Monica Sheehan, a former television news reporter and media professional, has been the guiding force behind the defeat of not one, but two multimillion-dollar, publicly-funded construction plans and has inspired three people to run for local office, but she'd rather not talk about herself, she said in a recent interview, deflecting attention to a core team of at least two dozen volunteers like Jack Davidson.
Davidson remembers vividly the day in November 2015 when his identity began to slowly change from Oak Park homeowner and accounts director at a digital marketing agency to a citizen activist and now a local politician — although he probably spurns that last label.
He was at a local Starbucks one Saturday when a fellow Oak Parker, Mike Poirier, approached him about signing a petition in order to force a construction plan approved by the District 200 school board onto the ballot the following March. The plan called for funding a $37.5 million swimming pool at Oak Park and River Forest High School with $17.5 million of non-referendum working cash bonds.
"Mike handed me a clipboard with no signatures on it because there was no one else there," said Davidson, during an interview last month inside the Oak Park home of Doug Springer. Both will run for the D200 school board in April, the first time either has run for office.
"I was his very first signature and he told me something that stuck with me. He said that this isn't about the pool, it's about the process, and it's about having our voices heard in the community, which is what's important. Because we haven't had the opportunity to do that."
Davidson, along with Springer, would eventually lead the marketing effort in the group's attempt to force the plan to a vote, an action that was ultimately successful.
The group of volunteers were able to drum up over 4,000 signatures. After surviving a petition challenge, the construction plan seemed headed for the ballot in March before the school board withdrew its plan to issue the bonds and hit the reset button on the process of replacing the high school's two, nearly 90-year-old pools.
By the time the district went back to the drawing board and selected an alternative $44.5 million, five-year facilities plan — which called for the demolition of the 300-space parking garage and the construction of a $21.4 million, 25-yard by 40-meter swimming pool and a brand new 240-space garage to replace the existing village-owned garage — Sheehan's opposition movement had settled on a name, D200 Pragmatic Pool Solutions.
"The original name when we first started was Petition for Referendum," said Maureen Kleinman. "That was a year ago. Once that whole issue was resolved and the school board pulled their intent to issue the bonds and decided to go back and look at the issue, that's when we decided to change the name."
Kleinman's husband Bruce, a medical doctor, said that he was attracted to the acronym PPS, because it was one of the ways he could remember the name.
"That stands for Postpericardiotomy syndrome," Bruce Kleinman said, referring to an immune system complication stemming from heart surgery, before he explained what prompted him to take action.
"I was enraged," he said, his face turning red ("blood pressure!" shouted one of his colleagues, alluding to the PPS reference), "when they went around the citizens with their backdoor referendum. I felt that that was a voting rights issue. That was avoiding the electorate. It was legal, but unethical."
"When the petition came out to put the pool on the referendum, I began following the letter-writing comments," said Marty Bernstein. "Monica is a beautiful writer."
In addition to criticizing what the group described as D200's lack of transparency and openness to community dialogue, the group also advocated for a cheaper swimming pool option, which wasn't on the ballot during the Nov. 8 election, when voters decided on whether or not to partially fund the $44.5 million plan with up to $25 million in referendum bonds.
The ballot measure failed by just 28 votes, prompting the district to extend something of an olive branch with the approval of a new community engagement and outreach committee that would be more comprehensive than the pool committees that had formed in the past — at least three since 2012, according to one D200 official's rough count.
At a Dec. 13 special board meeting, then-interim Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said the district should "take a step back because for us it's not just about a pool. It's about academic programming, it's about equity, it's about having facilities that are going to support the next generation of learners in terms of labs that support the new national science standards and technology [that we can] take a step further."
The new move may be genuine, PPS members argued, but the now permanent superintendent's efforts won't be enough to overcome the status quo.
"I think she's been handcuffed already," said Davidson. "The board wants control over financial aspects, intended outcomes and the process. Her approach is right, but the board significantly handicaps her."
Critics of PPS have said that the group has significantly downplayed years of public discussion and community engagement that's already been put forth on the pool. Since 2012, according to one district official's estimate, there have been at least three different pool committees, two long-term facilities planning processes and countless public hearings on the district's various pool plans.
Sheehan's group also effectively labeled proponents of the spending project as "the pool lobby" and characterized them as elitists seeking funding for a very narrow sporting use.
District 200 board President Jeff Weissglass, who insisted that he was speaking for himself and not for the board, said he believes that Sheehan "touched an important concern in Oak Park and River Forest around the amount of our property taxes and the cost of the proposed pool and facilities project.
"Our community faces a real dilemma as we work to both maintain our economic diversity and provide the level of services and facilities that make our community such a great place to live," he said. "The board and district have been studying these facilities issues extensively over the last three years with numerous opportunities for community input. The virtual tie in the referendum provided little additional guidance and I continue to believe that the solutions suggested by the Vote No group are not sufficient."
Sheehan said her group's mission is succinct.
"I think everything we have been working on is for the greater good of every student at the high school," she said. "We think the core mission of the high school is academics and we think the expenditures should be aligned with that mission."
Answer Book 2019
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