John Duffy speaking at a OPRF school board meeting. | Screenshot

For the past several months John Duffy, a co-chair of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education (CEEE), has been a regular speaker during the public comment portion of meetings of the Oak Park and River Forest High School Board of the Education and the OPRF Community Finance Committee (CFC). He has been demanding that the school undertake a rigorous analysis of the equity implications of the proposed $99.5 million Project 2 improvements at the school. Duffy and CEEE have called upon OPRF to use what is called a Racial Equity Analysis Tool or REAT.

Duffy had been increasingly frustrated with the lack of response from the school administration. But that all changed last week after Duffy and four other leaders of CEEE met with OPRF Superintendent Greg Johnson and OPRF Executive Director of Equity & Student Success LaTonya Applewhite on Jan 26.

“D200 heard what the community and equity allies were asking for and they responded correctly, they pledged to do the REAT on Project 2,” Duffy told Wednesday Journal in a telephone interview. “They’re convening a committee of community representatives and school representatives, including the Director of Equity obviously, to do that process and to do it faithfully to the protocols that are established. So that’s a major, major commitment that we had asked for. We weren’t sure if they were hearing us or agreeing with us, but right now we’re all on the same page.”

Burcy Hines

Burcy Hines, the other co-chair of CEEE and a longtime member of African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership and Education (A.P.P.L.E.) participated in the meeting and was also pleased with the outcome.

“I’m pleased that they are willing to move forward,” Hines said. “We basically got what we want.”

Duffy said he was pleased after months of what he considered not getting an adequate response from the school.

“This was a real turnaround, at least from the outside,” Duffy said. “When you get crickets for a year about things, or over a year, about proposals you’re making to the Community Finance Committee, with individual board members, with the whole board itself, with the superintendent, with the last racial equity director. When you get crickets and then all of sudden somebody says something and then they say it in a way that’s advancing our common goal that’s a real breakthrough.” 

Johnson said he is committed to using the REAT but said the school had already used the equity tool and examined some of the equity implications of Project 2.

“We are going to sit down with them and use that tool to analyze Project 2,” Johnson said.

In September OPRF prepared a four page equity analysis of Project 2 and gave it to CEEE in December but Duffy and others did not consider it a full racial equity analysis. The report was light on specifics of impacts on different racial groups. 

“They have done things that are really valid, that doesn’t mean they’ve done the full range of inquiry that they should be doing,” Duffy said.

Duffy says a full analysis would look at some of the opportunity costs of doing Project 2, meaning looking at alternative ways of spending the money that would be spent on Project 2 and all possible options.

“Before proceeding further, the district must follow its own policy including an equity assessment of all possible options for addressing the swimming pool problem,” Duffy said in his public comment to the CFC on Nov. 9. “This assessment should include the shared development with the Park District of the Ridgeland pool complex.”

Duffy and other members of CEEE, are also concerned that any tax increase necessary to pay for Project 2 would make Oak Park and River Forest even less affordable to low income people, people of color and retired people. In his public comment at the Jan. 17 CFC meeting Duffy noted that the percentage of Black OPRF students has declined from 28 percent in 2010 to 18 percent in 2020. 

The meeting last week came a little more than a month after CEEE sent a letter to Johnson saying that the REAT the school conducted last year did not involve the community and failed to follow the district’s policy and procedures.

CEEE would like OPRF to bring in an expert in racial equity analysis to help facilitate the further equity analysis.

“We would like it to be someone of national stature,” Duffy said.

In its analysis done last year the OPRF document states the improvements in the physical education wing of the school, along with some improvements for students in the performing arts, will benefit all students but particularly benefit some groups of students who may be marginalized.

“Project 2 will not only improve accessibility for students with disabilities, but it will provide non-binary bathrooms as well as bring the locker rooms up to code, provide additional lockers, and increase locker room space,” the document states. “More students will be able to participate in clubs and activities.”

The document also notes the physical education spaces in the school are places where all OPRF students interact.

“More than any other classrooms, our Physical Education facilities are where all students learn together every day, regardless of academic ability, race/ethnicity, gender, income status, etc.,” the document states.

Greg Johnson

Johnson and OPRF administrators say the Imagine working group which has proposed the multi-phase capital projects was focused on equity from the start.

“Both the original work with the Imagine process and the work we had done earlier this year relied on our Racial Equity Analysis Tool, but because this is a significant project, a significant capital investment, and because there are questions about some ways we have applied it it’s worth sitting down and having another conversation again,” Johnson said.

Duffy and Hines said they appreciate the desire of the administration not to repeat work that’s already been done and the need to keep the timeline of Project 2 moving along.

“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel; we want to improve the wheel,” Hines said. “We felt that it should not be an overall do over. If we did that it would prolong the process and it appears that the community wouldn’t be happy about that.”

CEEE realizes the school board will likely decide how to fund Project 2 before a thorough equity analysis can be completed. But since work will likely not be started on Project 2 until the summer of 2024 that leaves plenty of time to do a detailed equity analysis and to incorporate its findings.

“There’s over a year before the final offering of bonds or the borrowing of money would take place so there’s no reason for us to rush through this,” Duffy said. “We want to do it right; it’s going to take time to do it right. It’s a sea change in how we’ve gone about decision making in the past.”

CEEE does not have a position for or against Project 2.

“We don’t have a horse in the race as an organization. We want to make sure that the race is run according to the rules that have been agreed upon and pledged to, that’s the racial equity impact assessment,” Duffy said.

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