The four candidates running for three seats on the Oak Park and River Forest High School board in the April 4 election met last week on a cold and snowy evening for a candidate forum hosted by Growing Community Media at Dominican University. Although there was a lot of agreement about the issues there was one issue where a clear distinction was obvious.
That’s the question of whether there should be a referendum on OPRF’s Project 2, the planned demolition and rebuilding of the physical education wing of OPRF with a new swimming pool, a three-court gym, a new dance studio, new offices, locker rooms and a theater Green Room along with other improvements. The project is expected to cost nearly $102 million. The current school board is likely to choose a financing mechanism for Project 2 before the three new board members are seated after the election, but since construction would not begin until 2024 at the earliest no decision made this spring is irreversible.
Brian Souders was emphatic that the decision whether to borrow money for Project 2 should be decided by voters in a referendum.
“Financing a project this huge, it absolutely 100 percent has to go to a referendum,” said Souders, an independent marketing communications professional from Oak Park.
Graham Brisben, a former Oak Park District 97 school board member who owns his own supply chain consulting firm, gave a more general answer.
“As a general philosophy the best and right way to fund long term capital infrastructure for schools is the use of long term capital bonds which are subjected to a community referendum,” Brisben said.
However in a candidate questionnaire submitted to Growing Community Media Brisben said he is comfortable with letting the current school board decide the scope and financing of Project 2.
Jonathan Livingston, an adjunct professor and consultant to non-profits who moved to Oak Park three years ago, said that while he generally likes referendums, he was comfortable in this case letting the current school board decide how to finance Project 2.
Tim Brandhorst, a lawyer who lives in River Forest, said the current board would decide how to finance Project 2. He suggested that they consider one main factor.
“Let’s choose the funding strategy that keeps our property taxes the lowest,” said Brandhorst.
Brandhorst was alluding to a report by the school’s financial advisor on funding options that showed that the non-referendum option, funding nearly half of Project 2 with $44 in debt certificates which are like bonds but paid back from the operating levy rather than a specific bond levy, is the cheapest option for taxpayers costing the owner of a home worth $500,000 an additional $109 in property taxes per year. However that calculation rests on the questionable assumption that issuing debt certificates would result in no additional cost to taxpayers because the school’s operating levy would be the same whether or not debt certificates are used.
Souders said that OPRF would lose trust with the community by going ahead with Project 2 without getting approval from voters in a referendum.
“I don’t think that it’s in the best interest of the school, and its political capital, and its reputation to once again bypass voters where, you know, 90 some percent of schools in Illinois use referendum voting to do this,” Souders said. “And if you’re going to rip your reputation to shreds because you really want this and because you think you’re going to save a few million dollars you’re going to have to worry what happens down the road when you’re paying for debt certificates and you have a financial issue and all of a sudden you’re going to need to go back to voters for an operating referendum.”
All the candidates agreed the physical education wing of the school badly needs updating.
But Souders questioned the scope of Project 2 arguing that it is so expensive that it will make it difficult to improve other areas of the school in the foreseeable future.
“When you’re spending this much amount of money it’s going to have a huge impact on what can happen in the future,” Souders said. “And there’s been no discussion, almost zero discussion, both at the finance committee and at the board table about our capacity to ever do phases three, four and five in our lifetime after we spend this amount of money.”
On other issues there wasn’t much disagreement among the candidates.
All professed a strong commitment to equity and closing the wide gulf in test scores and grades between students of different races and ethnic groups.
They supported the Honors for All revamping of the freshman curriculum which eliminated the college prep level in most freshman courses.
Livingston said improving vocational training programs is an important component of equity.
“I think that we need to do a much better job providing opportunity to all students and I think that means looking at how we retool, revamp, reapproach skills based training, vocational training, certificate opportunities,” Livingston said.
None of the candidates supported bringing back a police presence in the school in the form of having a police officer stationed at the school as a full time school resource officer.
All the candidates liked the current emphasis at OPRF on restorative justice, a philosophy that focuses on repairing the harm caused by misdeeds rather than punishment.
“I’m a huge proponent of restorative practice,” Livingston said. “Let’s look how we can better make restorative practice more sophisticated and more deeply embedded in the school.”
Brisben said his experience on the District 97 school board, where he served from 2013 to 2017, taught him the importance of remaining student focused and of listening to everyone.
“You usually have well-resourced families that can show up to board meetings and show up to all kinds of events, you have to make an effort to find those students and families who can’t be as present,” Brisben said.
Moderator Charlie Meyerson, the publisher of Chicago Public Square, noted that all four candidates were white men and asked what they thought of that.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Souders said. “All I know is I saw an opportunity to help the community and help our school and I stepped up. Why other people don’t do that I don’t know.”
Livingston said he would have not run if there had been quality candidates of color running.
Livingston, Brisben and Brandhorst said they would encourage more diverse candidates to run in the future.
“We clearly don’t represent the community,” Brandhorst said. “We’re four middle aged white guys and that is a problem.”
Those who chose not to run for another term are a white male, Ralph Martire, a white female, Sara Spivy, and a Black female, Gina Harris.
Twenty-two people attended the forum in person and another 48 watched it live on Zoom.
One of those who attended the forum in person said afterwards that he was struck by what wasn’t talked about.
“I was hoping there would be more discussion about academic excellence and competitive grading and scoring versus other high schools, like goals to get us into the top 20 percent of Illinois high schools,” said River Forest resident Owen Beacom who graduated from OPRF in 1977.