By Terry Dean
It'll be another month before the Collaboration for Early Childhood finds out if Oak Park and River Forest High School is on board with partially funding its proposed supportive care system for at-risk kids.
The OPRF school board heard the Collaboration's best pitch at the board's Jan. 24 regular meeting. Collaboration members and supporters, led by Executive Director Carolyn Newberry-Schwartz, attended the meeting. A 90-minute presentation of their initiative, and public comments in support of it, highlighted the early part of the meeting. Board questions and comments followed.
The Collaboration's support system is a wide-range of services it hopes to improve and streamline by its 2015 target implementation date.
Improved early childhood developmental screening, as well as training and development for child care providers are among the goals. More coordinated outreach to parents of at-risk children and linking those families with needed services are two other components.
The idea, explained Newberry-Schwartz, is to better integrate all of these services and connect families to them. Creating a database of those children, which could then be shared with the grammar schools and the high school is another key component, Newberry-Schwartz explained.
The Collaboration has received $115,000 in start-up funds from the village of Oak Park. Elementary School District 97 has agreed to commit $248,000 toward the initiative. The high school is being asked to contribute roughly $216,000. The village of River Forest and Elementary Schools District 90 was initially asked to participate but declined, Newberry-Schwartz said.
The OPRF school board last week didn't shoot down the funding request but didn't give it a ringing endorsement either.
And though not stated directly, board and Collaboration members acknowledged some bad feelings stemming from the divisive, and lengthy, legal battle over the TIF agreement between OPRF and village hall from two years ago.
Newberry-Schwartz, a former D97 school board president who helped draft that initial TIF agreement, addressed those concerns last week.
"I know that was a concern. I share it," she said. "I think the whole group is sensitive to that, and there is a strong commitment to wanting to make sure we've learned from the past. We see this as being very different."
The OPRF board is scheduled to take action on the funding request at their Feb. 28 regular meeting. At their session last Thursday, board members expressed support for the Collaboration, generally, and for the supportive system "concept." But some OPRF members had specific questions and concerns about the high school's participation.
Representatives from the Collaboration, village and two school districts have been meeting for several months to discuss the initiative. The talks have been cordial, but high school board members have had many questions, some of which resurfaced last Thursday.
The Collaboration hopes to sign an intergovernmental agreement with the three taxing bodies. Some OPRF board members, however, questioned the legality of having the high school enter into one.
Another concern, expressed by board member Sharon Patchak-Layman, involved the scope of the supportive-care system and the high school's role in it. She said it was unclear to her what that role is expected to be. She also noted that the high school already funds early childhood programs for the children of students and staff. Patchak-Layman wondered if the school's funds would be better served funding a specific effort in the Collaboration's initiative.
But OPRF board member John Phelan was less concerned about the legal and funding questions. Phelan insisted that this is a worthwhile effort and the school should participate in it. The school, he added, should not miss this "window of opportunity" to support the initiative.
A question was raised about D90's role in funding the initiative. Newberry-Schwartz said the Collaboration currently serves River Forest children as well as those in Oak Park. As for their initiative, she said D90 and village trustees were invited to participate four years ago but they declined, saying they had no major concerns about early childhood services in their village.
OPRF board member Amy McCormack, who is a River Forest resident, encouraged the Collaboration to again reach out to the village. Newberry-Schwartz said they would.
This "ramp-up" phase, she added, is expected to take three years.
Funding for the first year would come from the two Oak Park school districts and the village. In subsequent years, the Collaboration will have to seek funding from both public entities and private sources. Public funding, according to the Collaboration, would be a proportional, based on the taxing bodies' operating budgets.
In order to keep ongoing costs under control, funding in future years will likely be tied to state tax cap laws that school districts must follow.
Officials from the village and D97, as well as several OPRF school board candidates, attended and spoke at last week's meeting. All 12 speakers expressed support for the Collaboration's initiative and urged the high school to fund it.
In related news, the D97 board approved a resolution at its Jan. 22 regular meeting directing their superintendent to develop an intergovernmental agreement with the Collaboration and to move forward with allocating the funds.