The Wednesday Journal sent questionnaires to each person running for public office in 2023. The Journal’s questions are in bold and the candidate’s responses are below.

Brian Souders

Name: Brian Souders

Age: 50

Previous Political Experience: None

Previous/Current Community Involvement: Committee chair, Boy Scout Troop2, 7 years; volunteer docent, Frank Lloyd Wright tours, Chicago Architecture Center, 15 years; OPYBS baseball coach; Oak Park Township COVID meal deliveries

Occupation: Marketing, public relations

Education: B.A. in Political Science/International Relations, Michigan State University

1. What do you believe should be the timeframe for deciding the scope and the financing for Oak Park and River Forest High School’s Project 2? Specifically, should the current board act to make these critical decisions prior to the April election, or should a newly constituted board have the responsibility for deciding on a project that members will eventually oversee?

My biggest concern with the current Project 2 is that the cost is so high, it will prevent us from making meaningful, much-needed improvements to other aspects of the building for a generation. So far, there has been no board discussion of any trade-offs it will require, nor how any of the funding scenarios might affect the future financial position of the district.

If we are trading Project 2 pool-gyms for much-needed investments in academics, music, the heavily-utilized fieldhouse, special ed, vocational ed, wrestling, gymnastics  — things prescribed by the IMAGINE group — for 10, 20 or more years, this requires not only a robust board discussion, but a community one.

I know how badly some folks want to start digging a new pool, but I don’t see how you approve likely the largest single public investment in Oak Park and River Forest history with so little discussion or engagement on its ramifications. This needs more than a few 20 minute board meeting discussions in the next two months.

2. If there is any debt component included in financing Project 2, should taxpayers have the opportunity to vote on this issue via a referendum?

As I said before, this is likely the largest single public expense in our two villages’ history and will determine how much can be invested in academic, arts and other athletics spaces for a generation. So, absolutely, voters must have their say. Full stop. Plus in the 2020 advisory referendum, Oak Park voters overwhelming voted that projects more than $5 million need to go to referendum.

Besides, this should not even be a choice. In Illinois, referendum bonds are for facility building, and the DSEB bonds the administration and others have been pushing for Project 2 are intended for EMERGENCIES. They do not require voter approval because they are intended for schools to do emergency work before a referendum can be held — like if a boiler breaks.

Building a new pool-gym that has been prescribed for five years is not an emergency, and the only reason no-vote bonds are being discussed is so that D200 can bypass voters. It may not be illegal, but it certainly is unethical. Aren’t we in year 12 of pool discussions because of contentious and dubious tactics by the school over that time?

Project 2 supporters and the administration will tell us the current plan is the only way to meet the needs of our students, it’s legitimate because it was created by a group with community members and th4y will tell us it will have little to no tax impact. Sounds like they have a strong story to tell, so passage should be a slam dunk. Let them make their case and let voters decide.

Some have mentioned there is a cost savings by using no-vote bonds instead of vote bonds. An expert I talked to said that gap can be minimized by more creative referendum bond structuring than what was presented by the consultant, which I think is being investigated by the Community Finance Committee. Even if it does take a little longer or cost a bit more, what will be the cost to the relationship with the community by intentionally bypassing them?

3. Are you in favor of returning sworn Oak Park and River Forest police officers to the OPRFHS campus? If so, what would be the best way of doing this?

Quite simply, no. While I’m confident our local officers are capable, ethical and sensitive, studies show little to no benefit, and often terrible costs. Let’s keep trusting Principal Parker and her work on school culture, evolving the restorative justice program and taking great care of the school’s civilian safety and security team.

4. How do you believe that the school district will know, and over what timeframe, that the restructuring of the Freshman Curriculum is working?

I’m not sure what “working” means, because this is just one piece in a complex and, hopefully, constantly evolving equity puzzle. We now have a racial equity policy, racial equity evaluation tools, near constant staff culture efforts and more. I’m committed to finding more ways to do better for our Black and brown students, such as looking to other schools with track records of success with kids of diverse backgrounds, and really listening to our students and their families as to what they need.

I’d also like to use fewer absolute metrics like the SAT and more growth ones. How well is OPRF doing at progressing kids? After all, everyone – regardless of race – starts at a different place. We should expect, at minimum for kids to progress four grade levels over four years, even more if we can. 

5. What is your current assessment of OPRFHS’s shift from a more traditional punitive disciplinary approach to a more restorative approach? Do you believe that it is working?

I’m 100% in favor of restorative justice approaches over punitive ones. Research shows its often more effective, especially with Black and other minority kids. There are still consequences for actions in the restorative system, but I wonder if we need fewer steps from the first offense to serious consequences for serious offenses, such as fighting and threating others.

The past few years have been really challenging for students – I’ve seen it with my own two kids at OPRF. We need to more empathetic to them than ever, while working to keep all students safe.

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