Matt Baron

Below are candidate-submitted answers to a biographical survey Wednesday Journal sent out to all candidates running in this year’s District 200 school board elections.

Age: 48

Previous political experience: Oak Park Public Library Board of Trustees, May 2013-present. Board president, May 2015-present. 

Previous community experience:

Resident of Oak Park since 1994.

~ Youth basketball coach (five years) with the Park District of Oak Park and youth baseball coach (three years) with the Oak Park Youth Baseball & Softball organization.

~ Active member of Harvest Bible Chapel Chicago West, located in the Austin neighborhood. Past community volunteer work includes serving as Hephzibah Children’s Association mentor & tutor.

~ Member of the Oak Park and River Forest Chamber of Commerce, 2005-present. Among wide range of local and regional clients, local work has included serving as Marketing Director for the Village of Oak Park’s “Shop the Village” intra-business district local shopping campaigns, 2008-2009.

~ Host of interview shows “Oak Park’s Own” & “A Beer With Baron,” Oak Park Cable Channel 6.

~ Former President, Marion-at-Mills Condominium Association (2011-2013).

~ Celebrating Seniors Coalition, publicist, 2009-present.

~ Principal/Owner of Inside Edge: Public Relations & Media Services, 2005-present (based in Oak Park, with an office in Downtown Oak Park since 2009).

Occupation:

Owner, Strategic Communications & Marketing Firm (Inside Edge: Public Relations & Media Services)

Education: 

Bachelor’s of Science, Journalism – Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University

How would you define the role/functions of a D200 school board member? 

The only individual over whom the Board has direct hiring and firing authority is the Superintendent. Although the Board makes decisions that affect all personnel (from budget decisions to disciplinary actions), everything flows and filters through the Superintendent.

In addition, here is my vision for a D200 school board member’s role:

*To be supportive of actions that are constructive and in alignment with the Board’s goals for the school’s long-term success;

*To raise concerns (through the proper channels) with any actions that seem to be contrary to those Board goals;

*To be attentive and responsive to the views and concerns of residents, while also serving as a conduit for those views and concerns to fellow board members and, when appropriate, D200’s Superintendent and other administrators.

*To be mindful that there is almost always much more to a situation, whether it be a perceived “positive” or “negative,” than any given initial account can capture. Rarely does any account begin with a well-rounded, perfectly balanced version. In our quest to make informed, wise decisions, elected officials should continually press for more details and better context.

*To treat everyone with fairness and respect. 

As a board member, you may be asked to make decisions relating to Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts. What is your understanding of TIF districts? What are your thoughts about their impact on school districts?

TIF districts are created to provide funding for redevelopment efforts, with the tax rate for a given district “frozen” throughout the TIF period (23 years). As a result, all taxing bodies continue receiving the same amount of tax revenue (from the properties within the district) with any increased revenue from higher assessed values for properties going to the TIF district fund.

The rationale behind it, when properly applied: TIFs help revitalize an area that would otherwise be likely to stagnate, with none of the local taxing bodies figuring to receive any incrementally higher revenue. Ideally, when that nearly quarter-century of redevelopment and rejuvenation has taken place, the property values within the district have risen significantly more than they would have risen without the TIF district creation.

It’s at that point, after the TIF district’s expiration, that the sacrifices endured by taxpayers—in a best-case scenario—pay off in the form of more widespread sharing of the tax burden as each taxing body is able to tap into significantly heightened tax revenue. 

But what about less-than-best case scenarios? Those have played out in Oak Park.

Recently, more than $6 million in Madison TIF funds were used toward the construction of the new District 97 administration building—a facility that produces no property taxes and no sales tax.

Also, 23 years is an extraordinarily long time. Children born when the TIF district is formed will have graduated from college by the time the district expires. Oak Park and River Forest are strong communities with great appeal for would-be residents and businesses alike. These are not economically depressed areas, though I realize that communities can cast themselves in a “blight light” to quality for TIF district designation.

So do we really need to resort to TIF districts to entice development? Local village leaders should be challenged with that question. The two villages that feed into the high school should treat TIFs as a last resort—not a short-cut path—to economic redevelopment. 

Having served on the library board for four years, I believe cooperation among government bodies is a worthy aim. Yet there are times when individual agencies must advocate for their own constituents and, unfortunately, that can result in tension—even litigation, such as the lawsuits filed against the Village of Oak Park by District 97 and District 200 over the Downtown Oak Park TIF. According to press reports, those legal costs amounted to at least $650,000.

We must heed the lessons of the overall rocky experience for local TIF districts—proceed with great caution, if at all.

Do you think that OPRF has an equity problem? How do you define equity? Do you believe that the district is currently utilizing its resources effectively enough to address the long-standing issue of equity? 

Yes, OPRF has a well-documented, decades-long equity problem. Equity is providing each individual with the resources and support that he or she needs to achieve excellence. 

I believe the district is improving in its approach to address equity. One reflection of this progress is the identification of 244 African-American students who each have the potential to advance to at least one honors or advanced placement classes. At a recent D200 board meeting when this initiative was discussed in some depth, OPRF High School Principal Nate Rouse noted that 150 students (and their families) have decided to pursue those more challenging courses. So, as with any proposed change, there is resistance—94 students (and their families) deciding against moving up to a more challenging level.

As Principal Rouse stated to the school board, two keys to successfully transitioning any students to a new academic environment are ensuring that they have a sense of belonging and that they have strong, supportive relationships with teachers and other support staff. Belief—and instilling that belief in any given individual’s ability to succeed, even in the midst of struggle—is so vital in helping students meet greater expectations.

More certainly can be done to address equity, including providing expanded opportunities for all students to benefit from the vast pent-up supply of talent and life skills that exist among Oak Parkers and River Foresters.

