Learning from District 86

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Yesterday the citizens residing in the attendance areas of Hinsdale Township High School District 86 made what I would consider to be the best choices and (everybody hopes) returned some semblance of reasonableness to the district when they rejected Rick Skoda and his slate to elect Jennifer Planson, Bill Carpenter, and Kathleen Hirsman to the school board by significant majorities (vote totals for DuPage County are available at https://www.dupageco.org/ElectionResults/).  The campaign was contentious and expensive, but the results show voters decided to back away from the continued controversy that would have ensued had Skoda continued on the board as president and majority spokesperson for two more years.

And now that the sighs of relief and high fives have been exchanged by anti-Skoda campaigners, it’s time to take a look at how the past two years came about and, more importantly if you didn’t like how they played out, what needs to be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  That Skoda was elected to this school board four times before this—including his most recent term which occurred after he was voted off the board in 2009 and promptly ran again in 2011—speaks volumes to the attention most people have paid to the school board and his record.  Whatever you think about his actions during the last two years, they are totally in sync with his previous fourteen years as a board member.  He’s been nothing if not consistent.

The issues that came to a head this past fall from the actions of the Skoda-led majority have been part of school governance in District 86 for as long as I’ve been familiar with it, and my time at Hinsdale South began in the fall of 1987.  There have regularly been people elected to this school board with agendas and approaches very similar to the past two years.  And that’s still the case since three of them will be on the board for the next two years. (Um, check that—at least two since Victor Casini is resigning.)  The key difference about the span from April 2013 until yesterday was that one board candidate in that 2013 election aligned with Skoda got about 250 more votes than the sitting board president.  With that difference, the board majority shifted to where Skoda had been for the past fourteen years.  No longer a voice in the wilderness, he pushed (along with the other three) for his approach to public education to become that of the school district’s.

And there’s absolutely nothing evil, immoral, or underhanded about any of that.  What happened in District 86 happened because these people were fairly elected and acted in what they believed were the best interests of the district.  Opponents of their opinions tend to see them as these comic-book villains, but it’s short-sighted to do so.  Sure, I disagree with the changes and directions this board chose, but they had every right to pursue what they thought was correct.  To dismiss their actions as trying to destroy the district or part of a larger anti-union political movement is resorting to the same emotional attack strategy they have typically employed rather than specifying what is wrong with their positions.

If neither side is really explaining what’s needed or why, then we’ve degenerated into a system of blind membership rather than rational choices:  If the group to which I belong says, “A, as opposed to B,” then I don’t examine either position—I’m just for A because my group is.  No one worries about this lack of reasons on either side since both believe they are in the “right,” and therefore shouldn’t have to justify or quantify anything.  And since all sides have always publicly claimed to be looking out for the best interests of everybody, how can we know who’s correct without any rationales to compare?  I believe the candidates elected this time approached their campaigning from a more factual and positive approach.  But some of their supporters did tilt toward demonizing and pigeon-holing what has been a consistent thread throughout school boards in District 86 for at least thirty years.  So rather than just being happy the “bad guys” have been voted out, those who feel the past two years were not where the district needed to go should make sure they are clear on what would signify a “better” board so they can prevent any recurrence of the things they don’t want.

And the first thing to do is to separate form from function.  In other words, how Skoda’s board majority acted at meetings and tried to manipulate public opinion was what seemed to upset people most, rather than the substance of what they tried to accomplish.  I would argue that this is exactly the opposite of what is most important.  Yes, no board member should ever yell at a student at a public event.  Of course, board members shouldn’t attack each other during meetings.  And we all might wish that Skoda could have made a better impression with his public speaking, including his overuse of vocalized pauses.  But, once again, none of that should be as important as how a school board deals with its teachers, what approach it takes to its responsibility to fund the schools adequately or the policies it passes.

It’s easy to get caught up in the melodrama of a school board member claiming a mistakenly posted on-line picture indicates that teachers are threatening board members, a board president trying to gavel a community member into silence, or press conferences not open to the public.  But none of that really matters in the education of the district’s kids.  Sure, it’s frustrating when the board wastes over $10,000 dollars on some district-wide mailer that has more political than educational content, but that pales in comparison to a flat tax levy that loses the district over $1.7 million in a single year and will continue to deprive the district of revenue…forever.  Unfortunately in our short-attention-span, detail-averse age, it’s much easier, more fun, and certainly gets more hits to focus on the showy, relatively unimportant stuff we can turn into funny videos. (Although, I do have to admit I enjoyed a couple of them—D86 Report, thanks for the “Once Again” compilation.)

And the citizens of District 86 did elect three people who, along with Kay Gallo, should help to bring a less confrontational, more collegial tone to the decisions made by the District 86 school board, at least for the next two years.  Keep in mind, however, that another election to seat four board members will take place in 2017, and it’s likely that another “conservative” slate which believes in a harder line toward teachers and funding will run—and this group (possibly with a certain Richard Skoda in its ranks) might be more adept at public relations and avoid the plethora of errors that occurred during this election cycle, among which included skipping a public forum to appear at a $30-a-plate fundraiser sponsored by a radically conservative talk show host, creating a scene twice over name cards being handed out, and refusing to answer any questions for newspapers as they assessed the qualifications of candidates.

