Facing the prospect of drowning once again in months-long debate about replacing the nearly 90-year-old swimming pools at Oak Park and River Forest High School, the District 200 school board voted 6-1 this week to approve a resolution that establishes a community engagement and outreach committee.
The new body will be responsible for doing a deep-dive into the district’s previous pool-related community outreach efforts and clearing the way for a new course that district officials are saying would be more comprehensive than that created by all of the committees and outreach efforts of the past, which weren’t enough to ensure victory at the polls last month.
On Nov. 8, voters very narrowly turned down a $44.5 million, five-year facilities plan at the high school that would be funded with up to $25 million in referendum bonds. The ballot measure — which would have led to the demolition of the village-owned, 300-space parking garage and the construction of a $21.4 million, 25-yard by 40-meter swimming pool along with a brand new 240-space garage where the current one sits, among other facilities enhancements — failed by a margin of just 28 votes.
Karin Sullivan, D200’s communications director, told board members on Tuesday night that there’s been at least three different pool committees, two long-term facilities planning processes, at least two community engagement processes and countless public hearings on the pools that have been implemented since she started working at the district in 2012.
“All of this process has not brought the community to consensus,” Sullivan said. “In fact, we saw with the referendum vote that we are pretty much split down the middle on this issue. So, it really feels like it’s time for a different, broader approach with a more community-based committee.”
Joylynn Pruitt, D200’s acting superintendent, recommended that the district “take a step back, because for us, it’s not just about a pool. It’s about academic programming, it’s about equity, it’s about having facilities that are going to support the next generation of learners in terms of labs that support the new national science standards and technology [that we can] take a step further.”
Pruitt defined that “next generation of learners” as students who are “more consumer oriented and outcomes oriented,” adding that the education landscape of the future will be less reliant on physical instructional spaces.
“There are virtual learning opportunities, but can our facilities support them?” Pruitt said.
According to the resolution creating the committee, in addition to strengthening facilities to support the needs of “the next generation of learners,” the new body will also “review previous processes, make recommendations, and strengthen community partnership pursuant to district goals related to equity, academic programming needs” and finances.
Some community members who spoke during the school board’s public comment Tuesday registered their skepticism of the new body, fearing that it wouldn’t be much different than the district’s past attempts at community outreach and engagement.
“Based on recent history, I question if this board is serious about listening to members of the community,” said Oak Park resident Bridgett Baron, whose skepticism was echoed by some members of the board.
“I feel like we’ve committeed this to death,” said Sara Dixon Spivy, who provided the sole vote against the resolution. “It feels like we’re passing the buck [even though] I know that’s not our intention. I’m nervous that we’re not going to get further than we are.”
Attempting to assuage some people’s misgivings about the committee, Pruitt recalled her experience as superintendent of the school district in University City, Missouri, where she worked before retiring and taking her current position.
“In my previous district, when I became superintendent of schools, I was faced with a lack of trust and transparency across the district,” Pruitt said, adding that the school was plagued with aging buildings, low student achievement, less than stellar staff and low morale. That district also didn’t have any fund balance, she said.
Pruitt said the district “embarked on a major community engagement process” that was spearheaded by two bodies — a core steering committee and a much larger committee of 15 community stakeholders who represented a diverse range of skill sets, socioeconomic backgrounds and perspectives.
Those committees, she said, met with an outside facilitator twice a month, with members intermittently reporting to the school board on their progress. The project lasted roughly eight to 10 months, she said.
“We took on academic achievement, early childhood education, parent and community engagement, communications, the need to refurbish our facilities to meet our students’ needs and how to finance all of that,” Pruitt explained, adding that the core committee also included a bond oversight sub-committee to ensure financial accountability.
“We took it all on, but we stepped it out [over time],” Pruitt said. “That is what I’m hoping we do here. So it’s not just the committee making the decision. It’s the committee listening to [the voices of the community].”
Pruitt said that the administration will return to the board in the weeks ahead to recommend for approval a process of recruiting community members to fill this new body, which will also be responsible for selecting an outside facilitator.
The facilitator, Pruitt said, would be someone with no deeply held ties to the area and who can help mend relationships between different community stakeholders that may have been hurt during the controversial, multilayered process leading up to last month’s referendum defeat.
After having heard Pruitt’s story about her prior experience with this new committee, which the acting superintendent said D200 has never had before, Baron seemed somewhat less skeptical than she had been.
“One thing that is helpful is having Dr. Pruitt, who hasn’t been around, to bring a new perspective and maybe to do things differently,” said the mother of two future OPRF students who was a vocal opponent of the referendum leading up to the November election.
“One thing we haven’t had on prior high school committees is an outreach to the broader community,” Baron said. “She made it sound like the committee will have that much broader reach and that’s attractive to me.”
Bridgett Baron is married to Matt Baron, an announced candidate for the District 200 school board in the April election.