First meeting impressions

Changes?#34;big and small?#34;are ahead for OP's elementary schools

Opinion

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By DREW CARTER

New Supt. Connie Collins isn't the only recent change at District 97. In two years, all six major administrative positions?#34;-from the business director to the person in charge of special education?#34;have changed. And a new board president was named in April along with two new board members.

This year, Collins and new curriculum chief Kevin Anderson replaced John Fagan and Mary Schneider?#34;-two people with approximately 50 years of experience in District 97 between them.

With big changes at the top, changes brought by state funding and a federal education law, and the regular march of time, Oak Park public schools will be different. And the district is changing during a crucial moment in its history: it is within a few years of having to ask voters for an operating referendum, the effort to reform school funding has never been stronger in Illinois, and who knows what's going to happen with No Child Left Behind.

Collins is a woman and an African American, two things that are very different from Fagan. But is she a different leader? Will she cause rifts, solve problems, be difficult or bring the district together? How will her leadership affect or fit into the board's leadership?

Everyone is going to be looking at her first few months, days and even hours to see what they can discover about just who is heading this district.

Last week was Collins' first official board meeting as superintendent and I have to say, I saw a change. The board did some things it hasn't done in the almost three years I've covered the district, changes big and small that I would mark as promising, if not downright positive.

Collins asked the board to add more than a dozen full- and part-time teachers and social workers. She asked the board before she had filled the positions. In the past, positions often came before the board only after people had been hired to fill them.

I had a college professor who would call that "the illusion of choice."

The board reviewed the proposal and decided, in light of a tight budget, not to give Collins all those jobs but trim a few?#34;a savings of about $55,000.

That's just good open government.

But even more interesting was how the board reached those decisions. They deliberated. And they amicably disagreed. In the recent past, that likely would not have happened. Differences of opinion between board members always seemed tense, as if a diversity of opinions represented a challenge to authority.

Last week, board members seemed comfortable in saying where they stood, arguing their points and then listening to others.

They were building consensus.

Wednesday night, board members decided against giving Hatch teacher Sandy Noel one day each week to set up a district-wide nutrition education program, much like what she is already doing at Hatch. Good idea, just not enough room in the budget this year. When board member Sharon Patchak-Layman suggested if outside money could be found for Noel's program, would that work? The board OK'd Patchak-Layman's proposal.

But it wasn't just the consensus stuff. There was also evidence of broader changes at Wednesday's meeting.

The district has agreed to look at the job it is doing, where it needs to go and to evaluate the programs it has in place. The district will conduct a strategic plan?#34;-the first in 15 years. It will also pay a company to review practices in its business and human resources offices.

At the end of the meeting, the board decided to bring back the town hall meetings they used to do, where they went to different schools and talked about the issues particular to each one.

New board President Carolyn Newberry Schwartz said it's intentional that the board will become more deliberative. "More information will be coming to the board than what we've had," she said. "It is my goal for the board to have the information to engage in debate."

One benefit to contrary opinions in discussions is that administrators hear a nuanced message, Newberry Schwartz said. In approving a second gifted education position for the district's two middle schools, board members were able to communicate their desires to, in the future, base their decisions on an evaluation of the gifted program.

Bob Spatz, who has observed the board the past dozen years and made unsuccessful bids for a seat on the board in 1999 and 2001, said it will take time to tell if the differences indicate improvements.

"It's absolutely different," he said. "Is it better or worse? It's too early to tell."

Some of the closer looks Collins and the board want to take are natural accompaniments to major personnel changes, Spatz said. "Once you have the hood open, there's the tendency to do as much as you can."

In its first meeting with Collins at the helm, the board spent at least six and a half hours together. Spatz, the director of operations for the Center for Research in Security Prices at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, said the board is in a philosophical summer mode he's seen at other educational institutions. Once school starts and the nearly 5,000 kids return, philosophical discussions will likely wane under the pressure of other business.

In other words, however the board is operating right now will be different once everyone settles in.

The district has identified some new priorities. In addition to ensuring a quality education at a fair price for taxpayers, new this year are a strategic plan, improving communications and clearly defining roles.

For now, the new guard is working in part with things left behind by the old guard. Until new priorities and new ideologies can be applied in a real-world way?#34;a process that will take six months to a year?#34;judgments should be on hold, Spatz said.

But he's talking about the big changes, which admittedly are more important in the long run. Weeks into Collins' tenure, all we have are the little changes.

At Wednesday's meeting Collins stood up, walked across the room and shook hands with every new teacher the board just officially hired. If Fagan put a personal touch on greeting new hires, he didn't do it in public.

When she reached the second row of young smiling faces, Collins leaned in to Lauren Kaunelis, a new Hatch teacher as well as a product of Oak Park public schools and Indiana University, and said, "I went to Indiana University."

It was just very friendly.

For now, that's enough to make me optimistic.

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