By Terry Dean
Oak Park's Buzz Café was the site, March 3, of the first public forum for candidates running for the District 200 school board.
All six candidates, including incumbents, were in attendance last Thursday, along with about 30 audience members. Buzz Café owner Laura Maychruk moderated the roughly two-hour forum. Candidates in attendance were incumbents John Allen, Ralph Lee and Sharon Patchak-Layman, along with hopefuls John Phelan, John Bokum and Margaret Lattner Skiver.
Questions came from the audience, written on cue cards and read by Maychruk. Topics included student substance use at Oak Park and River Forest High School and the achievement gap.
A couple of questions were directed at incumbents, one dealing with "dysfunction" on the board the last four years. The three board members—all of whom are running for a second term—answered the question.
Lee rejected the dysfunction claim outright, insisting that the board may have had strong disagreements but were able to work through them.
Allen rattled off a list of accomplishments in the last four years, including hiring a new superintendent and several division heads, and launching an internal review process of how the school functions. Allen himself pushed the school and board to pursue the latter. Patchak-Layman maintained that members don't always see eye to eye but are all working toward the common goal of helping kids succeed.
All of the candidates weighed in on the topic of drug use among students at OPRF. Phelan, a labor attorney and River Forest resident, argued against using solely punitive measures to address the problem. Instead, he said the school should try to help those kids get treatment. Bokum, an Oak Park resident, mentioned cell phones and how those are used by some students to buy and distribute drugs. He talked about looking into the school's cell phone policy to address that. Currently, cell phone use among students is banned in the building and the devices are required to remain in lockers, bags or out of sight on their person.
Skiver, a former private school teacher in River Forest who is currently working in the information technology field, acknowledged that drug use among teens is a complex issue. She said kids and their families need support.
One questioner asked what the high school is currently doing to address the drug and alcohol issue.
Lee first gave credit to the members of the Citizens Council for launching a community-wide, anti-drug campaign last year that's continued into this year. Lee said the administration is currently discussing ideas and solutions to the problem.