Hinsdale District 86: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

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Recently, by a 4-3 vote, the Hinsdale Township High School District 86 school board decided, despite months of planning and deliberation, not to go forward with a referendum vote to authorize new revenues (tax increases) for making additions and renovations to Hinsdale South and Hinsdale Central.  This comes on the heels of another controversial vote to expand the district’s buffer zone, in effect allowing more students originally slated to attend South to choose between the two schools.  The issues may seem unrelated to the uninitiated, but they are linked to one another and point to challenging times ahead for the district.

I had argued that it was a bad idea to expand the buffer zone, and it appears many in the South attendance area agreed.  “Fill South First” (a phrase coined by those in the community) has become a movement for those who believe that it’s wrong to increase property taxes with a multi-million-dollar plan to enlarge Central when South has room for more students.  The buffer zone expansion only called attention to what many perceive to be inequity in how the board treats the two schools.  After allowing an already overcrowded school increase its enrollment, the board was going to follow that up by asking property owners to increase their taxes, with most of that new money (70%) going to add on to the overcrowded school, which the board had just allowed to get even fuller.  At the very least, it seemed tone-deaf on the part of the school board.  And many South residents made their displeasure known, showing up in force to lobby the board with their opposition to the referendum.  Many expressed their views at the August 15 school board meeting, and after those comments, the board voted not to go forward with the planned November vote.

Unfortunately, this solves nothing.  First, and most importantly, Central is overcrowded, with some 350 students more than what school officials deem appropriate.  The end result will be larger classes, cramped facilities, and fewer course offerings.  When you have too many kids picking classes, the less mainstream courses often get axed as it becomes necessary to increase both the number of kids in each class as well as how many sections there are, especially classes which are requirements.  Those bigger class sizes mean less opportunity for students to interact with their teachers and can result in teachers having to cut back on the assignments they make—there is only so much out-of-class work teachers can do, after all.  Plus, in a school district with high expectations and standards like District 86 (Bias Alert:  I worked at Hinsdale South for twenty-five years), the vast majority of teachers go all out all the time.  Increase their pupil load, and they have to decrease the amount of work generated by each student in order to keep their heads above water.  So those larger classes write less, do fewer projects, and take more objective tests (true/false/multiple choice rather than essay, for example).  Given the high quality of teaching at Central and the terrific kids who go there, it is unlikely that the drop-off in academics will be readily noticeable to most, at least for a while, but any drop should be avoided if at all possible.

And that equity issue will now be at the forefront of every decision the board makes from now on.  Don’t get me wrong: Fairness is a huge issue, especially when it comes to District 86 where many on the South side have felt like Cinderella compared to what they see as Central’s favored status.  Some of that feeling, in my opinion, has come from Central’s highly publicized successes, from a record-setting eight IHSA state championships just two years ago to its lofty scores on standardized tests.  So envy has played a part in South’s inferiority complex, but board moves—like the buffer zone expansion—certainly haven’t helped. Keep in mind that a parent stated to reporters one of the reasons which motivated him to push for his child to attend Central rather than South were “the opportunities there.”  And the board did little to counter this perception—that Central provides better opportunities than South.  That is simply an unacceptable attitude, even if only implied. Now that South residents have been sensitized to the issue, every expenditure or program will be scrutinized to make sure that no favoritism is involved.  With subjective decisions the board has to make, often based on what’s “best” for the district, this need to avoid the slightest tinge of bias can hamstring its ability to make necessary improvements to Central, which is much larger and possessing some facilities much older than those at South.

The insistence on equity also ignores a key fact—the schools are different.  Obviously, Central (for whatever reasons) is way bigger.  According to the 2015 Illinois School Report Card for Central, enrollment was 2813 compared to South’s 1594.  When one school has 1219 more students than the other, it’s impossible for things to be totally equal.  From supplies to teachers, Central will consume more resources.  There are also demographic differences shown on those Report Cards which have to be taken into account.  Most significantly, the percentage of students from low income families is 32.2% at South compared with Central’s 8.1%.  That is a very important statistic:  Little is correlated more closely with academic success than family income; kids from wealthier families do better in school.  The reasons for that can be debated endlessly, but the facts can’t be denied.  (You can check out many different sources for this— here are a couple to get you started:  a well-documented blog postThe School News Network, a Stanford study which was used as the basis for the book, Whither Opportunity, and a series of links put out from the American Psychological Association–there are hundreds more.)  With a third of South’s students coming from low-income families, there will be more challenges in getting these students to the high standards District 86 communities have come to expect.  This low-income population was one reason it was proposed that South should house a food pantry.  Again with pressure from the community, this was also rejected by the school board.  Regardless, students behind in their scholastic achievement typically require extra help, smaller classes, and more special education teachers—all of which are expensive and beg the equity question.

