Jonathan Livingston has lived in Oak Park for only three years. His only child is in kindergarten at Lincoln School but he has decided to run for a seat on the Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 Board of Education. Livingston, who moved to Oak Park from Pittsburgh when his wife got a job with the Art Institute of Chicago, said he first considered running for the Oak Park Elementary School District 97 school board but decided that his background working in mentoring programs was more aligned with high schools so he decided to run for a seat on the OPRF school board.
Livingston, 45, told Wednesday Journal in a telephone interview that he thinks his relative newness to the community could be an asset for him as a school board member because he has not been involved in past battles and has no axe to grind.
“I think there is a competitive advantage as a newcomer to not have any history, any baggage, not to be grinding an axe or having a cross to bear,” Livingston said. “Just looking purely at the governance skills that I can bring to the work is a plus.”
Livingston, who grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, works as an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh teaching classes remotely in the graduate school of public and international affairs. He also works as a consultant to non-profits.
Livingston received a PhD from Pitt in public administration and public policy in 2018. He earned a master’s degree in advocacy and political leadership from the University of Minnesota — Duluth in 2007 and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1999 from Bennington College where he majored in English literature.
He has taught at Pitt since 2010, one year after he began his PhD work there. He has run his own consulting business, specializing in non-profits, since 2007. He worked for nearly six years a researcher for the Provost’s office at Pitt. He spent 17 months as the director of school-based mentoring for the Mentoring Partnership of Southwest Pennsylvania and worked for five months as the e-mentoring program director for Smart Futures where he did e-mentoring for high school students and working adults focusing on career development. He also worked as adjunct consultant for the Y-USA character development and learning institute working on character development and social emotional learning.
Livingston believes his combination of academic training and work experience gives him a strong skillset to bring to the board table.
“This is a great opportunity for me to apply and align my skillset and background in a very meaningful way,” Livingston said.
If elected Livingston would push OPRF to develop more programs in vocational education and work to create partnerships with apprenticeship programs. He says that going to college should not be the be all and end all goal for all high school students.
“That model has and continues to serve some students very well, but I think baking that in universally has been dangerous and potentially ruinous for some children and one way we can really better equity in our public schools is to more deliberately design opportunities in the form of a viable vocational path, you know, better skills based training in the trades,” Livingston said.
Livingston believes many high school students are not aware of the opportunities for good careers in the trades.
“I think we’re letting our children down that they don’t know that there are very good career paths in the skills based trades and we just need to do a better job of opening up those pathways for them and educating them on those opportunities when they’re in this crucial formative time,” Livingston said. “It’s a huge issue for me and I think we have a lot of work to do in that area.”
Equity is an important issue to Livingston and he sees his push for better vocational education as one way to pursue equity.
“Equity is really a cornerstone of the campaign,” Livingston said. “It’s a huge, huge driving factor of why I’m running in the first place.”
Livingston said he is generally supportive of OPRF’s proposed Project 2, a $99.4 million plan to redo the southeast corner of the building with a new 10 lane swimming pool with four diving stations and a 420-seat spectator area, a three court gym with a spectator capacity of 800, a new weight room, larger locker rooms and a new theater green room among other upgrades.
“I’ll be excited to see what happens with it because it has been, at times, a very divisive process, of course,” Livingston said. “But I mean I think that the stuff that is included in Project 2, without question, are issues that need to be addressed.”
Livingston didn’t say how he thought Project 2 should be financed or whether the issue should go to a referendum saying that he thought the current school board would make that decision.
Current OPRF school board president Tom Cofsky said the school board’s goal is to decide on financing Project 2 before the end of the school year. The school board election is April 4 and new members are usually sworn in by early May. Cofsky said it is not certain whether more votes on Project 2 will be taken, especially concerning financing before the newly elected members are seated.
“It’s left open so that we can get all the work done that needs to be done,” Cofsky said. “There’s been no decision to finalize it before or after (new members are seated) but my leaning would be that if we can get it done, we’re going to get it done. That it is something this board should decide on, if possible.”
Come May the OPRF school board will have at least two new members and possibly three. Incumbents Gina Harris and Ralph Martire are not running for reelection. Along with Livingston the other candidates running for three seats are incumbent Sara Spivy, Tom Brandhorst, a strong supporter of Project 2, Brian Souders, a frequent critic of OPRF spending, and former District 97 school board member Graham Brisben.
Growing up in Duluth Livingston was influenced by former Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, a progressive dedicated to grass roots organizing who was beloved by many progressives. Wellstone died in an airplane crash in 2002 when he was running for a third term in the Senate.
“He’s always been my hero since I was a kid,” Livingston said. “He’s been an inspiration. I look at the world very much according to what would Wellstone do. That’s how much he matters to me.”
As an adult Livingston went through a training program in organizing with what was then called Wellstone Action, a political training organization that conducted training in political organizing and advocacy.