Simply, we cannot recall an election where there are so many outstanding candidates as this spring in the race for the school board at Oak Park and River Forest High School. There are four seats open — a majority. There are six candidates we could endorse enthusiastically. And there are another three candidates we think of very highly.
OPRF is the most critical institution in our communities at this juncture. With a strategic plan in the making, a teachers contract a year away, a building infrastructure draft circulating, a superintendent coming into his own after two years, a new financial leader to be hired, oversized cash reserves banked, a focus on early childhood education backed, and a racial achievement gap that frustrates, the choices our villages make in this election are key to District 200's future.
Our choices after interviewing 11 of the 13 candidates for the school board are Jackie Moore, Jeff Weissglass, Tom Cofsky and Melanie MacQueen. Individually and collectively we believe this group will provide the school board with a broad range of talent and perspective that will strengthen OPRF.
Jackie Moore has been an active citizen volunteer in our schools for many years. She worked on the District 97 strategic plan, Oak Park's diversity task force, the rejuvenation of the high school's PTO, the board of the Collaboration for Early Childhood. With her background as a developmental psychologist, she has volunteered at Sarah's Inn and Thrive Counseling Center. While Moore celebrates OPRF's accomplishments, she is straightforward in laying out challenges ahead: higher and broader academic expectations, stronger efforts to involve more parents as advocates for their children, recognition that longevity is not the only measure of faculty success. Moore is a clear-headed realist with a fundamentally positive approach. She has the potential to be an exceptional member of this school board.
Jeff Weissglass, like Moore, served on the board of the Collaboration and brings an adult life focused on matters of educational and cultural equity. A lawyer and consultant to nonprofits, he has watched the current D200 board with some concern. He sees a lack of cohesion, an erosion of community trust, owing to the financial reserves and last year's TIF lawsuit. He sees opportunities to regain that trust and urges the school board to listen better to a wider group of people. "They talk too much to themselves," he notes. Weissglass will bring needed financial experience to a board light on that skill set, too. As have others, he sees the D97 school board as a positive model of inclusion; slow, steady progress; and effective collaboration with other local governments. Weissglass will be a bright and steady presence on this board.
Tom Cofsky is a business person who understands that education is not the same as running a corporation — except when it is. And it's like a corporation when you set long-term goals, create a plan to get there, involve a lot of different people in making the plan, value the opinions of the people you are working with, make adjustments along the way and recognize the complexity of the endeavor. A member of the high school's Financial Advisory Leadership Team for two years, he has a wide understanding of the school's budget and a critical eye on the challenges of its future finances. Cofsky, though, is so much broader in his view of the high school than just seeing it through a finance lens. He is perceptive on race and the gap, on ways to create an atmosphere for learning, on how to engage faculty and the community more fully. Cofsky is a new face to us and we admire his approach.
Melanie MacQueen is the mostly unheralded choice in our slate of endorsed candidates. She is an active school parent and volunteer who understands the essential nature of the connection between home and school. She knows from her experience and that of parents she represents that the connection is frayed at OPRF — particularly, though not exclusively, between the school and African-American parents. "I love my parents," she says. "My being on the board will give a voice to parents and the community." We agree and we find that voice to be fair and clear and smart and honest. Over time, MacQueen will sharpen her school budget skills. But on day one she will be able to explain why a black mom is not comfortable in the halls of OPRF, advocating for her child with a teacher, and why closing the achievement gap won't be possible until we close the parent gap.
Those are our choices. But you won't go wrong voting for Terry Finnegan, the lone incumbent on the board. Finnegan has done strong work on a tough board during challenging times. And if he weren't so darned ambivalent about making this race we'd endorse him. For his part, Finnegan seems content to serve out his term and then depart if he is confident that capable, talented people will follow him. Given the roster of candidates we are confident he will be replaced by a person of equal talent and greater energy.
In a typical year — one with fewer great candidates — we would also happily endorse Eric Davis. Currently an Oak Park Township trustee, Davis has proven that he can be both a change agent and a collegial presence on an elected board. That is no mean trick. He has a good knowledge of the school, earned through the township's vital support of the Township Youth Interventionist program and his own participation in OPRF's infrastructure planning committee. An architect by trade, Davis brings creative thinking to problem-solving situations.
In our second tier are three candidates we wouldn't endorse but whom we admire.
Steven Gevinson is a career educator who spent decades in vital posts at OPRF as a teacher, division chair and union leader. He is dedicated to this school but has an outlook that we simply disagree with. Gevinson would, in our opinion, look backward to a time when the faculty was ascendant, the administration was hamstrung and the school board was tippling the "Those Things That Are Best" Kool-Aid. He believes the current administration is too large and too powerful while we believe it has just retaken leadership of the school. OPRF is poised to accomplish great things on many fronts. As much as we admire and respect Gevinson, this is not the time to turn back.
Julie MacCarthy and Steven Nations are bright and capable candidates who are running this race for the right reasons. Neither brings the body of experience that puts them in league with those we have chosen to endorse. We would welcome their future participation in high school endeavors.
Also not endorsed are John Bokum, a kind and sincere OPRF board follower, David Perkovich, a decent if somewhat eccentric educator and acting coach or Beatrice Fung, a long time Oak Parker legitimately frustrated by the school's December choice to hike its tax levy.
Finally we come to Barb Langer. Langer did not accept our multiple invitations to sit for endorsement interviews and under our process that would simply disqualify her from our consideration. However, keep your eye, your jaundiced eye, on Barb Langer. While this newspaper has been raising enormous concern over the giant-sized financial reserve at OPRF for several years, we have no patience for single-issue, anti-tax crusaders like Langer. Beware.