Every election counts. But some count more. And the April 2019 school board elections for the District 97 elementary school board and the District 200 Oak Park and River Forest High School board are, in our eyes, critical.

Here’s why:

It has taken decades, but these two school boards have by purposeful action and by luck or good fortune both arrived in a place where equity — the conscious decision to provide access and opportunity to every student, to acknowledge and compensate for past failings in access and opportunity — has risen to Job 1. 

You can see it in the hiring of two strong black women as superintendents of the districts. You can see it in strategic plans — yes, we know strategic plans — but these plans are now single-minded in prioritizing equity. In D97 you can see it in the past two contracts with faculty. If the high school ever gets a new faculty contract, we hope to see it there as well.

Don’t get distracted by the shiny, and expensive, new object of the Imagine OPRF facilities plan. But there is plenty in this large-scale, once-in-50-year, plan that goes straight at remaking this school for equity, for better teaching environments, collaborative learning, state-of-the-art technology.

In a town that talks boldly about race and diversity but for far too long has taken timid actions in our public schools to focus on equity, this moment is vital and it is fragile.  

We know now that three of the seven members of the D97 school board will not seek re-election. Bob Spatz (three terms), Jim O’Connor (two terms) and Ruppa Data (one term) have announced they will leave the board after the election. A fourth member up for election, Holly Spurlock, will happily seek another term.

Our endorsements are months away. But, plainly in D97 we will be looking to support candidates who consciously, thoughtfully, creatively want to build out an equity model. And as we have said so many times, equity is a culture issue, an admission-of-past-failings issue, a determination-and-perseverance issue. It’s not a money issue.

At the high school, it is not fully plain to us yet what seats will be open. Three of seven school board members are up for election. We look for them to declare their intentions shortly. Fred Arkin, Sara Dixon Spivy and Jennifer Cassels are all wrapping up first terms. They have been strong on equity and we hope they are up for second terms.

In a new term the members of the OPRF board, whoever they are, will have complex and sometimes conflicting decisions to make on equity and on updating the facility.

The worst-case scenario is that with property taxes in Oak Park and in River Forest at such high levels, that we will see single-issue candidates come forward with too strong a focus on reducing costs. The same scenario could capture interest in the race for Oak Park village trustees where three of seven seats are up for election.

We are sympathetic to angst over taxes. The high school dilled its pickle with its decade of unconscionable overtaxing. Every taxing body must swear off the new taxes coming from the high-rises as free money. The trade-off for this density must be mitigating property tax hikes.

We are coming to a moment. Oak Park either focuses on educational equity or we just give up the bragging rights. That’s what the next election is about.

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