rate with what is paid to nonprofit vendors that offer services in the school – although those vendors work in many schools, often have other programs as well, and are usually supported by their own fundraising outside of the school. They kept saying that it isn’t fair to other teachers when Mr. Leki’s teaching hours are not equal to a full-time position, without acknowledging that the ecology program is much more than the “established” teaching hours. Much teaching happens after hours, when students come to the garden with their families and Mr. Leki tells them about the plants and animals that they see. In my daughter’s years at Waters, we were treated to an up-close view of a young deer in the garden, and a hawk that spent a day in the garden eating a rabbit that it caught. During a partial eclipse, Mr. Leki was there with the tools needed to help the children watch it and to tell them about it. Families and children were invited to help work on the garden and the natural areas by the river. Very little of this teaching time was taken into account, because it doesn’t fit within the box.  

Also, they failed to account for the many, many, many hours of work Mr. Leki puts into stewardship and maintaining the garden. Yes, all teachers work hard and put in extra hours and money and I have nothing but respect for all of their hard work. But, the principal and LSC are trying to say that Mr. Leki only works part-time, when he works more than full-time hours, year-round—including summer. The amount of work that it takes to maintain the garden – the most important part of the ecology program, because without the garden, the ecology program would be a shadow of what it is – is itself a full-time job. I used to live just a few doors down from the garden, and I would see Mr. Leki there all the time maintaining the garden. I understand that these hours may not count as teaching time, so let’s find another CPS box to put them in—grounds maintenance—or something better that recognizes the skilled work of a professional certified in stewardship. In fact, as Mr. Leki pointed out, the only reason that Waters’ students are able to go to Sauganash and join in stewardship work year after year after year is because he is a certified steward with the Forest Preserve.  

My daughter started at Waters when Waters Today was just formed. They were formed to help fund the garden (knowing that the garden was the biggest draw to help them bring local students to the school) and other programs that did not fit in the school’s budget but that parents felt were important additions to the school. It was the parents’ vehicle to bring money in support of experiences they felt were important for the children. Now, I hear, Waters Today has lost a voice in how the money they raise gets spent. I don’t know or really understand the history behind how or why that decision was made. The discussion at the meeting didn’t really clarify it for me. I did hear someone say that that’s how fundraising arms of schools work – the money is turned over to the school to be spent as the school sees fit. I don’t agree with that, unless CPS has decided they have some control over money that donors thought was earmarked for specific programs. I do know that I’ve seen plenty of school fundraisers raising money for specific programs. I also know that donors to nonprofit organizations can designate their donations for specific programs. It appears that the school has determined otherwise, though. I’m wondering though, can Waters Today act as a fiscal agent for the entity Mr. Leki had to create for the ecology program, so that money can be raised for ecology—for that entity—but handled through Waters Today? That would require setting up a separate account for that entity so that all donations made for ecology would be deposited there.  

At the meeting, the Principal thought the best solution would be to create another nonprofit for the ecology program, with a mission that is broader than just Waters School. Many people voiced concerns about that solution, because Waters Today was initially set up to raise money for the ecology program and other programs outside the school budget. There was concern that they would again go through all the expense and effort and wind up in the same situation, with the LSC and school taking over control of the money.  I agree with these concerns. Possibly, if the mission does not mention Waters School, this can be avoided—but, the organization would have to be very careful about who they let on the board. I’ve seen many nonprofits that, due to the personal interests of the board members, have lost their way and rejected their founders and mission. It is a real possibility that the same thing could happen. It is also a possibility that animosity will grow if the LSC feels that this nonprofit it taking away donations from the school because those who were donating to Waters Today primarily to fund the garden may now send their donations to the new nonprofit.  

As I mentioned above, I feel the best solution is to fund part of Mr. Leki’s work through the teacher metric that was used, but to fund his other work through a different CPS budget category—without cutting his pay—and let Mr. Leki continue his beautiful efforts and work towards training others to continue the legacy in the future.  

I am hoping the school does the right thing to ensure ALL of Mr. Leki’s work is recognized and compensated so that the Waters Garden and ecology program can continue to bring education, beauty, stewardship, peace, and joy to the students, school, community, and city for many years to come.


Holly Hutto
mother of Waters graduate, class of 2015