Category: Hinsdale 86

Hinsdale 86 Voters Pick the Hard Way

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Several weeks ago, a referendum was put before the residents of Hinsdale High School Township District 86 (which is composed of Hinsdale South and Central High Schools).  The referendum outlined plans to raise property taxes by $76,000,000 in order to upgrade aquatic areas at both schools and to add more classrooms at Hinsdale Central to accommodate its increasing enrollment.  The communities of District 86 (Darien, Hinsdale, Willowbrook, Oakbrook, Burr Ridge, and Clarendon Hills) voted down the tax increase by three to one—75.1% against and 24.85% in favor in DuPage County.  This will leave the District 86 school board (four of whom were elected as new members on the same ballot with the ill-fated referendum) with significant challenges immediately as this board takes charge.

My knowledge of this excellent school district comes from its astute hiring practices:  I taught English in Hinsdale South for twenty-five years, and became familiar with the district’s workings (at least somewhat) in my roles for the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA—the union which represents all District 86 teachers): president, contract negotiator, and grievance chair at different times for much of my career.  So I followed with interest this particular referendum since it was the first one attempted in District 86 since the 1960s.  There has also been much controversy about the two high schools and how they are perceived in their communities through the years, most recently over the expansion of District 86’s “buffer zone,” an area in the district where some residents can select either high school for their children to attend (almost all currently in the zone have selected Central).  That, coupled with a declining enrollment at South while Central’s attendance sky-rocketed, led to the referendum’s being not just about adding on to Central, but instead a forum on the two high schools.  Why, many asked, should homeowners vote to increase their property taxes so that Central can add classrooms when there is significant space available right in the district, just a couple of miles away at Hinsdale South?  To some, though, the answer was obvious—addition was necessary, so no one currently eligible to attend Central would have to go to South.

I’ve written about this issue several times.  You can find the essays (along with links to various news stories which motivated them) on my blog, with this one and this being two which ought to give you the highlights.  I’ve never tried to hide my bias in favor of Hinsdale South as an excellent high school and that the opportunities provided by its amazing staff (I can say that now since I’ve retired) compare favorably to every high school in the country, including and (what school board members and administrators need to keep reminding everyone) especially Hinsdale Central.

And now that distinction needs more emphasis than ever:  For the past decade or so, as the enrollment has gone up at Central, several additions and upgrades have been made to the facilities there.  From library remodeling to new science labs to air conditioning, tens of millions have been spent to improve the physical plant at Central.  And yes, most of those upgrades were also made at South as well.  But in the last few years, South’s enrollment has declined from over 2000 students at its peak to less than 1600 on its most recent 2016 school report card.  With Central still growing (not to mention the expansion of the aforementioned “buffer zone” last year), this meant any new building was only going to take place at Central, unless the board shifted attendance areas for the two schools in order to send more students to South.

The discussion of the transfer/redistricting solution to Central’s overcrowding lasted about two board meetings last year, as parents from the Central attendance areas turned out in droves to protest the possibility.  That board (of whom three members are still on the current board) quickly backed away from the idea, pledging not to broach the subject again when determining whether or not to seek a referendum and even apologizing to parents for “stressing” them with speculation about their children being made to attend South.  That led to the proposal for a $76 million tax increase, and we know how that turned out.

So now the whole South/Central issue comes into play once more.  The overcrowding at Central is not going to go away; facilities are limited, and there is only so much room available (especially in specialized areas like science labs).  Increasing class sizes is never an appealing solution (nor should it be), and the growth in Central with South shrinking has already led to the reallocation of the most valuable resource any school district has: its teachers.  Many have been transferred from South to Central, which leads to some uncertainty and tension, especially when department chairs have to agree on which teachers should be moved and younger teachers need stability in order to polish their craft.  Any involuntary transfer will create some negativity; the goal should be to minimize that kind of disruption of the staff.

