During a May 25 regular meeting, the Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 school board voted unanimously to approve a contract with UNICOM ARC, a communications firm based in St. Louis, Missouri, to provide professional services for the new working group, Imagine OPRF. 

The district has agreed to pay UNICOM a flat fee of $64,600, which will be doled out in monthly installments of $3,800, from June 10 till Oct. 10, 2018. Consultants with UNICOM are scheduled to meet with the Imagine OPRF working group in early June. 

Created last year after the high school’s facilities referendum failed to pass by a narrow margin, the new community engagement and outreach committee is a 40-member body made up of 32 community members and eight D200 personnel. 

The body is responsible for doing a deep dive into the district’s previous pool-related community outreach efforts and creating a more comprehensive engagement process around the district’s facilities-related needs. Ultimately, it is tasked with making a series of recommendations to the school board about how facilities at OPRF can be improved.

Last December, when the school board approved the creation of the committee, then-Acting Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams 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-Adams recommended at the time that the district hire an outside facilitator with relatively little at stake. In the months leading up to last November’s referendum, the debate over how to deal with OPRF’s two aging swimming pools had created community tension among many residents, with some reporting that the issue cost them friendships. 

The superintendent said the formation of a similar committee at the school district in University City, Missouri — where she worked before retiring and taking her current position — helped develop the necessary community consensus that paved the way for new facilities, sharp improvements in the district’s academic climate, and a shrinking of the achievement gap, among other improvements. 

Citing full disclosure, Pruitt-Adams said that UNICOM was hired to facilitate the community engagement process in University City while she was superintendent. 

UNICOM was one of just three bidders that responded to D200’s request for proposals. District officials said it was the only bidder with the resources and flexibility they were looking for.

During the RFP process, one of the bidders dropped out because of what company representatives said was a heavy workload, according to D200 officials. Representatives with another company indicated that they would not facilitate the community engagement process but would offer services if the district went to a referendum.

Responding to concerns among some board members as to why so few companies submitted bids, district officials said there aren’t many firms equipped with the kind of niche skills that the Imagine OPRF group calls for. 

They also said that, since districts across the country are building new facilities and preparing to go to referendum, there’s high demand for communications firms with skills similar to UNICOM. 

District officials added that they publicized the RFP through the local newspaper and the district website. They said they also extended the window of time in which companies could submit bids.

Karin Sullivan, D200’s communications director, said UNICOM has worked with numerous communities and school districts, including those in Naperville, Elmhurst and St. Charles.

Among other responsibilities, UNICOM will assist in the identification of community members to lead the new Imagine OPRF working group, attend and coordinate public meetings, research and synthesize all documentation that the district provides for the group, and train community volunteers who will be working on the project.

Pruitt-Adams said the working group will also look at the district’s capacity to fund whatever proposals it brings to the board. At a later date, she said, the district might hire an architectural firm through an open bidding process in order for the group to consider a range of facilities prototypes and designs. 

The group’s final recommendations will be presented to the D200 school board, which has the final say over whether those recommendations, if any, are eventually implemented. 

Pruitt-Adams said, at this point, the district’s contract with UNICOM is only for professional services related to community engagement and doesn’t include any professional services that would be needed if the district decides to go to referendum in the future. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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