Changing of the guard took place on the District 200 Board of Education, April 30, as outgoing members Sharon Patchak-Layman, Ralph Lee and John Phelan ceded their seats to new members Jennifer Cassell, Fred Arkin and Sara Dixon Spivy. The new members were sworn-in at a special meeting on Thursday.

Jeff Weissglass, who was first elected to the board in 2013 and had served as its vice president, was voted unanimously to replace outgoing board president John Phelan. Jackie Moore, who was also elected in 2013 and who had served as board secretary, was unanimously elected to replace Weissglass as vice president. New member Sara Dixon Spivy was unanimously elected to replace Moore as board secretary.

“Collectively they represent 20 years of service,” District 200 Superintendent Steven Isoye said of the outgoing members. “There’s no doubt with the [outgoing] three board members that the students always came first,” he said. “Whether it was a policy, a TIF, the pool, instruction or discipline, [there was always] a focus on the students and how we can best serve [them].”

“It’s going to be a dramatic change to not have that depth of history,” said Weissglass, alluding to the fact that no member on the newly constituted board has more than three years of board experience.

That aspect of the proceedings contributed to a moment of levity. Scheduled to begin at 6 p.m., the meeting didn’t start until 20 minutes later. Phelan reassured the dozen or so audience members that this wasn’t because he and his exiting peers were having a hard time letting go. They were waiting for Lee.

“I think it’s ironic that the most embarrassing moment of my eight years here occurred at 6:15 this evening,” said Lee. “I was sitting there watching a news show, thinking, ‘Well, it’s all over but the shouting. Just one more day and the new board will be sworn in on Friday, April 30’ — which happened a day earlier than I expected.

“I suppose the second most memorable time for me would be around 2008, when we debated whether or not dealing with the achievement gap should be a top priority for the district,” Lee added. It had been several years, he said, since racial inequity was a topic of discussion. Now, he said, it is a foregone conclusion — a tribute to their fierce advocacy.

“And because of that, you have my gratitude,” he said. “Not only the ones seated here, but those who have come in and out over the years and that means the most to me. And I’ll stop there. I want you to remember that I did cut it short once,” Lee deadpanned, inciting a round of laughter. 

Steve Gevinson said he had enjoyed listening to Lee’s “mind at work” and added that “there is something courageous about Ralph’s thinking.”

Patchak-Layman’s going-out was characteristic of her coming-in. Her final vote was a ‘nay’ against a motion calling for the destruction of closed-session audiotapes of October 2013 and keeping under wraps the closed-session minutes from January 1, 1987 through April 2015.

In his public comments, Kevin Peppard, a fixture of District 200 board politics, referred to Patchak-Layman as a Cassandra-like figure, pulled straight out of a Greek tragedy.

“Cassandra was granted the power of unerring prophecy by Apollo, but when she refused his advances, was spat upon by him, and cursed that she was never to be believed,” he said.

Patchak-Layman lost her bid for reelection, coming in fourth behind Cassell, Arkin and Spivy, who ran as a de facto slate.

“At times,” Peppard mused, “she was scoffed at, but her policy suggestions were late heeded, or will be. She warned of the district’s excessive accumulation of cash. Her position on where to put the pool, which had received meager support once, was what actually happened. She wanted to move the discipline system away from pure punitive measures long ago.”

If Patchak-Layman was Cassandra, Phelan might have been something of a Moses figure — if Weissglass and other board members were in as literary a mood as Peppard.

Steve Gevinson said Phelan is “one of the most effective leaders I’ve encountered.” Weissglass said Phelan taught him how to lead meetings and that his steadfastness would be missed.

Phelan, the only River Forest resident on both the outgoing and incoming board configurations, was named Wednesday Journal’s Villager of the Year in January. He put a cap on his legacy when, after several years of tense public debate, the board unanimously approved a site to construct a 50-meter pool, parting the waters, as it were, with a completion date tentatively set for the fall of the 2018-19 school year.

“The institution is more important than the people who run it,” Phelan said during his final remarks. “The institution will continue as long as people within this community value it and trust it and care for it.” 

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