Opportunity or escape?

It is not normal that the four top village and school administrators in Oak Park and River Forest all tried to find other jobs, or retired, during 2020.

Two of them managed to pull it off. Two were stuck with consolation prizes in their job searches and remain in their offices on Madison Street.

Now 2020 was not a typical year, but even allowing for COVID it is odd that the village managers of both villages and the superintendents of Districts 97 and 200 all searched for off ramps.

The two who succeeded in decamping took traditional routes:

Eric Palm, River Forest’s village administrator for a decade, moved up the career ladder taking the top job in Hoffman Estates, a Chicago suburb five times the size of River Forest. Ten years of plowing snow and picking up leaves off the same 20 streets, of balancing the same budget, listening to the same six people complain, well, it gets old. Palm had already fixed the sewers — managers love their infrastructure projects — and sent the last village hall typewriter over to the Oak Park River Forest Museum.

The guy made a mid-career move that he had well earned. And River Forest is a plum job for a younger manager looking to make a mark or for a veteran looking to cap a career.

Dr. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, superintendent of Oak Park and River Forest High School, chose to retire when the current miserable, impossible school year ends come June. She came out of an early retirement to become OPRF’s interim superintendent back in 2016 and then took the permanent gig. Her husband, a retired police chief near St. Louis, came up to Oak Park initially. But he was lured back on the job and has been living in the St. Louis area along with their grown family. 

That would get old. Also possible that the glamour of being the head of District 200 wears thin after several years. This is one tough job both because the challenges around equity at that school are profound and because, as you may have noticed, we don’t all pull in the same direction very well. 

That said, this is a mid-course departure. Pruitt-Adams had turned over a lot of hard ground at OPRF, ground that no previous superintendent had the passion to till. But to mix a metaphor, the rock of authentic change on equity is just a tad up the steep hill. And Pruitt-Adams seemed profoundly invested in making that uphill push.

There’s a school board election come April. The current board, strong backers of Pruitt-Adams, wants to choose her replacement. But the timeline is tight unless there is an internal candidate.

Cara Pavlicek, Oak Park’s longtime village manager, and Carol Kelley, the superintendent of Oak Park’s elementary schools, both explored “new opportunities” in 2020. 

They were, of course, once-in-a-lifetime chances, couldn’t be passed up. “They recruited me, I wasn’t really looking.” And you can make that argument. I get that for Pavlicek becoming city manager of Ann Arbor, Michigan seems like a great job. Progressive, university town, bigger this and bigger that, not Oak Park.

Between her interim appointment in Oak Park and her long service in the top job, Pavlicek has already outlasted the average tenure of city managers. And then there is the April election which looks like a four-way slam for village president on top of the sitting village board which is on the spectrum from grouchy to cantankerous.

Kelley, who remains a bit of an enigma to me after her six years at the helm of District 97 elementary schools, was a finalist to run the public schools in Madison, Wisconsin. Progressive, university town, not Oak Park.  

Both Pavlicek and Kelley were runners-up for the top posts in those fine Midwestern burgs. They had the misfortune of applying for jobs in states where the hiring process for public posts is rightly transparent. We could take a lesson in transparent hiring.

So our reporters quickly sussed out their excursions to points North or East, covered  their job interviews broadcast on Zoom and then reported on the unhappy outcomes.  

Pavlicek has been a strong, diligent manager and has done an exceptional job during COVID. But I don’t imagine she’ll be here a year from now. The orbit for city managers is actually very small. There is an opening in River Forest. She could be the Len Kasper of city administrators.

Kelley? The incumbents on her school board are not running for re-election. Her connections locally seem oddly thin. 

We will see what this year brings.

Join the discussion on social media!

Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...