On Monday, June 18, this appeared on the agenda of the Hinsdale Township High School District 86 school board’s meeting as the second action item:
“Recommended Action: Eliminate the Buffer Zone as an attendance area by using proximity to draw school attendance boundaries to bring each school closer to its target enrollment”
And after board members had voted, the attendance choices some residents of District 86 have been granted since 1991 were abolished, beginning with the 2019-20 school year. As of then, all students will have their high school assigned by the district, and no individual family will be able to select between Hinsdale South and Hinsdale Central. The buffer zone, which has fostered controversy in District 86 since its creation, came to an end by a 5-2 vote; whether this settles the issue permanently remains to be seen. The most likely next step will come when the administration, led by Superintendent Bruce Law, presents the board with proposals on blending the two criteria the board has designated for determining which students will attend Hinsdale South or Hinsdale Central: geographic proximity and target enrollment numbers for each school.
This has been an issue for a long time, especially in recent years as enrollment for each high school has shrunk or grown: South down to 1507 and Central up to 2765 on the 2016-17 school report cards. I’ve written many times about this issue, with this one from 2016 providing an overview of how this has played out. In summary, Central is overcrowded, South is under-utilized (to give you an idea, its enrollment peaked at over 1900) and is projected to shrink even further, a referendum which would have added space at Central was crushed by a 3-1 margin in April of 2017, and many parents potentially impacted by a shift in high schools are adamantly opposed to sending their children to South. Now, however, it appears that the school board has made the hard choice to retake and utilize the authority granted in Illinois school code to determine which school students attend.
To be as transparent as possible, I am an unaffected observer of this situation. Although I do not live in District 86 and both my children are just about finished with public education in elementary CCSD 66 and high school District 99 (Downers South), I did work for twenty-five years at Hinsdale South as an English teacher, which gives me some insight into Hornet-land (I retired in 2012). As far as District 86 goes, I was active in the teachers’ union (Hinsdale High School Teachers Association—HHSTA) and worked with teachers from Central, district as well as building administrators, and board members on many district-wide issues, especially those which impacted teachers. I still know lots of teachers, but very few administrators with whom I worked are still there (the only ones left are all at South), and I don’t know any of the current board members, with the exception of Keith Chval whom I met in the late 1990s when I was HHSTA president and he was part (head?) of the community organization Caucus 86, which slated people to run for the District 86 school board. (Caucus 86 consulted with school leaders, including union presidents, on what constituted good board members. For what it’s worth, I found Keith to be genuinely interested in working to make District 86 as good as it could be, and I haven’t seen or read anything since then to dissuade me of that opinion.) Regardless, my view of this current situation has to be weighed with all of this baggage in mind: I’m not impacted by this decision, I’m very biased in favor of Hinsdale South as a quality high school, I’ve never liked the whole “Buffer Zone” concept, and I believe the school board’s recent action was the right first step. What all the various parties affected by this decision choose to do next, however, will ultimately determine if buffer zone elimination leads the district away from its historic divisions.
To begin, then, those in the now-defunct Buffer Zone will be unhappy. Any time you go from having the option of either high school one school year to having that determination now in the hands of the school board the next, you can be forgiven for being upset. Nothing I can write will convince parents who chose to live in the buffer zone (at least in part) because it would allow their kids to go to Central that South will provide their children with the same superior educational opportunities Central does. Central has higher standardized test scores which some equate with the overall quality of a high school, but I cannot emphasize enough that the educational heights any individual student can climb at South will get the most talented students into equally rarified air as similar students at Central would reach. Central’s expedition up the academic Himalayas will be larger than South’s, but those in South’s plucky troop will climb just as high as anyone in the country. (Since the most significant predictors of academic success are parental education and income as well as student test scores, and Central’s entering freshmen have always averaged higher in all three of those measures; the progress students make during their four years in high school is the standard by which any school should be judged. And that progress has been consistently roughly the same at both schools.) I taught some amazing students in my time at South—who went on to stellar academic careers at colleges like Stanford, MIT, the Air Force Academy, and Harvard (to name a few), and the vast majority of them gave credit to South as a key reason they got off to such good starts.
I know, I know—I’m trying to do what I’ve already conceded is impossible, but it does gall South teachers (even retired ones) to be denigrated as providing an education inferior to Central’s so regularly and vociferously any time the idea of transferring students comes up. After the school board passed the above motion on June 18, the possibility of being forced to go to South led some audience members to disrupt the meeting for several minutes, board members were forced to leave the stage, and reinforcements from the Darien Police Department were called in. (You can watch it here; the vote begins at about 1:17 and the disruption goes on until about 1:27.) Parents need to realize they are attacking the entire staff at South with this kind of nonsense, to say nothing of demonstrating unacceptable behavior. The interviews with teary parents don’t elicit much empathy from those whose career work these people are flatly stating is inferior to that of other teachers in the same school district, even though these parents have not one iota of knowledge about what South teachers do or what the school is really like. I also have little tolerance for any rhetoric about “differences” between the high schools tinged with racism and class snobbery—South has significantly more minority and low-income students than Central—is that your problem? Sorry, if that’s the case, I certainly agree with the majority who argue those kinds of beliefs shouldn’t mean higher property taxes for everyone so Central can be needlessly enlarged. To be as fair as possible, though, I can understand how most parents would be concerned when the high school their child had been scheduled to attend gets changed, especially when many community members (mistakenly and with no first-hand knowledge) view one high school as inferior to the other one.