But that leads right back to the much more unpopular and difficult disruption of students who were supposed to go to Central being told they have to attend South.  And with the referendum’s being soundly defeated, there aren’t many alternatives.  Temporary classrooms could be used at Central as a stopgap, depending on how long the enrollment bulge lasts, but that is hardly a palatable solution, especially in one of the more prestigious high schools in the country.  Other than that or a population shift to South, the board could try for another referendum or use its excellent credit rating to issue some bonds which could finance Central’s expansion.

That last option is basically how past additions and building modifications have been funded, so it would hardly be surprising should the board take that direction.  But as I’ve also previously pointed out, the intent of property tax laws is for residents to have a say in approving funds for building projects, among other things.  A referendum is the more letter-of-the-law method to get necessary money for projects, but the key point opponents of the recently defeated District 86 proposal made was that much of this building wasn’t necessary, that needed classroom space was already in place. With that kind of controversy at the heart of this spending proposal, then, a referendum is by far the best method to determine the will of the people.  And that just happened, without much doubt as to what community members feel about increasing taxes. So, guess what—we’re right back where we started with one question each before both sides in this issue.  For the No Transfer people:  How will the district provide adequate facilities for so many students without changing any attendance boundaries or increasing property taxes?  For the “Fill South First” advocates:  Why is attending South so unpalatable for parents in the Central attendance area?

I no longer work in District 86, and I only lived in district for a few years a long time ago (a rental unit, of course.  I could definitely digress on the irony of teachers’ being entrusted with the education of children in whose neighborhoods they can’t afford to live), so I will refrain from analyzing or judging the reasons so many strongly oppose redistricting so that more students wind up at South.  I’m sure some of those reasons are based solely on a positive perception of Central, of familiarity and experience.  But as someone who worked at South and dealt with many from Central-land, I do believe there is a strong streak of irrational horror at the idea of having to slum it by going to South.  No one in any of the towns which feed into Central would ever accept that racism, class-snobbery, or “white trash” stereotyping has anything to do with not wanting to attend South; yet that vibe is impossible to avoid if you listen to some of the rhetoric when South is discussed.

And that’s what will have to be confronted by the new board.  Regardless of what happens with the overcrowding at Central, the divided district needs to move toward more unity, toward more respect for each school, and toward a celebration of the equity of opportunity provided for all students in District 86.  And there is some positive news to report in that direction.  #WeAreHinsdaleSouth is a new organization created by parents of Hinsdale South students (both past and present) which has formed to promote South since “South’s reputation took some unwarranted hits in the past few years, including from a member of the school board,” according to one member of the group. #WeAreHinsdaleSouth has plans to make sure that everyone in the District 86 attendance area is aware of that which makes South such a good school, publicizing accomplishments, opportunities, events, and people which show the school in its best light.  You can read more about them here, as well as finding out about attending their next meeting on Monday, May 8.

I certainly wish this group well and hope they finally help South to be better recognized for the stellar school it is.  I also hope that #WeAreHinsdaleSouth is in this for the long haul—it will not be an easy task to enhance South’s image on the Central side of town; patience, creativity, and diligence need to be the key strategies since reputations are quick to form but hard to change.  And regardless of #WeAreHinsdaleSouth’s efforts, the school board must accept the challenge of fostering a more unified approach to the district.  Although wanting to change the South vs. Central dynamic for the better might not have been the key reason voters rejected District 86’s proposed referendum, a potentially beneficial unintended consequence of that vote could lead to a stronger, less divided community.  This is definitely not the easiest path, but it is the right direction for the district and something everyone should be rooting for.

To find out more about #WeAreHinsdaleSouth, go to their Facebook page.  For more on how school districts can improve, check out my eBook, Snowflake Schools.

