By Terry Dean
River Forest native John Phelan was elected president of the District 200 Board of Education earlier this month. It was a unanimous vote by his six colleagues on the board that governs Oak Park and River Forest High School. Phelan is a 1983 OPRF graduate and a student athlete in football and wrestling. He did his undergraduate studies in industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. After working for labor unions in New York for a few years, Phelan went to law school at DePaul University. He's spent the last 10 years as general counselor for AT&T.
Phelan sat down recently with Wednesday Journal to discuss some of his plans for the D200 board.
As vice president on the previous board, were you looking to move up as president?
Phelan: "There was some talk about being president and I'm willing to step up and help in whatever way I can. In this particular context, there were a lot of people who thought I should take it and I was more willing. It's isn't something that I aspired to. I seem to be the right fit in terms of the candidates that were there. We got four new great board members and yet they don't have a lot of experience. And so, if for a period of time I can set an agenda, run a meeting and help organize it, I'm glad to help out wherever I can."
The board's plate is pretty full, but what are some specific things you're looking to accomplish as president?
Phelan: "Obviously the strategic plan is a big thing because there's been a lot of citizens and staff, and administrator and faculty hours put in. And ultimately we are the district who our public wants us to be. So the amount of public involvement is important to educate us. I was glad that Supt. (Steven) Isoye stepped up and strongly encouraged us all to put together a strategic plan, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what the outcome is. We're hoping to get a good feel for it in June. If they are done in June, great; but if they're not done at least we should get a pretty good peak under the curtain of what it should look like.
What's expected of the recently-commissioned financial advisory board committee?
Phelan: "I think that's going to be an important committee over the coming years because one of the things we need to do as a district is analyze our fund balance. But that's the easy question. That's the one that everyone keeps screaming out the answer to. The other question is: if that's not the right fund balance, what is the right fund balance. And then the final question is: how do we get there in a way that sets a plan for the district to come in at a soft landing when the next referendum happens?
The school and board have been criticized over the years for its poor communication. Has that improved?
Phelan: "I do hope it's improving. I do think there will always be criticism, partly because it's a diverse community and everybody has an opinion. But I do think if we explained ourselves better, at least everyone's opinions could be a little bit more educated. I think our efforts have stepped up to try and communicate better. I know the new email that we put out seems to do a much better job of helping us as parents understand what's going on. I hope we use our website more effectively in terms of communicating things. One of the questions that's going to come up with our financial advisory committee is how do we communicate what it is that's going on at meetings effectively to the public.
But I think communication with the public needs to start with better governance and communication amongst the board. And over the first couple of months we need to get some people on their feet in terms of chairing committees and recognizing issues and feeling comfortable with the debates that are going on. But I think that will happen fairly quickly."
D200 meetings tend to run long. How can they be shortened to a more reasonable time?
Phelan: My hope is that we find a way so that meetings don't go until midnight so we're not making important decisions about our public's finances and about people's lives after 10 o'clock at night. I think there's ways to do it. That's one of the other areas I think we really need to focus on over the coming year. I'm not going to take anything off the table in terms of options. There's the option that committees don't always have to meet together on the same night. Maybe there's a balance there; maybe committees don't have to meet on the same night. I think we really elected a lot of smart people and I'm going to throw out some ideas.
Should D200 meetings be broadcast?
Phelan: "There's a lot of different ideas. One of them is if meetings didn't all have to be committees of the whole. If we trusted each other to have smaller committees handle business and make recommendations to the board, then we might be able to let the chairs hold their committees when they wanted to, and that could be during the day when it's efficient for employees of the district. But if we did broadcast them, we could hold the meetings during the day and broadcast them at a time that's convenient for the public and that could be the best of both worlds."