Slates and Labels in District 86

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As voting day (April 7th) nears in the school board election for Hinsdale Township High School District 86, voters need to sort through a campaign where the two slates of candidates have used decidedly different approaches.  One slate (District 86 Education First:  Jennifer Planson, Bill Carpenter, and Kathleen Hirsman) has gone in a more traditional way, discussing educational issues exclusively and being accessible to the public; the other slate (Friends of District 86:  Fred Cappetta, Rick Skoda, and Greg Gurshuny) has done most of its campaigning through the media and paid fundraisers.  As with most media campaigns, this latter technique leads to the issues taking a back seat to setting a tone, to establishing an image rather than using facts to build a case for voters to support, and, most unfortunately, to associating your opponents with negative labels rather than addressing the tasks before the school district.

Keep in mind that being on a school board is one of the most important, least understood, and totally voluntary jobs there is.  Overseeing a multimillion-dollar enterprise (over $80,000,000 in expenses for District 86 according to its most recent audit), levying one of the largest amounts on every resident’s property tax bill, setting educational policies for the districts 4,000+ students, and hiring the teachers/administrators/support staff who will be in daily contact with the community’s children are just some of the vital job duties with which the seven school board members have been entrusted.  It is little wonder that the challenges of this job, not to mention the hours and hours of unpaid time it requires, make running for school board a low priority for most residents unless they see something wrong with the school system.

And that’s precisely what happened in 2013 when three individuals were elected based on a shared belief that there were things wrong with District 86, especially the amount of money that was collected in property taxes and spent on teachers.  They couldn’t really attack the teachers as overpaid since most of the parents with children in the high schools like the teachers, since in general, the teachers do an excellent job; so they found a straw man—in this case the UNION—as a stand in for the teachers in order to justify trying to slash their wages and benefits.  Many of those who love the teachers of District 86 have a much less positive view of organized labor, so it was shrewd, if cynical, to suggest that although the district valued its wonderful teachers, it could not capitulate to the greedy demands of the union.  Yes, any thinking person recognizes that teachers are the union, and therefore, teachers controlled all the offers and actions taken during these negotiations.  Instead, the incorrect impression was fostered that outside, evil union forces had taken control of the naïve Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA) and were controlling the contract proposals.

I was on the inside, as a teacher negotiator for six contracts while I worked in District 86, two of which I served as chief spokesperson for the HHSTA.  So let me state categorically that NEVER did the help we received from our state union officials EVER control in the least what we did as a local.    Never.  It simply does not happen in District 86. (We had little, if any, direct contact with any union officials from the national organization.)  Sure, locals seek advice and make use of the research capabilities and experience in logistics the state organization has.  That’s true especially when dealing with a school board like District 86’s that hires multiple law firms, that negotiates in public, that sends incorrect information to every house in the district, that violates the limitations on press comments recommended by the mediator hired and selected by mutual agreement of both sides, and that attempts to make the teachers’ contract significantly inferior to every high school district’s in the area.  One of the first deceptions this board perpetrated on the public was that the difficulties during contract negotiations were caused by the union.

But even after the teachers accepted a contract which made concessions to the school board on virtually all of its issues—salary schedule, end-of-career increases, and insurance contributions—three of the four majority board members still wouldn’t vote for it and publically attacked it as ruinously expensive.    And that strategy—hammering home a negative image, regardless of how wrong it is—was the second major spin move this board used.  (Yes, I’m leaving out things like the “Windshield Axe” threats, the yelling at teachers in the audience for laughing, the “They call me Dr. Skoda!” embarrassment, and the attempted intimidation of some teachers during open house, but I don’t want to be accused of being overly verbose here.)

