The Wednesday Journal sent questionnaires to each person running for public office in 2023. The candidates’ replies are as shown as they were received by the Journal. For more on a candidate, click their name or photo.
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?
There appears to be unanimity among the current seven Board members, and at least three of the four candidates agree: Project 2 should be approved. The current Board has been clear in its intention to resolve this issue during the current school year; approving Project 2 and settling on the appropriate funding strategy have been part of the Board’s Goals since September, and the Board and administration have moved steadily in that direction this entire school year. So whatever the outcome of the April election, it’s clear that the project will move forward.
There is increasingly widespread community consensus that Project 2 is a necessary solution to the longstanding risks and unacceptable conditions in OPRF’s physical education learning spaces. That consensus is due in large part to the tours OPRF has conducted over the past year; as hundreds of parents and community members have seen the current conditions, most agree that it’s long past time to solve these facilities problems.
The set of solutions in Project 2 were derived from the Imagine OPRF process–a community-led, transparent, needs-based process conducted in 2017-2018 to assess the entire campus and prioritize facilities needs, and a process worthy of the community’s trust.
I am comfortable that both scope and financing plan be decided by the existing board. Those current members have all been steeped in the issues for at least two years.
From what I understand, it is anticipated that the current board will be making this decision prior to the newly-constituted board members assuming office. Assuming this holds true, this is the right call. No one has been more intimately, empathically and critically involved in the Project 2 community-wide process than the current OPRF board. As such, I trust that they will act with integrity in making the right decision here.
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?
I will support whichever funding strategy the current Board selects.
There are several questions I would suggest the current Board consider. First, what is the funding strategy that makes the least impact on property taxes? Second, what path results in the lowest possible total expense for Project 2? Third, what will the impact on the fund balance be, and will the Board’s funding strategy result in a right-sized, rational fund balance in the future? If the answers to these questions lead logically to a referendum, then we should go to referendum.
The overriding goal for the Board and the community is this: that in ten years, when we walk on Lake Street and look up at the new physical education facilities, we see the finished product as beautiful, functional, and a credit to the community–and not as something that divides us.
Philosophically, I believe that the best practice for the funding of long-term infrastructure projects is the use of capital referendum bonds.
Taxpayers should always have the opportunity to vote via referendum if a significant debt component should emerge in the financing of any public project.
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?
I genuinely appreciate the overture of OPPD’s Chief Johnson, and her representation that sworn officers will act as “visitors in the building.” But, whether in the possession of a teacher, an administrator, or a sworn police officer, the risk of having a loaded weapon inside the high school is simply too great. And let’s be clear: that risk falls disproportionately on one group, young Black men. Except in the case of an emergency/active shooter situation, I am strongly opposed to the presence of weapons inside the high school. Therefore I would be opposed to sworn police officers patrolling the halls of OPRF.
As I stated at your forum: We first have to ask the question of what purpose or objective the return of school resource officer(s) to OPRF would be trying to serve. This would have to begin with the voice of the students, faculty, and administration to articulate the why of such a move. I don’t think the board should make such a decision unilaterally.
I am not in favor of this. Instead, I believe that we need to invest in a greater capacity to serve the social, emotional, and mental health needs of our students. .
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?
This is a potentially transformative initiative that cannot be allowed to fail. I support the goals: to maintain academic excellence, and to make sure that every student has true access to that excellence. It will be among the Board’s and administration’s highest priorities in the coming years. I would be committed to demanding as much data as possible; to sharing that data with the community as transparently as possible; with providing necessary supports, as well as supporting shifts in strategy dictated by the data; and to evaluating the initiative with candor and integrity. I am committed to ensuring this equity initiative is successful–which will surely require close, careful attention over the next four years (and more) and agile response to key indicators.
We should track closely all possible data, and try to identify every early lesson we can glean from the data as it appears throughout the school year. The administration would be well-served to publish the most important criteria we expect to use to evaluate progress–even those criteria for which we will not have actionable data until future years (such as AP test results from the current freshman class). This will help the entire community understand the incremental progress being made, as well as to continue to set expectations around the very long time horizon this initiative anticipates. For the short term, though, the job is to be alert to every possible story the early data tells us, and to consider whether additional or different supports or approaches are indicated.
The honors for all strategy is an iterative process that will take time to evolve. Having said that, my assumption is that the first point of meaningful data would likely come after the conclusion of the first full academic year of the strategy’s implementation, and in the form of grades.
We should start to see what is working by looking at grades and test results by the end of the first year, but a commitment to meaningfully assessing all significant curriculum changes should involve consistently gathering feedback from teachers, students, staff and parents.
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 am a strong believer in restorative justice as a system of meaningful accountability, and as a way to sustain the school community and all within it.
I was pleased to learn that all current deans have been trained in restorative justice practices, and that restorative justice is now the default approach in student misconduct cases. Restorative justice, when properly implemented, leads to true accountability and outcomes that are more meaningful to the person who suffered harm, the harm-doer, and other affected stakeholders–and leads ultimately to a restoration of all to the school community.
So it’s great that we’ve shifted as much as we have to this approach. But we have a long way to go. We do not leverage the true power of restorative justice and restorative communication unless the entire school community understands and embraces the principles behind it. That we continue to have as many student-on-student fights as we do indicates that students do not perceive they have an alternative process for resolving disagreements. The vast majority of the faculty and staff have not received training, and do not use restorative principles. I would strongly support continued widespread training and adoption.
I would not want to see a return to “traditional punitive” approaches to discipline, which historically have consisted of out-of-school suspensions that do not constructively address the needs and issues of at-risk youth.
I am thrilled to see that OPRF is embracing restorative practice to inform its disciplinary orientation. I am a huge advocate for integrating restorative practice not just when it comes to discipline, but also as a means of improving culture and communication at all levels of the school.
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.