However, just as some of the concerns and shows of consternation are somewhat understandable, one does have to concede that the high school choice provided to residents of the late Buffer Zone was unusual, unique to District 86. Even the year-long gap between the zone’s elimination and any attendance changes stands out in contrast to the relatively common boundary revisions other school districts have felt compelled to make over the years—and enacted much more quickly. In many places, students have to switch schools regularly and with much less notice. Just in the last twelve months in the Chicago suburbs: January 18, 2018—280 Plainfield District 202 students found out they would switch schools effective for the 2018-19 school year; March 2018—600 St. Charles students in Geneva District 303 learned they would have a different school for the next school year; and December 2017—the CCSD 89’s board of Glen Ellyn voted to begin phasing in attendance changes for the 2018-19 school year. In short, this sort of thing happens often as communities and school districts grapple with shifting populations and unbalanced attendance in their districts. District 86 has actually been an outlier in creating a buffer zone and continually adding on to make more room at one high school while there is space in the other.
Unfortunately, this special treatment has evolved into taken-for-granted expectations which prompted audience members at District 86’s June 18th meeting to feel justified in screaming, “Shame” at the board and threatening the superintendent’s job. This sense of entitlement is also an affront to the District 86 residents who have never been allowed to select which high school their children attend.
The school board—or at least the five who voted in favor of the Buffer Zone’s elimination—deserve credit for facing this contradiction, imbalance, and unfairness and finally doing something besides forming a committee to study the problem, using taxpayer money to build additions that weren’t really necessary, or hiring a public relations firm to assess public sentiment on that about which public sentiment was perfectly clear. (Oh wait, this board did do that last one.) It’s also very easy to imagine that some of those impacted by this change—when the new boundaries between South and Central are created—will take to the courts to challenge this decision. Some of the pressure on the board to eliminate the buffer zone comes from a group in the South attendance area (Burr Ridge) which has filed a lawsuit claiming the school board discriminates against South; the District 86 board president stated that the reason no discussion of the buffer zone’s elimination took place on June 18 was due to pending litigation. So, there is no doubt this could get messy, and there will undoubtedly be more legal machinations from both sides in the coming months, if not years. You can be sure this will be a prominent discussion item in the next school board election when three seats will be in contention, in April 2019, which could shift the balance of power to those more inclined to resist a boundary shift’s taking effect. And I fear that my old high school’s name will be continually dragged through the mud by those who know very little about it. The majority on the Hinsdale 86 school board deserve plaudits for the correct-but-tough decision they made on June 18, and I hope all players in this situation try to keep their emotions in check as it goes forward. Hinsdale South and Hinsdale Central are both excellent schools, and the District 86 communities should be thrilled to have such superior schools for their children to attend.
If you would like to read more on this seismic District 86 event beyond watching the board meeting referenced above, an explanation from the school district would be a good start. The school board will be discussing the next steps in the buffer zone elimination process at its July 9th meeting, Monday in Central’s auditorium (they must be anticipating a big crowd), beginning at 6:00 P.M. (The discussion will take place after a tour of the building, audience communication, and several other business items. As one who used to attend District 86 school board meetings regularly—yes, that is as fun as it sounds—you probably could get there at eight and still be waiting for a while for this agenda item. Audience communication is bound to be heated and lengthy.) For the more sensational seeking, you can hear people yelling after the board’s vote here. This CBS newscast makes it seem as if the driving force behind the boundary change is the Burr Ridge lawsuit, and its spokesman (an ex-student of mine) makes the case for inequity over the years. There’s also a buffer zone resident bringing up worries about property values going down as a consequence of the change (another one of those claims which will inspire the ire of any South backer). This ABC newscast follows the same trajectory, but with the aggrieved parents more emotionally devastated about the prospect of having their children attend South. In this article, the Burr Ridge lawsuit is seen as the key driving force, and its scope is more specifically explained. The Trib focuses on the anger of parents affected by the decision; it is a bit much to read how the board didn’t properly listen to all the alternatives being articulated on June 18 which would solve the problem while keeping the buffer zone intact when this issue has been poked and prodded for a long time, especially over the last two years. Perhaps these individuals had only recently learned of this, but it’s been a much-debated topic for over a quarter century. The most factual account of what happened at the board meeting can be found in the Hinsdale Patch. And if you’re more interested in one ex-teacher’s views on how public education can be improved overall, my top choice is always available.
There’s no reason to doubt that Hinsdale Central and especially Hinsdale South will continue their excellence in educating District 86’s teens. The key irony in a situation which has generated so much expense, negative energy, and hard feelings? When it comes to which high school District 86 kids attend, there is no bad option.