Referendums Should Be for Teachers, Too

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On April 4, 2017, voters will be electing local governmental leaders—village officials, school board members, and the like.  Additionally, several communities will have to vote on referendums advanced by their school districts seeking additional funding.  Two of those involve districts in which I have an interest:  Hinsdale Township High School District 86 (where I worked for twenty-five years), which is seeking $76,000,000 for additional classrooms and swimming pool remodeling; and Center Cass School District 66 (which is the elementary district my two daughters attended), which needs over $12,000,000 for various repairs and safety updates.  (You can find the official referendums here–just click “Propositions.)  Yet, one aspect of funding a school district for which you will not see any new monetary requests is the single most important factor in any school’s success—its teachers.

Just to be clear with my background, I taught English for thirty-three years, retiring in 2012 after working in both a junior and senior high school as well as being active in my school districts’ unions (President, negotiator, and grievance chair).  Thus, I have an extreme bias in favor of teachers and the role they play in public education:  No matter what kinds of reforms, programs, or experts you can cite; nothing will impact a school more than the quality of its teachers.  And despite myths to the contrary, our public schools are not rife with incompetent teachers hiding behind unions or school codes in order to maintain their “cushy” positions.  Of course there are some bad teachers out there, but they are a minuscule number of the millions of dedicated public educators.  Most teachers work extremely hard to make a difference in the lives of our children.

But it has become more and more standard for school districts to downplay any and all expenses associated with maintaining their staff.  I receive several Google news alerts for a variety of public education issues which provide me with over thirty news stories from around the country every day.  But in the last five years, I have yet to see an article covering a school district, national leader, school board member, or any organization (other than those quoting teachers’ unions during contract negotiations) who will argue that school funding should be increased in order to attract and retain the best possible teachers.  The referendums shown above make absolutely no mention of needing more money for teachers—whether it be to lower class size or to gain a competitive edge when hiring the best teaching candidates—and I can’t remember hearing those in charge of our schools ever advocate for higher teacher salaries.

Instead, it’s become a standard procedure for many administrators and school board members to claim that teachers cost too much, that things like steps on a salary schedule are no longer “sustainable,” or that ”greedy” teachers are bleeding taxpayers dry.  I do understand that resources are not infinite—How many times during contract negotiations did I hear that there were “only so many slices of financial pie”!—but that line of reasoning won’t come up when discussing more funds for school expansion or repair, even when the need for more classrooms isn’t always dire, as is the case in Hinsdale 86 where shifting some students from one school to another is a money-saving option which the district has rejected.  Yet, the attacks about “easy” work schedules and “Cadillac” insurance programs arose every time I fought to improve the working conditions for teachers I knew were doing an amazing job.

The most galling argument I ever heard was during one negotiations when, frustrated by the district’s claims of poverty and refusal to agree to a reasonable salary increase, I suggested that if money were so tight, perhaps the board should seek more funding for our salaries.  The response was that requesting a referendum for salaries would be like “re-financing a mortgage to buy groceries.”  Since teachers are mere transitory expenses, the reasoning went, one should never “waste” a difficult process like promoting unpopular tax increases on raises for them.  Needless to say, my reply (that having the necessary money to eat was significantly more important than saving a percent or two on a mortgage interest rate, thus rendering their analogy idiotic) didn’t go over well.

The most essential element by a wide margin in improving and/or maintaining the quality of public education is who is in front of the classroom.  No matter what study you look at or how many factors are cited as important, all will have quality teaching near the top of the list of crucial characteristics.  Everyone knows this, but it seems we refuse to recognize the relationship between good salaries and good teachers, unlike other professions.  As all you baseball fans know, the White Sox recently traded one of the best pitchers in baseball, Chris Sale, and a key aspect of his value in the trade was everyone agreeing on how “reasonable” his contract was at only $38,000,000 for the next three years.  Yet, when it comes to the people who are responsible for teaching and looking out for our children every day, we become enraged when they earn over $100,000 a year (which would require teaching for 380 years to earn what Mr. Sale—who is a bargain by baseball standards—will earn in three years).  And I believe Chris is worth every penny; I just also happen to believe that teachers deserve a good wage too.

