Eight years is a long time to be a school board member. It is a lot of long, evening meetings. A raft of tough budgets. A lot of ways to annoy and offend the casual friends and acquaintances who formed the network that got you elected – twice.
Last week, I sat down with Carolyn Newberry Schwartz, now a month removed from her two terms on the District 97 Oak Park elementary school board. The elementary schools have been blessed, mostly, with a long line of board members who have checked their egos and focused on what our kids need to succeed. I haven’t always agreed with their choices on contract settlements, the physical massing of the middle schools, the intensity, or the innovativeness, of their collective response to the achievement gap.
On the other hand, I’d never run for the office, knowing full well how complex and interrelated the challenges are, and having a vague sense of how grumpy the local newspaper can be when, for instance, your building and grounds man, allegedly, decamps with a pile of cash.
Newberry Schwartz has always impressed me, though, for her ability to defend her institution without ever, over eight years, becoming defensive in doing so. She always saw the flaws in District 97 and was willing to acknowledge them, even as she spoke with enthusiasm about the next effort to fix a problem.
That’s pretty rare in my experience. And admirable.
In our closing interview, and she makes clear she won’t be running for any political office again, Newberry Schwartz talked plainly about the necessary but painful processes of continually shaving district spending. “These budgets hadn’t been scrubbed,” she said. She pointed to spending differentials between the elementary buildings that had to be leveled, repeated cutbacks in administrative spending. “The (budget) hole opened up in 2002,” she said. “We couldn’t run a referendum large enough to cover it. It was clear we were out of whack.”
While she emphasizes that the way forward for overtaxed Oak Parkers is to have local governments work cooperatively to hold spending – think shared health insurance – she also doesn’t shy from criticizing the high school for jumping the line a few years back with their property tax “phase-in.” That was the dubious maneuver that has pumped up District 200’s cash reserves without a vote from taxpayers.
“One doesn’t become overly strong while another becomes weak,” she said, referring to taxing bodies. “Their decision on the phase-in threatened District 97’s financial position.”
Successes she points to include a new strategic plan after going about 15 years without an update, improved and more frequent tools for measuring an individual student’s progress, better communication among the three local school districts, and the nurturing of the Collaboration for Early Childhood Education as an umbrella to improve preschool programs across the village. Newberry Schwartz also believes progress is being made on the achievement gap.
Looking ahead, she says the district needs to find new money through an inevitable tax referendum. And she points up the dramatic transition a year away when 40-plus teachers will retire just before the state’s early retirement incentives expire. “How we recruit and get a new mix of teachers” will be critical, she says.
You’d have to be an optimist to run for a school board, and Newberry Schwartz cops to that trait. “I got a tremendous amount out of this. I worked with so many talented people, so dedicated to the schools. People at District 97 come for the right reasons.”