Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 school board members found themselves at a crossroads during a March 22 meeting, where they were asked by administration officials to authorize staff increases for programs critical to addressing the equity gap — in particular, the addition of a part-time racial equity coach.
The request, however, comes as all seven board members are increasingly leery of the growing personnel costs that could add to Oak Park residents’ ever-rising tax burden. Increasingly, the board is also concerned there’s little concrete evidence showing how some of the proposed staff increases might actually improve student conditions and outcomes.
The board ended up approving the administration’s request for an additional 2.4 full-time equivalent staff in four program areas — including in-school credit recovery, social emotional development, the district’s emotional adjustment classroom and racial equity coaching — while rejecting the request for a full-time counseling division head.
The school board’s approval of the staff increases was made only after much hand-wringing, as some members questioned the process by which the administration weighs the need for additional personnel — a need that has been growing over the last four years.
According to district data, the number of full-time equivalent positions went up by 19.5 percent in 2015-16, roughly 1 percent in 2016-17 and 10 percent in 2017-18. Full-time staffing is projected to grow by 3 percent in the 2018-19 school year.
The staffing increases are consistent with a steadily rising student population. In the 2015-16 school year, 3,318 students attended OPRF, both on- and off-campus. In the 2018-19 school year, the total student population is projected to grow to 3,500.
From 2013 to 2017, total spending on salaries and benefits at OPRF grew by over 25 percent.
“I’m actually very supportive of these programs,” said board member Craig Iseli, who voted against all five staffing requests, arguing that the staff increases need to be counterbalanced by potential cost-savings.
“They’re all to the benefit of the students,” Iseli added, “but I also know there’s another stakeholder here. How do we afford to add [staff] each year? Where are the choices around which programs we will take off to balance the [staff] we need to add.”
Iseli said the district needs “to get to zero-sum” when measuring the addition of full-time positions, as opposed to making incremental additions each year. Those increments, board members said, can have the tendency to creep up unnoticed.
“There’s growth by a thousand cuts. … This is growth by .1, .2 cuts,” said board member Matt Baron.
Superintendent Joylyn Pruitt-Adams and Principal Nathaniel Rouse said that despite the incremental nature of measuring staff in levels, the administration does have conversations about cost-savings.
Rouse said that the full-time staff increase for the 2018-19 school year is below what had been projected.
“We came in a little under the projected amount purposefully in an attempt to show the board that we do have to make some difficult decisions,” Rouse said.
School board President Jackie Moore, who also echoed Iseli’s concerns, emphasized the need for data to show that the programs in which the staff increases occur are working.
Moore honed in on the racial equity coach, which is an addition to the district’s Collaborative Action Research for Equity (CARE) teams that were implemented this school year.
“I’m still not clear what metrics we’re using to determine effectiveness,” she said.
CARE teams comprise roughly 45 “administrators, teachers, counselors, and social workers [who] have been trained to become CARE leaders during the 2017-2018 school year,” according to OPRF’s website.
The CARE leaders support teachers “in studying their professional practices and improving them in ways that remove racial bias.”
Pruitt-Adams said that “this is the year of training for the CARE leaders, so we haven’t been able to see clearly the impact they’ll have in the classroom.”
She said that next school year, when the coach starts to work with CARE leaders, more hard data will be collected about the program’s effectiveness.
In advocating for the equity coach, Rouse said that he’s already seen some progress, particularly with how students talk about race.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Rouse said, before urging the board to stay the course on the equity work, since the community seems to be at a “tipping point” in the area of racial equity.
Board member Tom Cofsky, however, said that the community is also at a tipping point on property taxes, with more and more residents complaining about spending levels — especially the schools.
Cofksy added that, as an ever-growing student population has resulted in more programs, staff positions and, ultimately, costs for taxpayers, “We’ve got to be cognizant of what that burden is each and every day.”
Cofsky, along with Iseli and Baron, voted against the racial equity coach position.
Some board members wondered when the responsibility to taxpayers overwhelms the responsibility to students. Board member Sara Dixon-Spivy said that she ran for election to the board specifically because of the issue of racial equity.
“How do we move forward?” she asked. “We can’t do the bunny hop all the time, which is what I think we’re doing around equity. We make some advancements and then we take a couple of hops back. At what point do we recognize the tax burden while still being able to fulfill the reason why I’m here?”