So as we vote this Tuesday on the referendums which are being pursued, we should keep in mind the unspoken reality that any additional money a school system receives at least indirectly might strengthen a district’s faculty.  Hinsdale 86 is an excellent example of how a failure to use referendums can create a needless money crunch when it comes to maintaining a quality staff.  My old district hasn’t passed a referendum since the 1960s, yet has spent tens of millions of dollars on new building:  The district has added many classrooms, field houses, and science labs as well as extensive remodeling projects over the years.  The money for all this was obtained through issuing bonds and spending surplus property tax revenues.  This time, at least, it is going through the appropriate channel of soliciting taxpayer approval before embarking on significant building sprees.  Unfortunately, though, the need for additional classrooms is less clear since much room exists in one of the two schools.  (You can read more about this issue here, here, and here.)  I would vote for this referendum, were I eligible to vote in Hinsdale Township, but it’s hardly a black/white choice.  My rationale would be to support the superior teachers there, not the questionable building.  The district will have major problems if this referendum fails, but the issues which failure would raise are important and should be addressed sooner or later.  Sadly, though, those most likely to feel the pinch for a rejection financially would be the teachers, come the time for a new contract.  (You can find an editorial which rejects this referendum as foolish here in the Chicago Tribune.)

In Center Cass 66, I would strongly encourage fellow residents to vote “Yes” on this tax increase (which I will also pay).  Elementary teachers unfairly earn significantly less than their secondary counterparts, and the relatively small tax increase for repairs should allow Center Cass to compensate teachers more equitably.  Of course, the teachers in the district will have to fight for their fair share, but assuming the referendum is approved, at least they won’t be competing as much with facilities expenses.  (It was also a nice touch that over Spring Break, repairs to one of the schools’ roofs ( at Prairieview Elementary), have been on display for anyone driving by on Plainfield Road, right before the voting.)

One day, perhaps, we will see a school board courageous and far-sighted enough to push a referendum because teachers are cherished and valued more highly than the thrill of construction.  There should be no question as to what is the most important resource in any school district, but we have a long way to go to acknowledge that teachers matter most and should be compensated accordingly.  Approving referendums (even as they are currently constructed) is at least one small, indirect way to show some support for teachers.

For more outlier views on what goes on in the world of public education and ways we can strengthen this institution, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools.

Hinsdale 86 Attendance Controversy Continues

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When we last left Hinsdale Township High School District 86, home to Hinsdale South and Central High Schools, the school board had voted (4-3, barely) to scrap plans for a referendum this November to seek many millions in new tax revenues (estimates ranged from the mid-70s to the low 90s, but it varied from meeting to meeting and from board member to board member).  At the time, we suggested that this would only lead to more unrest—the decision to cancel the referendum vote came after loud protests from South residents who felt seeking new money for building additions at Central (where increasing enrollment has led to overcrowded facilities) was exercising poor fiduciary judgement when South had room for at least 350 students. (This year’s attendance numbers show 2840 students in Central and 1570 at South, a gap of 1270.).  “Fill South First” became their rallying cry, and the board acquiesced, at least on the referendum proposal, which they tabled.  Then, residents who lived in the buffer zone came out in droves to lobby the board not to touch the area in the middle of the district where parents can choose which of the two schools their children attend; the majority of whom have selected Central over the years.  Another meeting or two and the board decided it would not form an attendance advisory committee to look at the issue as well as tabling all discussions of any attendance boundary changes, instead preferring to address the problem as a full board updating the 2008 Strategic Plan.  And during the discussions about this vote, the five board members present all declared that they were voting this way with the understanding that nothing would be done to eliminate or modify the buffer zone, which had been expanded in June.

Finally, and most recently, the board has been discussing the possibility of an April referendum for a smaller, proportionately distributed increase, mainly to solve the Central overcrowding issue.  (No one has been all that specific about what needs to be done at South, which was why the original referendum was skewed so significantly toward Central projects.)  Again, amounts have been fluid, but now the range seems to have shrunk to up to $40,000,000 or less than $60,000,000.  There has also been talk at a couple of school board meetings about creating an “international baccalaureate program,” a sort of school-within-a-school of advanced studies which would be housed in South and be able to “attract” students from the Central attendance area.

