A new community engagement and outreach committee established last December by the District 200 school board is scheduled to meet for the first time in August, but it will do so without a prominent community member who helped oversee the process of selecting the new committee’s 40-plus members.
Formally called the Imagine OPRF working group, the committee was created after voters last November narrowly rejected a $44.5 million, five-year facilities plan at Oak Park and River Forest High School that would be funded with up to $25 million in referendum bonds.
The Nov. 8, 2016 ballot measure entailed 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 to replace the high school’s two nearly 90-year-old pool, along with a brand new 240-space garage where the current one sits, among other facilities enhancements.
Wednesday Journal has reported in the past that Imagine OPRF 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.
The committee process, which district officials anticipate could take up to 18 months, will eventually make a series of recommendations to the school board about how facilities at OPRF can be improved, and how those improvements can be leveraged to enhance long-standing challenges, such as the academic achievement gap, at the high school.
Earlier this year, an 8-person launch team comprising OPRF faculty and community members who voted for and against the referendum vetted the more than 80 applications that were submitted for seats on the Imagine OPRF group. Ultimately, 43 people were selected to the wider group.
On the launch team, faculty member and former architect Jason Fried, former faculty senate chair Jim Hunter and outreach coordinator Latonia Jackson represented OPRF faculty members. Lynn Kamenitsa and Matt Kosterman were both members of the Vote Yes steering committee that drummed up support for the referendum. Monica Sheehan and Mike Poirier were both members of the Pragmatic Pool Solutions committee that fought against the referendum. Mary Bird, a former OPRF parent, rounded out the launch team.
Kosterman replaced former D200 board president John Phelan on the launch team early on because Phelan felt that the process was not focused closely enough on replacing the high school’s two swimming pools.
“Frankly, those pools are going to fail and I didn’t think the district could wait that long,” Phelan said in a recent phone interview.
Sheehan announced her resignation in a June 13 statement, which cited “a lack of trust in the process and transparency concerns” as primary reasons for her taking leave. Sheehan said that nearly half of the work group members are “known Vote Yes supporters and appointed-school employees, the latter unlikely to voice opposition to their employer’s favored oversized pool, as was the case in all five previous pool committees.”
In an email correspondence between Sheehan and D200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, which the former released to the media, Pruitt-Adams said that teachers and staff members “need to be an integral part of the process” since they “bring a critical voice to the table in terms of academic space and need.”
Pruitt-Adams added that staff members needed to be included on the team in order to secure “buy-in to whatever recommendations are made” and that, due to timing and miscommunication, staff members weren’t required to submit applications.
In her resignation statement, Sheehan said that “there is no need for internal appointments. Faculty, staff and coaches will all provide input to the Work Group as it conducts its research in assessing facility needs. Nearly one-fourth of the now 43-members of the Work Group are employees of the school.”
Sheehan also took issue with the board’s hiring of the St. Louis-based communications firm UNICOM ARC, which will provide professional services for Imagine OPRF. The district agreed to pay UNICOM a flat fee of $64,600 from June 10 until Oct. 10, 2018. District 200 officials have said that the firm was hired after a rigorous open bidding process that was even extended past its initial deadline date.
In the past, Pruitt-Adams has explained that she believes it’s important for the working group to have an outside facilitator to help move the conversations along without being tied down by local connections.
During the May 25 meeting where the school board voted to hire the firm, the superintendent disclosed that UNICOM had been hired to facilitate a similar community engagement process at the St. Louis-area school district where she had served as top administrator before coming to Oak Park.
Sheehan said that UNICOM’s community meetings “will essentially be sales pitches with tightly structured and scripted formats and will allow no public question and answer sessions. The board employed the same questionable approach called the Delphi Technique, a meeting manipulation strategy, in its community meetings last year.”
In a statement released on June 15, Karin Sullivan, D200’s communications and community relations director, said that the district isn’t familiar with the Delphi Technique, “but we invite community members to review Unicom’s proposal, which is publicly available on our website.”
Sullivan said that the proposal makes clear that the district and UNICOM “are planning to follow a community-driven process with no predetermined outcomes. Answering participants’ questions is a key part of the process; in fact, the proposal notes that if we can’t answer a question at the session, we’ll follow up with an answer within 48 hours.”
The district, she said, is “deeply committed to following an open, transparent process for our taxpayers. We hope as many community members as possible will join us and offer their input.”
This story has been updated for clarity.