Next came the non-binding referendum the board inserted onto the November ballot, again with the primary purpose of public relations rather than any significant purpose.  In the newly approved teachers’ contract, end-of-career bonuses had been reduced from the maximum allowed by the state of 6% for a teacher’s last four years to 3%, but the board went ahead with an initiative to see if the public was in favor of the 6% bonuses which had already ended.  Predictably, voters voted against the bonuses, even though most of them were probably unaware that the size of the bonuses referenced on the ballots weren’t actually the amount that District 86 was now paying.  But the teachers certainly understand that the end-of-career salary increases, which have been common practice throughout the suburbs and are still in full effect in all of the high schools with which District 86 competes for new hires, are now 50% lower in District 86 than everywhere else.

This issue really shows how the current board president, Rick Skoda, tries to manipulate public opinion without being forthcoming about his own situation.  Skoda has been the most vocal about how this “immoral salary spiking” must end.  What he leaves out, though, is the fact the he himself received 20% annual increases for four straight years from 2004-2008 while he was a history teacher at Morton High School, significantly raising his salary so that his pension is roughly $30,000 per year more than it would have been without those increases.  This hypocrisy galls one, let me tell you, and I retired myself from District 86 in 2012 after teaching at Hinsdale South for twenty-five years (thirty-three overall) having received end-of-career salary increases of 6%  for four years myself.  Even that generous arrangement pales to a mere 26% overall increase by the fourth year in comparison to the 93% Skoda’s salary skyrocketed in the four years of his salary hikes (from $87,930 in 2004 to $169,944 in 2008).  And the teachers that now work for him garner less than 13% over their four years, a full 7% less than the person decrying this paltry sum as “immoral” raked in for one year of his four 20% bonanzas.

And the manipulations continue when this issue is raised—Skoda’s main defender claims that his doing exactly what  he now claims is immoral (except the amount of his spikes were more than six times what current District 86 teachers earn) is “irrelevant” or that he “learned” from this experience.  Instead of admitting he used the system to get all it would give him, Skoda has so far just ignored his own spiking history.  If you never mention something, then perhaps it will just go away.  Hey, it was Morton, not Hinsdale, where his actions took place.  Never mind that District 86 taxpayers are contributing  to Skoda’s inflated state pension—because that truth is inconvenient, Skoda just never talks about it.

But playing word games or stone-walling rather than seriously debating issues has worked well for the board majority, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Skoda’s slate is using the same connotative misdirections to try to maintain that majority, despite a significant and well-organized effort against them.  The problem for the District 86 Education First slate (the opposition) is that in order to take control of the board, they need to win all three of the open seats, since three (Ed Corcoran, Claudia Manley, and Victor Casini) of the four members currently in control have two more years on their terms.  If only one of the Friends for District 86 slate wins, the current majority will continue to control the schools.

To that end, the Friends slate is resorting to negative labels, calling the Education First slate the “Pro-Union” candidates, and playing with statistics and flat out distortions to suggest that the current majority has done a wonderful job.  Despite recent board meetings which show the district heading for a $1.7 million spending deficit this fiscal year, the Friends website points to surpluses the district has had since its candidates have taken power (even though surpluses have been commonplace in District 86 for as long as I’ve been aware of it).  And of course, they don’t acknowledge that the only reason a deficit might occur this year is due to the current majority’s ignoring the advice of its own financial officers and refusing to use the inflation rate as the basis for the past two year’s tax levies.  That this was recommended by its own administrators and done in virtually every school district in the state didn’t seem to matter before.  Now that a deficit is looming, it will be totally ignored until after the election.  And if the current majority maintains its hold on power, you can bet that this deficit will be blamed on the teachers’ contract leading to programs and/or staffing cuts.  That these money problems are directly related to the board’s specific actions as property tax hardliners will never be discussed, much less admitted.

Unfortunately, the debate in this campaign is making use of fewer facts about the real issues that confront the school district and more about letting political labels do all of the talking.  The Friends slate has labeled itself “conservative.”  To prove that even more, I guess, the Friends slate also chose to attend a politically conservative radio talk-show host’s fundraiser (at $30 per person) instead of showing up at a free, open-to-all, meet-the-candidates night organized and run by the local newspaper, The Hinsdalean.  It seems likely at this point that the Friends will not make any public appearances; hoping that by labeling, misusing statistics, and praying for another low turnout they can once again sneak in the back door with a majority from less than 20% of eligible voters showing up on Election Day.