So, what does it all mean?  First, and quite clearly, it indicates a board trying to please all of its constituents, but ultimately recognizing that the Central attendance area’s size and influence will prevent the most logical and cheapest solution—changing boundaries so students originally slated to attend Central or allowed to choose between the schools would now be required to go to South—from even being considered, much less taking place.  Several people, including board members, have stated the buffer zone where families have a choice of schools is a bad idea, that it never should have been created in the first place.  Yet, since it exists and the board will not antagonize its proponents by discussing any changes, it appears to be a permanent facet of District 86.  And that also means that ALL current borders are inviolate and not subject to any modification—except, of course, when people seek an expansion of the buffer zone so those previously in the South area can now pick Central, which happened just a couple of months ago.

Therefore, the concept of altering school boundaries for the best allocation of resources and the least amount of building additions for short-term attendance fluctuations—as is the practice in some school districts (see this and this  for two local instances)—is not going to be discussed, debated, or considered beyond the recent South parent outburst which never got beyond citizens reading prepared statements at board meetings.  To give you an example of how different it can be other places, a colleague of mine lived a block away from an elementary school where he planned to send his daughter.  Attendance growth spiked in other areas, however, and the new boundary for his nearby school was modified so that it ended on the other side of his colleague’s street; his daughter wound up being bussed over two miles away.  And this took place between school years, with little notification.  An extreme example, perhaps, but that’s appropriate in comparison to the extreme opposite that is starving South of students while revenues are raised to add on to Central.

And as we pointed out previously, the key problem is how poorly South is perceived by those in the Central attendance area.  Why else would people be so aghast about the prospect of having to go there?  Even the “international baccalaureate program” seems insulting to South:  The only way that Central students could ever be enticed to enroll in South would be to create an honors school; one that has as little as possible to do with those currently there.  You don’t have to stretch your imagination too far to see this school-within-a-school having a different name, parking lot, entrance, mascot, cafeteria, and even extra-curricular activities so that its students wouldn’t ever have to interact with “those” South people. You should know that I worked in District 86 at South for twenty-five years, often in leadership positions in my role as teacher union president and contract negotiator, not to mention teaching English honors classes, and not once did the international baccalaureate idea come up.  The only reason it’s arisen now, I believe, is because the board is desperately seeking a way to make both sides of town happy.  I’m pretty sure, though, South siders will see through a plan based on selling a separate-but-not-equal plan to Central residents (as well as the few South kids who qualify) to isolate them from the rest of the “ordinary” kids already in the school.

But I’d bet even a separate honors school wouldn’t be enough to get three or four hundred Central kids to transfer to South voluntarily.  Plus, the logistics—specific applications and curriculum requirements have to be accepted by the licensing organization before a program can be labeled “international baccalaureate” which could entail years of planning and preparation—mean that it’s implementation is a ways off.  So the April referendum proposal is much more likely to be the key solution to Central’s space issues; bids could be put out for additions to be completed in time for the 2017-18 school year.  And there would be some remodeling and updating at South, probably using what could soon become standard operating procedure in District 86—proportional funding.  With 64% of District 86 students now going to Central, according to the Chicago Tribune, “The board members said the spending in any new plan for facility improvements should be allocated between the two schools in a ratio that reflects their enrollment.”  Does that mean District 86’s overriding policy of past years—“Whatever it takes to meet the needs of students”—will now mutate to a “$0.64 of every tax dollar needs to be budgeted for Central” approach?

