Finances, minority hiring and the controversy at Beye School over a gay-rights speaker were among the questions dominating the first-ever State of the District address last week hosted by District 97.

A small crowd was in attendance for the first-ever public, district-wide address by a superintendent, taking place at Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland. Among the roughly 80 people there were district administrators, Board of Education members and principals from the 10 schools.

Supt. Constance Collins gave a half-hour overview of district initiatives, including an update of its strategic plan. Board President Peter Traczyk also provided an overview of the district’s finances, including its intent and reasons behind going for a referendum in 2011.

Audience members were asked to write questions on index cards that were later read to Collins.

The first question was about the ongoing controversy at Beye concerning some parents objecting to district resources being used to bring in a speaker to address bullying concerning students of LGBT families. The question asked specifically if the speaker, Shannon Sullivan, director of LGBT support organization Illinois Safe Schools Network, would be doing such training with teachers at other schools.

Collins didn’t answer that directly, instead saying that each school’s PTO and School Improvement Team (SIT) would make such a recommendation.

“We have a responsibility; we have a policy here within the district, as well as when we take a look at our strategic plan – we are respectful of all cultures of diversity within Dist. 97,” she said. “We have a responsibility to really work with all children, work with all families.”

Collins added that each school’s SIT looks at specific areas in the building needing improvement, including bullying. In response to an incident in spring 2009 where a Beye student of same sex parents was specifically harassed by peers, the school’s SIT recommended bringing in Sullivan to talk with teachers.

“Each school, based on what those concerns are – whether it’s bullying of a particular group or student – then the school decides that ‘we’re going to address it,'” said Collins. She also noted that some school SITs have addressed issues specifically related to other student groups, for instance, African-American kids and culture.

Responding to a question about hiring more minority teachers, Collins clarified that the district’s intent was to hire qualified teachers while also increasing its diversity. The push to diversify faculty was spurred by developments surrounding this current school year’s crop of new teachers. Of the 36 new hires this year, only one is a minority, a development Collins has insisted is unacceptable for Dist. 97 and Oak Park.

“As I spoke at a board meeting some months ago, I indicated that we are a diverse community, we have a strategic plan that says we should have a diverse staff and we also have goals in our district. And we know that there are many highly-qualified minority as well as non-minority teachers,” she said. “We want to be sure to examine what our procedures are to see if there are some areas we have not tapped into.”

The 90-minute forum also included questions about technology, the district’s gifted program and grading policies.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

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