Don’t misunderstand me:  There have been many “spirited” elections in District 86 prior to this one, and the battle of letters to the editor and yard signs is hardly a recent occurrence.  But this tilt into media manipulations rather than public interactions is definitely not the way things worked before, nor is it a healthy sign for an institution—public education—that should always be run in as straightforward a fashion as possible.

The significant issues for the district have to do with interactions with the teachers, tax levies, transparency, honesty, and whose experience bodes most favorably for the future; not on who can label the other side in a way least appealing to the voters.  By trying to over-simplify and dumb down the choices to whether one is a conservative or not, the Friends slate is distracting everyone from the things that matter most and have the most value for all citizens—the schools.

Schools are way too important to their communities for anyone to cheapen them by suggesting that only conservatives know best how to educate our children.  That path leads to a restriction of knowledge and the denial of facts when that knowledge or those facts don’t jibe with a preconceived world view.  The threat of censorship has already appeared when teachers were harassed about the films they felt would best illustrate certain lessons, even after administrators had approved the films and parents had signed permission slips to permit their children to see them.  There are serious risks to our students’ intellectual development when we try to restrict their thoughts by banning any ideas with which we disagree.

Just recently, a student campaigning for the Education First slate was harassed by a current board member (one not up for re-election) for doing so.  There is no place in our society for anyone to try to restrict anyone else’s protected free speech rights.  Will the education of the students be the next target for the board majority?  There have been many unsavory moments in our history, but just because someone disagrees with certain stands of current labor unions shouldn’t prevent our students from learning how important unions and labor laws were in helping working class citizens to a decent life and preventing the exploitation of children in factories around the turn of the twentieth century.  America’s development into a superpower is an awe-inspiring tale, but that doesn’t mean our kids don’t need to know that the European settlers’ treatment of Native Americans or slaves left much to be desired.  We would be outraged if Japan and Germany tried to downplay the atrocities they committed during World War II, so we cannot ignore America’s Japanese internment camps during that same era or the torture that took place in the aftermath of the New York and Washington plane bombings even as we try to understand the fear the Pearl Harbor and World Trade Center terrorist attacks created in everyone.

Nor am I trying to argue for or against conservative, liberal, libertarian, or religious views—learning about things has no limit or boundaries; our goal in education can never tolerate blind acceptance of anything, nor reject others’ ideas without due consideration.  It is the family’s job to instill rock solid, unquestioned morals in their children; schools function to help those children understand their rights to those values, that many others do not necessarily share those values, and how to reason about how those differences can be worked out.  We want our students to be able to make up their own minds and to make informed, rational choices.  They need to know that it is stupid to vote for or against someone because he is a conservative or a liberal, particularly if you haven’t bothered to inform yourself of this person’s specific stands on the issues with which he will deal once in office.  And it should be everyone’s fervent wish that people vote based on reasons that matter in relation to the schools, not any “larger,” vague political abstractions.  A precious resource like a good school system—and District 86 has two excellent schools staffed by superior teachers and support staff, if you’ll again pardon my bias—is not something which should ever become a political arena where tax revenues are seen as more important than people.

While many have become detached and cynical about whether their votes really make a difference in national or even state-wide elections, there can be no doubt about the significance of every vote in this school board election.  Recent election turnouts, however, have averaged less than 20 percent.   Residents should now understand the importance of their participation; regardless of one’s political views, it’s simply smart to realize the value a good school system adds to its communities.  That is real, concrete treasure which benefits every home owner and business operator, not only in the priceless education given to the students, but in both property values and the quality of potential employees available locally.  Here’s hoping that the residents of Hinsdale Township High School District 86 will sort through all the propaganda, misinformation, and emotional language to make a reasoned, informed choice in this election.

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