It is either the perfect moment to have a seat on the school board at OPRF or it’s going to be just plain hellacious.
There is so much incoming, so many complex issues conflating, so much news breaking — hate speech, student protests, a principal rightly hung out to dry, no teacher contract — churning straight into culminating moments on issues overlooked and ignored for decades, mainly equity and facilities. Toss in the wrap-up of the 10-part America to Me documentary, the village government commission demanding frugality by all taxing bodies and, related to that, the albatross of the $107 million cash reserve that this high school should never stop apologizing for having illicitly lifted from taxpayers.
And, come April, there is a school board election.
What to do?
On Thursday evening the school board will officially “accept” the comprehensive master facilities plan crafted over a year by the Imagine OPRF task force. Be clear, accepting a report is Roberts Rules speak for “appreciate your hard work, thanks for the report.” Does not come close to the school board signing off on the Imagine report as some sort of action plan.
But before long the school board and its administration will need to make major decisions about next steps on updating and upgrading the high school building. Those decisions will be made even as vocal critics continue to disingenuously paint the Imagine report as mainly a super-sized swimming pool with a side of equity.
Here are the two things I don’t think can be allowed to happen.
There is something rare and powerful which has come together on equity at this high school, and also in the wider communities of Oak Park’s elementary schools and the River Forest elementary schools. At this moment, we have school boards and administrations that are fully in sync on bold steps to remake schools that are largely to fully stuck in systemic racism and to aggressively embrace equity.
Nothing can get in the way of action on equity.
There is a nice, and somewhat deceiving, spit polish on OPRF. Place looks good. But in truth it is a million-square-foot building that hasn’t been updated for 50 years. Think how education has changed in a half-century.
So here’s my proposal to the OPRF board and administration: On Thursday “accept” the Imagine report and, as quickly as possible thereafter, decide that the school board is ready to move ahead with $40 to $50 million in major renovations that are entirely devoted to issues of equity. No athletics. No swimming pool upgrade. Equity. Period.
The projects should be financed entirely from the absurd reserve which has to be spent down in some way that does not include a giveaway contract to faculty. No tax increase. No referendum. And a promise that upgrades to athletic facilities — unless there is some influx of tens of millions from benefactors — are off the table entirely for several years.
So what gets upgraded? A new and relocated Student Resource Center (what most of us would call a library), the aggregation and upgrade of all special education spaces, overall renovation of most classrooms and labs, remaking of the Student Commons, all of the considerable Americans with Disabilities Act deficiencies repaired, and upgrades to security and technology.
This leaves obsolete swimming pools in place until they fail. And then potentially no swimming lessons or competition. It leaves upgrades and expansion on arts programs on the cutting room floor. These are losses. However, battling now to approve and to fund a much larger facility rebuild guarantees an endless battle and more community division that makes a determined focus on difficult equity decisions much harder to pull off.
This is the middle ground. Invest in all equity-focused facility investments. Take the fight over athletic facilities off the table for at least five years. Get the giant cash reserve, the root of all suspicion in this high school, off your back by paying cash for the upgrades. And create the best-case scenario for bold innovation on equity.