By Megan Dooley
Amidst a passionate outcry from River Forest parents about proposed legislation that, if passed, could force consolidation of certain school districts, state Senator Don Harmon has assured the District 90 Board of Education that the bill has been tabled and issued a public statement saying that the River Forest school district would likely not be affected by such legislation. But Superintendent Thomas Hagerman said parents should continue to communicate with state representatives that the village is strongly opposed to forced consolidation.
"No legislative proposal is positioned for final approval, and I would be surprised if any measure were to advance quickly. Past school consolidation proposals have been controversial, and I would expect any present proposal to be well vetted before being called for a vote," wrote Harmon in the statement posted on his website (donharmon.org) and dated March 1.
"While school consolidation [initiatives] will likely be debated at some length this session, I am confident in assuring you that District 90 is not a particular target," he wrote.
The bills, which were scheduled for hearings last Wednesday, were not called.
At a Dist. 90 school board meeting last Tuesday, board President Juliann Geldner relayed a message from Harmon that any upcoming bills would focus on voluntary consolidation as opposed to forced consolidation.
But Hagerman said this week that village residents should keep an eye on the issue anyway. "I think it's important that the community continues to monitor this, stay involved and be sure they're sharing with their representatives, their senators, their concerns about doing any sort of a forced consolidation because there seems to be a lot of momentum behind these fairly large-scale changes being made right now," he said. "My understanding around that [is] there are going to be clear parameters for no forced consolidations."
At last week's board of education meeting, a Dist. 90 parent spoke in opposition to the proposed legislation. "We are brand new to River Forest. Like many others, we came here for the school," the parent said, adding that she and her family have not been disappointed.
Despite reassurances that the bills have been tabled, the parent said she's still concerned about the proposed legislation and "the manner in which they limit stakeholder input." Her list of concerns included cuts to salaries, changing property values, and a strained school system overall. "Schools that are now high performing in the state might decline. ... Our children would suffer while all this was being negotiated," she said.
The Senate bill in question, if passed, would require the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to conduct studies to determine the costs, benefits and feasibility of consolidating school districts within the same geographic region. The ISBE would then recommend districts for consolidation. A similar House bill calls for the creation of a commission charged with determining optimal candidates for consolidation and increased enrollment across the state.
"My colleagues and I understand that school consolidation is a sensitive issue, one that may make a great deal of sense in some circumstances and may make very little sense in others," Harmon wrote.
At the Dist. 90 school board meeting, the parent placed River Forest firmly in the latter group. "I speak on behalf of many parents in the community when I say we support the district," she said. "This Robin Hood plan is half-baked and threatens the very keystone of our community, our exceptional schools. ... Let us know how we can help preserve our district."
"I think we all need to be kind of vigilant, keeping an eye on the process," said Hagerman this week. "I think some of the bills have been shelved, but again, I would be cautious about saying it's a foregone conclusion at this point."