I’ve said from the start that what first got my attention was the board’s decision to close schools in August, but that this decision revealed larger issues and caused me to pay closer attention. As the election draws nearer, I wanted to highlight once again, my two key concerns and objectives:
First, transparency and oversight. Over and over again, the board either allows the administration free rein or it exercises its oversight behind closed doors. Neither is acceptable. We saw this with the decision to close schools, and we saw this again with the adaptive pause: little more than a week after assuring the public that the schools would remain open, Dr. Schuler announced their closures just before Thanksgiving, and, in an e-mail to me, Board President Petro claimed that the decision-making power delegated to Schuler with the decision to close was so all-encompassing that no vote was needed. The board members/incumbent candidates are very careful to insist that, in their behind-the-scenes oversight, they do not cross the lines of violating the Open Meetings Act, and I’m quite sure that the district lawyers make sure of this, but it’s not about what’s legal, but about what’s the right thing to do, and this isn’t it.
Parents, voters, community members — we all should be able to see what the board is doing and what policies they are approving, regardless of any rationalization that they don’t need to take a vote on a change because it’s authority that Schuler already has anyway. And for the major votes, such as the budget, if there are elements where they exercise “behind-the-scenes oversight” before the final product is put to a vote, this should be in the open, not merely the recording of those final votes.
Earlier in the year, concerned parents learned that Dr. Schuler has a side business, Transeo, which is at the least an apparent conflict of interest for him. But any oversight the board exercises here is, again, in secret, which, it should be obvious, is not actually any meaningful oversight at all.
We have also seen recurring instances in which the district’s running policy seems to be, “provide as little information as possible.” The recordings of meetings which were recorded but also open to the public could be made available on the website, but the district chooses not. Discussions underway on the length of class periods next year are kept out of view of the community. Even my own attempts to request information via the FOIA process are provided with as narrow an interpretation of the law as possible.
Second, rebalancing district priorities to pay more attention to struggling students, whether students with IEPS/504s or more generally kids not achieving at grade level.
Recently, a friend with somewhat older children told me that, back 12 years ago when her children started at Hersey, the principal boasted of their success in bringing up to “grade level” achievement, those students who had been far behind. And I told her, “if I believed that this was still a priority, my opinion of the district would be far different than it is.” Instead, the district is pushing AP, dual credit, and career pathways courses, which have their place but not at the expense of student learning of the fundamentals of English, math, history, and scientific reasoning.
We know that there are serious achievement disparities between students by demographic group. This is, to be clear, not a matter of “poor kids can’t learn” or “ethnic minority kids can’t learn,” but a symptom of a larger issue of misplaced priorities on the part of the school board and the administration. Pushing dual credit is what gets the district accolades. The board revels in the fact that their career pathways program has gained them national recognition — but we shouldn’t be in the business of pursuing national recognition, or, rather, that should come a distant second to ensuring all students are learning what they need to learn in high school.
As a secondary and related concern, I also worry that the fine arts are getting the short shrift in the push to “pathways.” It’s already the case that fine arts programs have been cut; at Meadows, the pep band no longer plays at basketball games as a cost-cutting measure. Parents have said that similar programs were cut elsewhere. What the magnitude is of the loss to fine arts due to the pathways push, I don’t know.
There are, of course, many other issues to be looked at. Some may be a matter of assessing data to determine whether there is indeed a need for action, others are clear, but lower-level concerns. For instance, is there a serious problem with harassment on the basis of race/ethnicity (or, more generally speaking, for whatever other reasons such harassment may occur)? Is the district spending responsibly measured on a per-student basis when it increases the tax levy by the maximum possible amount every year? To the extent that certain courses, including “pathways” and specific foreign languages, are offered at only some schools, what more should be done to make these available to all students? As long as not all students are learning in the building, how can their needs be met without compromising the learning of in-person students? And, of course, parents must be assured that they will not have the rug pulled out from under them again with a repeat of last August’s sudden move to remote.
But whether you’ve been following me for a while or only have only now started looking into the election, this is who I am and what I’m about. I’m not a politician, neither slick and polished nor pursuing Chicago Way politics, I’m not a parent aiming for the Ivy League for her kids, I’m just a parent and community member trying to do what’s right for my family and my community.
Election day is Tuesday. Early voting has already started. Once again, I ask for your vote, and, because local elections’ turnout is so low, I ask you to remind friends and family to cast their votes as well.