When former District 200 Board of Education members Sharon Patchak-Layman, Ralph Lee and John Phelan cast their final votes at a board meeting last month, the seven-member entity lost about 20 years of institutional memory in one fell swoop. No member of this most recent board configuration has been seated for more than three years.
The district’s new board president, nonprofit consultant Jeff Weissglass; its vice president, developmental psychologist Dr. Jackie Moore; business manager Tom Cofsky; and retired Oak Park and River Forest (OPRF) High School English teacher and administrator Steve Gevinson were all elected in 2013. New members Sara Dixon Spivy, a public defender who will serve as board secretary, attorney Jennifer Cassell and businessman Fred Arkin were elected in April.
“This is really a first to have such a new group of board members in town,” said Patchak-Layman, a two-term board veteran who lost her bid for a third term. “I don’t remember any board ever having [as few] years of service …,” she said, adding that she can only recall the 1984 Oak Park village board as a possible rival.
“That was a big upset year,” she said. “That was a board election [all about] change at the same time. But once they started doing these staggered elections, there’s usually always been someone on boards with experience. Generally, you have enough people who stay on for eight years and mix it up twice.”
Their relative inexperience isn’t something that’s lost on the new members. Weissglass acknowledged the reality at last month’s swearing in meeting. He noted that it would be “a dramatic change to not have” the depth of history accumulated by the three outgoing veterans.
But raw numbers aren’t very exhaustive indicators of a board member’s experience, noted District 97 board president James Gates.
“Being on a board is like [living] dog years,” said Gates, who is in his seventh year on the district board. “One board year is like seven years. You get such a broad-based educational knowledge. I came in as an educator, but I didn’t have a financial background — I do now. You learn so much so quickly.”
“It’s a steep learning curve, but it’s really fast because you get embedded quickly in what’s going on,” said D97 board vice president Amy Felton, adding that there are also ample opportunities for continuing education through organizations such as the Illinois School Board Association (ISBA).
Felton and Gates said that experience sitting on other governing bodies and simply sitting in on a sufficient number of board meetings, even without being on the boards running them, can be invaluable training.
Patchak-Layman, for instance, served two terms on the D97 school board, before winning a seat on the D200 board. And Sara Dixon Spivy was a member of Oak Park’s Liquor Control Review Board before winning her D200 board seat.
Experienced or not, there’s one intangible characteristic that may trump time-served — and that’s trust, said Felton, an attorney who is in her fourth year on the D97 board.
“There are a lot of resources, not only from the administration, but from our fellow board members,” she said. “To understand the nuances you really do have to rely on others.”
So what advice would the three outgoing D200 board members offer their less experienced successors? Two-term board member Ralph Lee, a retired OPRF chemistry and physics teacher, was rather blunt.
“Advice generally doesn’t help,” he said. “I’ve never known board members to benefit from advice. You deal with the stuff you’re faced with and each person deals with it on the basis of a whole lifetime of experiences.”
Lee emphasized several concerns of his with which this current board, and future ones, would grapple. He said that doesn’t think the board has confronted what he believes will be a significant population increase.
“I don’t have any direct evidence for it, but I see condos going up around Oak Park and I see still plenty of empty spaces for people to live and I think the population density is going to increase in Oak Park over the next few years,” he said. “But [the D200 board] has been accustomed to looking only about five years ahead. I think it’s going to be necessary to look more than five years ahead — to the extent that we can.”
Patchak-Layman said she’ll be dedicating her post-board life to raising awareness about school district accountability. Among her parting concerns is the district’s tendency to pay staff salaries with revenue collected from fees the district charges students for books, driver education courses and other services. The practice is prohibited by the school code, she noted.
“I wanted to know who, at the state level, checks what school districts do,” she said, referencing her time on the board dealing with the issue. “Who checks to see if [those fee charges] are allowed? I sent a text to find out and [state officials] said they have no mechanism [to monitor compliance].”
Phelan, the D200 board’s immediate past president who served a single term, said he hopes above all that present board members take steps to shore up the institution’s standing with community members. He said that during his time on the board, he tried to “set a direction [for the school district] that increases trust in the institution, because that creates opportunities for people to work together for the benefit of the kids.”
“My advice would be to listen and to take everyone’s input into account before making decisions,” he said.