Oak Park District 97 Board of Education President James Gates wants the board to go from “excellent to premier,” and he believes that Kelsey Connor, the Leadership in Educational Equity (LEE) fellow who was recently brought on at the urging of board member Jim O’Connor, will help make that happen.
In October, D97 board members voted unanimously to bring Connor on as a paid intern to help the board improve its efforts in the area of community engagement and board performance, among other areas. Connor will be paid up to $1,000 a month by LEE to work no more than 29 hours a week for six months at no cost to the district.
But the temporary position raised some eyebrows among community members, particularly considering the more than $20,000 in cash and in-kind donations Jim O’Connor’s campaign received from LEE during his bid for re-election last April.
During a board presentation in September, O’Connor stressed that neither LEE nor Connor will be allowed to seek paid work from the district in the future and that LEE fellows are prohibited “from engaging in any lobbying or electoral activity during the fellowship.”
In his presentation, O’Connor noted that, as a Teach For America (TFA) alumnus, he is eligible to receive support from a policy advisor fellow.
LEE, which is an affiliate of TFA, describes itself as a “nonpartisan organization dedicated to empowering Teach For America corps members and alumni to grow as leaders in their communities and help build the movement for educational equity,” according to its website.
But some residents, such as Rick Boultinghouse, chairman of the district’s Committee for Legislative Action, Intervention and Monitoring (CLAIM) committee, who ran unsuccessfully in last April’s board election, didn’t find O’Connor’s reassurances satisfying.
Boultinghouse said he found the proposal “troubling” because, at the time of O’Connor’s presentation in September, the board hadn’t identified what the fellow would be working on and that the offer seemed like a “pay-for-play proposal.”
However, after meeting with Board President James Gates, Boultinghouse said most of his fears were put to rest. Gates insisted that the board had taken precautionary steps to prevent any conflicts of interest.
Gates said district officials made sure to consult the Illinois School Code, the National Association of School Boards, the Illinois Association of School Boards, and the district’s own code of conduct. He said the process for selecting the fellow and the decision to bring Connor on satisfies each of those regulatory bodies and documents.
Gates also noted that the fellow entered into a contract with O’Connor himself and not the board, but he lauded Boultinghouse for his scrutiny and noted that the board welcomes any public comments from residents.
“The board appreciates whenever community members step forward during public comment to share their concerns on issues that impact or concern our students,” said Gates, referencing a third-party assessment conducted by the Consortium for Educational Change, which noted that D97 is what Gates described as “an excellent school system moving toward premier status.”
Gates said the board had long been mulling ways it could improve its functions and that Connor had come along at an ideal time. Although she won’t be working directly with district staff, Superintendent Carol Kelley has voiced her support for the internship.
Connor is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts who currently works as a policy consultant. She also taught in public schools in California and Chicago before entering educational research.
“The really unique and wonderful thing about the board is that they’re interested in enhancing their already strong community engagement work and being really thorough on their great community work, but they’re also being thoughtful on how they’re promoting it,” she said during a phone interview.
Connor said she’ll be researching best practices at other districts for the board to implement. Before her hiring, board members compiled four areas of focus, or project areas. They included helping to develop a district profile, enhancing the board’s community engagement efforts, researching best practices and standards for optimizing the school day and year, and improving assessments and measurements for evaluating board performance.