So now what?  Central is over-crowded, South has a growing low-income population, many South residents are hyper-sensitive to board action which could be perceived as favoring Central or portraying South as more economically disadvantaged (which is a fact), and the board has tabled a plan to address building needs which had been worked on for some time by administrators, community members, and paid advisors.

The most obvious solutions are also the least likely:  Redistricting could be used by the board to balance attendance at the two schools.  Or, the two high schools could be unified with all freshmen and sophomores in one building, and juniors and seniors in the other (the “LT” approach).  The first solution would be the simplest:  400 or so students who were supposed to attend Central would be required to go to South instead.  You’d probably have to phase this in over four years, starting one year with freshman, followed by freshmen and sophomores, etc. Voila!  Each school would be filled, South’s low-income population percentage would be decreased, and Central would have some room to breathe. (Not all agree with this view: The superintendent of District 86, Bruce Law, has stated moving 400 students out of Central would not address many of its issues.  Maybe not, but there could be little doubt that it would ease some of Central’s space problems.)  In the second scenario, combining the schools would achieve total balance as South and Central kids would be united to form a new district.  Hinsdale High School would be born—although I’m guessing there would be some debate about that name, but it is “Hinsdale Township High School District 86” after all. (I told you the South people had been sensitized, didn’t I?)

But naming a unified school would be the easy part.  Loyalties to traditions and places would lead to a huge uproar over the idea of transforming the two high schools in either of the ways listed above.  The political fallout from that kind of change would be swift, significant, and loud.  In short, it is probably unrealistic, at least for the foreseeable future, to consider either of those ideas as the answer to current problems.  Not because they aren’t possible, workable, and the cheapest answers around, but for more emotional reasons.  Some will suggest that racism plays a role in Central residents’ reluctance to send their kids to South or to combine the two schools (South’s black and Hispanic population totals almost 31% compared to Central’s 7%), some might argue income inequity is the root of the issue, and many would claim the “but it’s always been this way!” privilege.  No matter how you look at it, a solid majority at both schools would probably be against combining the schools, and the families of the four hundred students who would be transferred to South would be justifiably upset, particularly if one of their key reasons for moving to Hinsdale, Oakbrook, or Clarendon Hills—being in Hinsdale Central’s attendance area (with its expensive real estate and property taxes)—was now suddenly being switched to the school many (unfairly, in my opinion) see as the lesser of the two.

Given the political hailstorm from either of these logical and economically sensible solutions, they both seem long shots, especially after the buffer zone expansion, which some of us did point out at the time sent the clear message that many District 86 residents considered Central the superior school, and by voting to allow the expansion, the school board was tacitly endorsing that view.  With the need for additions to Central as well as repairs necessary for both buildings, the board will have to find other ways to get additional funds.  So it will probably resort to tactics which have been employed many times in the past.

When District 86 felt the need for field houses, banks of new science labs, or entire annexes over the years—to say nothing of expensive library/auditorium renovations or air conditioning for both campuses—it has simply gone ahead with the projects, using either accumulated surpluses (in the Working Cash fund) or issuing bonds.  The combined cost of all those projects over the past thirty years has easily (adjusted for inflation) exceeded the dollar amount of the rejected referendum, even using the higher $92.4 million figure.  So there are ways for the board to get Central more space without seeking approval from District 86 community members.

However, that is neither ideal nor really in the spirit of the property tax laws, which generally require the financing for new building projects to be put to a public vote.  But there are several methods that can be used to get the money.  District 86 is currently in excellent financial shape, with only 5.6% of its allowable debt limit used (compared to Hinsdale 181 which had used 45.2% of its debt limit—both figures are as of 2015 and can be found here).  Additionally, should District 86 be able to get its plans classified as “Life/Safety” work, it would have a great deal more latitude in levying new taxes (through bond issuances, typically) without needing the public’s authorization.  Yes, that might be a bit of a stretch, but it’s not hard to envision some claiming that Central’s overcrowding is a safety problem.  (For more on the various regulations on Illinois school boards’ taxing authority, this article, created by a law firm which specializes in giving financial advice to school districts, provides an overview.)

Finessing a solution without dealing with flawed beliefs about the two schools, though, seems to be merely kicking the problem down the road, which has been done many times before.  And to its credit, the school board is already considering changing boundaries or eliminating the buffer zone.  The core issue, however, is how the two schools are perceived by the community.  Having worked for twenty-five years in South, I completely reject the notion of Central’s being better than South, but I do know it’s true that many—probably a majority—in the community believe it to be so.  A key task the school board must begin, therefore, is to combat that perception.  As we all know, reputations get established quickly, but stubbornly hang on long after they no longer apply, if they ever did.  Changing the “Central good, South bad” view in the Central attendance area will be just as hard as altering the “South short-changed, Central favored” opinion of South siders.  Sometime in the future, I’ll offer a few suggestions on how that might be done, but for now, the District 86 school board needs to figure out some solutions to the concerns it faces, both in its physical plants and community relations.  Let’s hope that at least it now understands just how inexorably the two are tied together.



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