All concerned agreed at least on one thing about Trustee Steve Hoke’s criticisms of the District 200 high school board at the Nov. 10 village board meeting.
It was unprecedented.
Those comments have in turn triggered an unprecedented debate that may not end before next spring’s village election.
On Nov. 10, Hoke criticized both the Dist. 200 school board and previous village boards’ fiscal responsibility and willingness to make tough decisions, as well as the financial condition of the River Forest Town Center shopping mall. Noting a recent Chicago Tribune article ranking area high schools, he pointed out that OPRF was no longer on the list.
Village President Frank Paris said Monday he can’t recall any trustee ever publicly criticizing another governmental entity. “I never have seen this-under four different village presidents,” Paris added, accusing Hoke of being intentionally disruptive, even damaging to the village’s best interests.
“Nothing even close,” retorted Paris’ longtime adversary, activist George Parry, a Hoke supporter, when asked if there had ever been comments like Hoke’s.
Paul Zimbrakos, a retired Chicago journalist and River Forest resident, said he couldn’t recall such openly critical comments. He called the Tribune’s high school ratings “the foundation of Hoke’s comments,” and noted that the school board members who spoke did not mention those ratings. Zimbrakos characterized the public comment session as calculated political maneuvering, saying, “All those guys are Rigas guys. It was preconceived to hammer Hoke.”
And hammer they did. For 45 minutes at the Nov. 24 board meeting, Hoke endured a tongue-lashing by nine outraged individuals, as well as members of his own board. The speakers, including three current District 200 school board members, all used the term “offensive” to describe his comments.
Former Dist. 200 board member Paul Wolfson accused Hoke of using “McCarthy-like tactics.” John O’Conner, who said criticism of village partners is “detrimental to our future,” called Hoke’s comments “inappropriate and embarrassing to River Forest.”
“Your entire rant is a political hatchet job, and nothing more,” he said.
Several speakers ripped Hoke for his use of the term “back-door referendum.” Current Dist. 200 President Jacques Conway said the high school district merely did what “40 other districts did last year, which is phasing in tax hikes allowed under referendum.
“This was no backdoor referendum,” he said.
“It’s hard for us to surprise people when we have public meetings,” said Dist. 200 board member John Allen. He also refuted Hoke’s contention that the school board got nothing in return for the 5-year contract it inked with teachers in 2006. The school, he said, got significant concessions from teachers, including a longer work days, reduced retirement and health care costs, improving test scores and more teacher interaction with students that he said has led to reduced disciplinary problems.
Several of Hoke’s board colleagues also clearly disagreed with him. Pat O’Brien called OPRF “definitely on the upswing,” and a “tremendous, tremendous success.” Susan Conti, who has also chafed at Hoke and Trustee Steve Dudek’s contention that River Forest is in serious financial difficulty, wondered aloud “if I’m living in the same town as some of my fellow trustees.”
“It comes across very negative,” she elaborated on Monday, “that we’re having dire problems,” she said. “I don’t live in that town. I live in a town with quality schools and quality citizens who work together cooperatively and solve problems.”
Past Dist. 200 board president and current village president candidate John Rigas was in the audience Nov. 24 but didn’t speak. He responded Tuesday.
“I’ve never seen it happen,” Rigas said of Hoke’s criticisms. “I’m not sure why he wouldn’t take this up with the Dist. 200 board.”
Like Conway and Allen, Rigas, who formerly served as a village trustee, dismissed the term “back-door referendum,” saying the process is called a “phase-in,” something the Dist. 200 board had debated for three months.
“It was clearly discussed at the board level,” he said.
Hoke remained unapologetic during his response to his critics. “Mission accomplished,” he began. Saying that he intentionally touched what he termed “River Forest’s third rail,” i.e. criticism of the high school’s performance, Hoke said it was “fully his intention to have this debate.”
“These are elements of the discussion I’ve had with Frank Paris 20 times in the past year,” he said. “There’s a lot of discussion around town behind closed doors. If we don’t talk about it, it won’t change.”
He pointed to those who’d just criticized him as emblematic of the village’s problem. “The fact that you get shouted down if you bring these things up is indicative of what’s wrong here,” he said.
Hoke also sought to contrast the high school with other local school districts. He complimented District 90’s overall management, and called Oak Park’s District 97 board “a model” of fiscal responsibility, saying, “They did everything they possibly could before raising property taxes.”
Hoke, who said he chose to move to Oak Park over Evanston 20 years ago because of their respective high schools, quoted a recent Chicago Tribune article that listed the top 50 high schools in Illinois. OPRF, he said, was not among them.
“We always consistently outperformed Evanston. Now I see we’re falling behind them, and I wonder why,” he said. “If there’s nothing else I’m going to do, we’re going to talk about [that].”
Rigas said Tuesday he was surprised at Hoke’s response. “It got even deeper,” he said. “He went even further.”
Hoke said he intends to go further still, and would gladly take his concerns before the Dist. 200 board-“the sooner the better.”
“Whenever they want me to come I’ll be there,” he said. “I’d love to have the debate and I accept the invitation.”