I am advocating for the establishment of a formal, structured method of availing students and faculty of those individuals’ willingness and ability to sow into the educational experience.

Were you for or against the recent swimming pool referendum that failed? Explain your position.

Against.

It was too expensive and was contrary to the five-year Strategic Plan that the school board adopted in 2014. Excerpting from Goal 6: Facilities and Finances, which brims with great value when faithfully followed: “OPRFHS will make fiscally responsible, student-centered decisions regarding facilities and finances and will allocate resources to ensure excellence and equity.”

Every spending decision must be made in context. Tearing down the parking garage to rebuild a smaller one (at a $10 million cost) and make way for the proposed 40-meter pool (for another $27.5 million) was not an equitable solution, given the other current and future facility needs at OPRF.

A new pool is an urgent need—but it need not be on the scale that was proposed in the referendum.

What is your impression of the new community outreach committee that will be attempting to build community consensus around a financially feasible long-term facilities plan that addresses numerous issues at the high school, including equity, 21st century learning environments and a plan for replacing OPRF’s old swimming pools, among other issues? 

It’s a hugely ambitious undertaking. I am hopeful that it will succeed, based in part on Superintendent Pruitt-Adams’ history as a bridge-builder with a reputation for adept community outreach at the helm of University City schools near St. Louis.

Officials have pursued a “bipartisan” path to include a balanced mix of citizens on the panel selecting the community outreach committee. In light of that promising starting point, I am hopeful the committee will succeed in finding middle ground on the tension in our community between “thinking big” and “any tax increase is too much.”

After the run-up to the November referendum, marked by the clashing “Vote Yes” and “Vote No” campaigns, it is paramount that the committee members recognize that compromise and sacrifice are key components of their work if genuine consensus-building is to be achieved. One of the most important functions of the committee will be to explore and help prioritize needs (as well as stretch-goal “wants”) in a broader, “big picture” context, rather than a piecemeal approach.

Ultimately, however, the committee’s role is advisory and the school board retains the authority to make decisions about what represents a financially feasible long-term facilities plan.

Are you aware of OPRF’s most recent disciplinary data (for the first semester of 2016-17) and what are your thoughts about its accuracy? 

Yes, I am aware—and I was at the school board meeting where that disciplinary data was unveiled and initially discussed. There were serious concerns expressed by some board members, as well as a longtime statistical expert, speaking as a member of the public when he addressed the board. One of the top concerns that was voiced, and which I share, is the significant limitation of what can be gleaned from the data in that original report.

My background includes training members of the media across the country in the effective use of statistics, and one of the foremost principles I emphasize is that “behind every number is a human being.” Because human beings are flawed—in myriad ways, including their methods of deriving data—then the numbers that are reported come with flaws. 

Clearly, there is work to be done to make better sense of the data—and to be more confident in drawing conclusions from them. However, I am encouraged by OPRF’s shift in disciplinary matters from a punitive model to a restorative model that gives students who struggle with behavioral and other issues more opportunities to succeed.

Are there other issues or initiatives that you are particularly interested in having the board pursue during the next four years and how are you planning to advocate for them?

Yes, the issues and initiatives that I am particularly interested in having the board pursue include:

Equity in Action

The resolve to put action behind all the talk of equity is vital at the D200 level, particularly in light of the longstanding gaps between whites and minorities (most notably, African-American students) in academic performance, rates of disciplinary action, and other key benchmarks.

D200 appears to be on a promising track in its recent initiative to seek disciplinary paths that are more measured, with a focus on restoring, rather than banishing, students. I would work to ensure that progress continues and to push for better results in the recruitment of minority teachers, especially African-Americans.

Authentic Engagement

From respectfully leaning in to input from citizens at board meetings to actively soliciting the spectrum of viewpoints on any given issue, I have already developed a reputation as an authentically engaged public servant. I will bring that spirit of genuine openness and appetite for innovative solutions to all of my decision-making on the D200 Board.

OPRF needs to be more diligent and creative in looking beyond money as the answer to so many problems.

As noted in my response to the question on equity, OPRF ought to turn outward to the vast pent-up supply of talent and life skills that exist among Oak Parkers and River Foresters. Accordingly, I am advocating for the establishment of a formal, structured method of availing students and faculty of those individuals’ willingness and ability to sow into the educational experience.

Wise Fiscal Stewardship

District 200 has an abundance of cash reserves—a figure that soared to $130 million at one point, but was reduced to $97 million as of the end of the last fiscal year (June 2016). However, that figure—which represents about 14 months of D200 expenditures—is still roughly twice as much as is necessary to be fiscally responsible.

The D200 Board implicitly acknowledged that fact last year by stating it would deploy $20 million of the reserves toward the facilities plan whose centerpiece was the construction of a new pool.

While officials re-evaluate how to proceed on the pool and other facility needs, the school should continue to seek other responsible ways to draw down those excessive reserves. Until that is accomplished, D200 will continue to face an uphill battle in regaining enough of the public’s trust to win approval in future referendums, such as an operating referendum that is forecast in about five years.

Bolstered External Communication

While the school appears to be doing its job of communicating internally with the families of current students, there are vast opportunities for growth in its external communications. OPRF’s Facebook page, for example, is under-utilized.

Drawing on my background as a journalist, trainer and strategic communications leader, I would provide expert perspective on ways in which the high school can more effectively tell the numerous stories that flow from the learning experiences and other activities inside and outside OPRF’s classrooms.

The ramped-up communication would also provide an opportunity for students who are especially interested in related fields, such as marketing, journalism and advertising, to put their budding skills into practice.

Join the discussion on social media!