It was a good election in Oak Park and River Forest if you believe there is a gigantic gap between the preening progressive perceptions we stoke and the blunt reality that we’re not much of a diversity leader if you look back over decades as we’ve papered over racial inequity.
We haven’t confronted our historic and systemic racism, which has deprived tens of thousands of our children of a fair shot. We’ve tiptoed around it. We’ve denied it. We’ve focused on our press clippings from the 1970s when we used to convene national “congresses” to tell other burgs how to be racially integrated.
But last Tuesday, voters decisively chose the school board candidates most focused on serious and immediate equity work for the boards at OPRF High School, the District 90 River Forest elementary schools and in Oak Park’s District 97 schools.
This was no accident. I’ll admit the five choices for four seats at D97 were all heavily tilted toward equity. But at the high school and in River Forest schools, there was some level of discernment required, and voters chose equity as the primary marker.
All three school districts are a good way down the equity preparation and planning path. Board members, administrators, faculty and staff have gone through challenging bias-recognition training. Equity plans have been drawn. At the high school, students are being urged to speak out about ways — macro and micro — that they experience inequity. OPRF has swapped out the post of principal for an equity director.
That’s the critical set-up. Now comes the infinitely more difficult execution with the inevitability of failures and missteps, the possibility of push back from white and more affluent parents who worry over diminished resources as limited dollars are reallocated toward equity.
That will be the work of the elected citizens who put themselves forward in these three districts.
But here’s the rub: As profoundly important as the work of equity is, it’s just half the task of every elected school board member in Oak Park and in River Forest. Fiscal constraint, some perpetual leveling of tax bills for residential and commercial property owners is equally important if these villages are going to succeed. In the face of rising enrollment, pay raises, health care spikes, an inevitable shift of future pension obligations from the state to the communities, the days of 6 and 7 percent annual spending increases have to end.
Village government’s taxing tax force last year strongly recommended annual municipal and school-funding increases limited to 3 percent. There are a lot of ways to get there. For school districts, it begins and ends with more reasonable faculty contracts, with determinedly shifting health care costs to teachers, maybe by adjustments to plans offered. Revenue can increase as TIFs end or new high-rises spin off fresh cash. Cash reserves can be spent down, though only for so long.
OPRF just signed a new faculty contract after, by local standards, a contentious year of negotiations. This was a contract that bent the trajectory of future cost increases in ways that intentionally meshed with equity initiatives. D97 pioneered that effort locally a few years back.
Get to the core of equity and, mainly, this is not a problem solved by throwing cash at it. Does not take more money to recognize that discipline systems catch up black kids disproportionally. Does not take money to actively open AP courses to more black and brown students. Does not take more money — though it is seriously hard — to change the culture of a district to acknowledge ways that students and faculty in the minority face discrimination in ways we have not previously even grasped.
These candidates ran, and these voters chose, candidates willing to take on this complex task. A big moment just ahead in our two villages.