So rather than returning to other concerns and generally ignoring what’s going on in District 86, voters need to keep paying attention.  At the very least, they need to educate themselves on the important issues that will continue to confront the school board.  A quick sampling:

  1. Will the new board work together better? While “tone” isn’t really the key concern for any school board, as we just pointed out, a more gracious, less confrontational, more compromising attitude would be a welcome relief to the tumultuous school board meetings of recent months.
  1. Will the new majority find a way forward that will focus more on kids’ education and less on money? In the last two years, the main thrust has been on trying to spin the actual positive state of the district finances to suggest instead that the teachers (through their union) were ruining the district’s bottom line.  Watch for disingenuous misinformation like Skoda’s team distributed during this campaign:  According to the Friends for District 86 page, his opponents had supported a “budget busting” increase for teachers; yet under his watch (which included this budget busting contract) district finances had improved dramatically.  That’s wrong on both counts, actually.  The contract was NOT budget busting, and the finances have remained in excellent condition for the past couple of decades. This type of propaganda is designed more to please fiscal conservatives who aren’t especially interested in the quality of the schools or collective bargaining laws compared to the size of their property tax bills.  No one is suggesting that spending money wisely shouldn’t always be an important concern for a school board, but it should never tilt to the extreme of the recent majority where spending less became THE top priority.
  1. Can the new board improve relations with the teachers’ union? I was an active member of the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA) for the twenty-five years I worked at Hinsdale South High School, and I can assure you that it ain’t going anywhere.  Teachers need an organization which helps them to negotiate contracts and shields them from some of the harassment and attacks the last school board regularly aimed their way.  Whether you like organized labor or not, close to 100% of District 86 teachers belong to the HHSTA, the HHSTA is the exclusive bargaining agent for all the teachers, and HHSTA leaders are all first and foremost District 86 teachers.  Since one of the new board members has been part of a well-known law firm which represents school districts in negotiations with teachers’ unions (the District 86 school board employed this firm back in 2006 when I was chief spokesperson for the HHSTA during contract negotiations), one would hope that a more mature and cooperative approach to the union could now ensue.  We’ll see…
  1. Can the remaining part of Skoda’s crew move forward to participate in making the district better, or will they simply try to obstruct and oppose anything that comes from the other four? The three (or two, with Casini’s resignation) members of the old majority who are still on the board now find themselves in a new position as the minority.  Will they function as Skoda always did—a persistent negative voice who fought constantly with the majority?  Or will they recognize the voters have spoken clearly and work to modify their agenda to help the new board members (along with Kay Gallo) to achieve the board’s key function, the best possible school district?

And will the new majority be able to resist some of the personal attacks that Skoda and board member Ed Corcoran regularly leveled at other board members?  It will be a challenge—especially if the minority continues to do so—but it is really horrible publicity for the district when a school board acts as this one has, in the last year especially.  As someone with a keen interest in educational issues, I have run into many people whose attitude toward District 86 has significantly changed for the worse.  It will take some time and more pro-education actions to convince out-of-district teachers and student-teachers that District 86 would be a good place to work.  That it was a great place to work for many years and now has the chance to improve going forward doesn’t completely cancel out the twenty-four months it was perceived by most people in education as not welcoming to teachers and moving in a disastrous direction.  I’ll concede that you could claim this perception was incorrect, but you would get a strong, example-filled counter-argument from me if you do.

  1. Will the exodus of personnel from District 86 end? Many bemoaned the departure of every top-level administrator, but not as much attention was paid to how many teachers and especially support staff have gone as well.  To their credit, most teachers did weather the storm and stayed to try to maintain the district’s quality, unlike their administrative supervisors who abandoned the district as soon as they could.  But the support staff, who have been at the mercy of the school board with no union to support them, has suffered greatly.  Two support staff unions have since been formed, but they have made little progress in negotiating contracts with the old board.  Will the board now recognize just how important and valuable these under-appreciated people are, or will they continue to try to take advantage of them with poor pay, ever-changing work rules, and a totally unacceptable lack of respect?

Clearly, there is much to watch going forward, and the people working in the schools can only hope that the public’s ever-wandering eyes will stay focused on this extremely valuable public resource.  Finding reasonable, qualified candidates for board elections before a more extreme slate assumes power would be another important task.  Even more significant is voting—prior to this election, the percentage of registered voters who showed up on Election Day hovered around 20% or less.  As we pointed out before, none of the board members who stirred up so much controversy assumed their seats by a coup d’état; they were elected.  It would be interesting to know how many of those who lambasted those board members at public meetings hadn’t voted in the election which put them in power.  Going to board meetings, staying informed of various school issues, participating on committees, and most of all, voting would all be ways to make sure the school district provides the excellent education for the kids it historically has.  As simply put as possible, the community needs to stay involved.

To most of us who have made public education a large part of our lives, the status of District 86 took a huge hit the past two years, and everyone will have to be patient as the new majority tries to repair that damage.  Let’s hope the moderation and reason which we all hope came out of yesterday’s election results will translate quickly into actions which demonstrate District 86 is now taking a more positive approach.  But just because that seems to be happening is no cause for voters to lapse into the benign neglect which is the only reason the tumult of the last two years took place.  Enjoy the beauty of the sunrise, by all means; but realize that when the sun comes up, it’s time for the real work to begin.  Congratulations to Jennifer Planson, Bill Carpenter, and Kathleen Hirsman.

For more on school governance and what to look for and what to avoid in school board candidates, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found at  http://www.snowflake-schools.com/snowflake-schools-the-book.html.

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