The voters have spoken. So what did they say? First and foremost, they were saying (the many, many more who didn’t vote than did) that the majority of Oak Park and River Forest adults don’t care about local government. That’s depressing but a fact of life. They may well appreciate this bedroom community of theirs and have no idea, really, why it’s so nice. One of the reasons it’s so nice, of course, is all the people who do vote–not that the former would ever think to thank the latter.

But what were the people saying who did vote? For the Oak Park village board, the results seemed to be about progress over preservation. Sorry to oversimplify, but this is a column, not an Atlantic Monthly think piece.

In the last two years, the preservationists/mutineers didn’t make enough progress, so the electorate was more than willing to give the VMA/establishment another shot. It also helped that the VMA had the strongest candidates and seem to have learned a little humility in the last two years.

But if you count the votes for progress and compare them to the votes for preservation (the two other slates combined), the electorate remains pretty evenly split. This new board’s challenge is to make progress on downtown development in the next two years, but if they do so with no regard to preservation, they’ll likely face a reunited and resurgent insurgency in 2009.

In the meantime, it’s the preservationists’ turn to learn the hard lessons. The most important is that being against progress is not the same as being for preservation. Preservationists chose their battles badly. The Colt Building was the wrong place to put up the barricades. They should have calculated the prohibitive costs and started fighting earlier for the mall and Westgate.

Progress downtown means we’re going to lose some buildings. Instead of putting every single structure on the “save” list, preservationists need to put together a real list – a selective list – and fight only for those buildings genuinely worth saving. They won’t win every battle, but they will earn credibility, which, at the moment, is extremely low.

Downtown needs to be dramatically transformed. Preservationists can still have a say in how that happens, but they need to establish credibility. To do that, the VCA in particular needs to cut out the conspiracy thinking.

Thus far in Oak Park, it’s been Progress or Preservation. What we need is Progress and Preservation.

As for the high school, the voters sent a very clear message: The status quo is no longer good enough. School board members (and this applies to District 97 as well) need to be more than an extension of the Huskie Boosters Club. The board does not represent the administration, staff and students exclusively. They also represent the taxpayers. The District 200 board learned that lesson in the mid-1990s when the community voted down a referendum. The current board has forgotten the lesson.

These communities have been giving generously to Dist. 200 for a decade now, and at the very least they expect some respect. The OPRF High School community, however, has a bad case of “holier than thou/we can do no wrong” – a mentality that frequently afflicts school communities. OPRF continues to be an excellent school for the elite – mostly white, relatively affluent. It is not as good a school for the underachievers – white, black or otherwise. And there seems to be no stomach for taking on that challenge.

To do its job properly, the board needs to ask the new superintendent on a regular basis, “What progress is being made on reducing the achievement gap?” No one expects it to be resolved in two or even four years, but we do expect to see some progress – measurable progress. The board, as our representatives, needs to convey that expectation clearly. Taxpayers have a right to see progress because we’ve been more than generous with this institution.

When the board forgets, the voters need to deliver a wake-up call, which is what just happened.

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