Six out of the seven candidates running for four seats on the District 200 Board of Education met in a friendly and collegial candidates’ forum for almost two hours Thursday night before an audience of about 20 voters at the Buzz Café. Last Tuesday, the same group of contenders appeared at a forum sponsored by parent group APPLE (African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education). The Buzz Cafe, 905 S. Lombard, is hosting a series on forums for candidates of all the local races in the April 7 election.

Dist. 200 incumbent Dietra Millard missed both forums because of a family obligation, but a supporter of hers read a prepared statement supporting her. The only other incumbent running for re-election is school board President Jacques Conway. Incumbents John Rigas and Val Fisher chose not to run. Rigas is running River Forest village president.

The new candidates are George Bailey, a Columbia College professor; Terry Finnegan, an OPRF volunteer with a background in finance; Vic Guarino, an engineer at Argonne National Laboratory and an 1983 graduate of OPRF; Rosa Higgs, a retired special education teacher and a specialist in phonics; and Amy Leafe McCormack, a former lawyer who runs a legal staffing and placement firm.

Each candidate delivered an opening statement and then the group took questions from the audience. The candidates covered the same range of topics at both forums last week, including the achievement gap between black and white students at Oak Park and River Forest High School. It was among the first questions at both events and stimulated a long discussion. Conway proposed creating a school within a school for at-risk students.

“I think we should have an academy within the school,” Conway said. “Have the teachers stay with them for four years.”

Higgs maintained that reading is the key to learning and that phonics should be used to teach struggling readers, even at the high school level.

“We all know phonics works. Then why do we prohibit teaching it at the high school?” she asked. “Teach them to read. … They don’t do well in math because they can’t read. They don’t do well in social studies because they can’t read.”

Finnegan added that it’s vital to get parents involved.

“Without the family and parents involved we’re not going to solve this problem,” said Finnegan, who also touted co-curricular activity involvement that keep kids connected with the school.

He suggested bringing in community members to lead and sponsor different activities. “I’d like to explore the possibility of bringing in people from the community with their special gifts and passions,” Finnegan said.

Bailey said there are no easy answers to the achievement gap, but that the issue must be faced head on. “I think there is no one plan,” he said. “It’s very complicated. You need a multiplicity of approaches.”

Guarino agreed saying, “There is no silver bullet to this problem.”

The issue of outsourcing janitorial work at OPRF also came up at both forums. The school board is scheduled to vote on whether to outsource custodial work later this month.

“I’m not for outsourcing,” said Conway, though he noted with tax caps limiting district revenues in the future, the union representing the custodians must show some flexibility in negotiations.

Guarino came out unequivocally against outsourcing, insisting it should be taken off the table. Finnegan added, “I don’t think any of us are in favor of the outsourcing. However, it has to balance against the real fiscal stewardship the board has to look at and, again, having partners who will come to the table and negotiate in good faith.”

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