An important deadline is approaching at 5 p.m. on Dec. 24. That is the deadline for filing petitions as a candidate for one of the four open positions on the OPRF Board of Education. I won’t be a candidate.

Here is why it has become more important than the typical biennial election: a majority of the board will be elected, and this board will have the sole responsibility and power to determine the disposition of, arguably, the single greatest disposable asset owned by the residents of Oak Park and River Forest. That asset is the approximately $120,000,000 in unobligated funds that will likely be held by the high school district by next year.

I referred to the $120 million as “disposable” because I know that we will definitely dispose of it — our only choices will be how, how fast, and by whom.

I am writing because, when we control resources of that magnitude, we must recognize the unique nature of the opportunity. We must insist that what we do with the money will have the very best chance of really mattering 20-30 years from now. We seldom talk about this openly, possibly because we are aware that open discussion draws unwanted attention, like putting a giant spotlight on a baby antelope hidden in the darkness on a savannah inhabited by a myriad of hungry carnivores.

One obvious disposition is simply to refund the money to the taxpayers; an average refund of about $6,000 per family would be quite popular!

On that proposal, I would vote “No,” simply because I believe that it would have no discernible effect on either the quality of our education systems or the economic means of our residents 20-30 years from now.

There are many worthwhile ways to spend money, but it would be tragic if we invested in anything other than an effort to enhance our single most important tool: the human brain. We should concentrate our efforts on three areas that have two common features: They rely on our rapidly growing understanding of how the human brain works and develops, especially in different stages of childhood and adolescence; and they rely on our growing understanding of how much of our behavior is influenced by our DNA inheritance and how the choices we make can be influenced both by that inheritance and our environment, as well as our personal understanding of each.

I believe we should make major investments in three areas:

  1. a mandatory high school program whose purpose is to help students acquire the ability to make wiser personal decisions regarding drug and alcohol use and sexual behavior;
  2. financial and tactical support of evidence-based programs for children, age 0-8, in areas that are proven to enhance learning skills; and
  3. continuation of our current directions in building an evidence-based program for academic skills enhancement for high school students who need it. These things can be accomplished without curtailing those programs for which our reputation for excellence is based.

We have the opportunity to acquire excellence in areas that the entire country (or world) will someday value highly. The first key to reaching that goal lies in who we choose to place our trust in April. Let’s recruit the best possible candidates we can find and have a robust debate of our future course of action between now and April.

Ralph H. Lee is a member of the District 200 Board of Education.

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