Look, I understand how difficult this situation is for everyone:  South people have felt overshadowed and overlooked for decades; Central residents (and buffer zone folks) believe the district has promised them the right to attend Central regardless of their opinions of South; and school board members are caught right in the middle between competing interests and conflicts that began many years ago.  But this vacillating back and forth as they have will do nothing but exacerbate the problems, leaving everyone dissatisfied and angry.  One board member even apologized to the buffer zone audience for creating undue “anxiety” with the board’s even mentioning changes.  So having to think about maybe attending Hinsdale South has now become a stress disorder?  The property value issue is another “factoid” seemingly designed to irk people who live in Darien (which has always been advertised as “A Nice Place to Live,” by the way).  Homeowners’ beliefs that the selling price of their homes would plummet if South were their high school really should not be something a school board considers, much less endorses, but much of what has occurred at recent board meetings has indicated exactly that: The school board understands one of its two high schools is perceived as inferior by members of its communities, and it is not going to anything to alter that perception.  In fact, through several of its actions, it has implied that it agrees with that assessment.

I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad if there were evidence to support that belief, besides test scores.  On safety, opportunity, rigor, course offerings, quality of teaching, facilities, and on and on; South is every bit as good as Central.  If anything, due to the size differential, there are many MORE opportunities at South for extra-curricular activities and sports teams.  Yes, there are differences as we’ve noted before, but none of them make Central quantitatively better for any student than South.  The entering freshmen at Central have higher academic scores than those who go to South which accounts for differences on later achievement tests, but that has nothing to do with how far any one kid can go at either school.  However, nobody is pointing this out except this ex-South teacher, who can easily be dismissed as biased.  I would argue, however, that boosting the schools is a school board’s job as well.  This board’s actions, I regret to point out, have not sent that message clearly, certainly not clearly enough.

It remains to be seen how the perception problem will ever go away, unless it is confronted directly, but at least this board is not taking the route past boards have with building projects—using surplus tax collections and issuing bonds rather than polling residents.  Instead, it understands the intent of property tax laws and is seeking permission, through a referendum, to increase those taxes.  The District 86 communities, then, will have the final say on whether to preserve the current dichotomy by spending more money to make Central bigger so that no one outside of South’s current attendance area has to go to South.  And if voters reject increased taxes and the referendum…well, that would definitely put everyone in a more interesting and challenging position:  What would be done to change the perceptions (which are either grossly exaggerated or false) that South is much worse than Central and that property values would crater in areas switched from Central to South?  Would the board revert to old tricks by “finding” other ways to get the funds for a Central expansion?  Either way, it looks like the April election—which will also feature four District 86 board positions on the ballot—should be quite interesting.  I’m pretty sure we have not heard the last of the Attendance Wars in Hinsdale Township High School District 86.

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.

District 86 Should Not Expand Its Buffer Zone

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I worked for thirty-three years as an English teacher, the last twenty-five of which were spent in Hinsdale Township High School District 86.  District 86 encompasses Darien, Hinsdale, Willowbrook, Oakbrook, Clarendon Hills, and Burr Ridge; and is composed of two high schools, Hinsdale South and Hinsdale Central.  And that’s probably the only time you will ever see Hinsdale South listed ahead of Hinsdale Central.  Don’t get me wrong—I worked at South and believe it to be an exceptional school by any standard.  However, Central has always been perceived (by most) to be the “better” of the two schools, and those of us who taught at South had to deal with that perception, regardless of how untrue or unfair the comparison was.

So I can’t deny my South inferiority complex only intensified my irritation the other day when I saw the District 86 school board was planning to increase the size of its infamous “buffer” zone because some parents wanted their kids to be able to go to Central instead of South. (You can read the Tribune article on this here.)  For those of you unaware of District 86’s buffer zone, it is a strip of houses in the middle of the district’s attendance area where parents have the option of choosing which school their children attend.  (A map showing the current buffer zone can be viewed at this site.)  Although it may seem reasonable to allow choice in a school district, the reality is that the buffer zone’s existence has always been a slap in the face of South, and this new expansion only reopens this old wound.

From National Merit finalists to state championships to ACT scores, Central garners more accolades than South.  So it should come as no surprise that parents whose children are scheduled to go to South might wish they could attend Central instead.  And back in the day (legend has it when a particularly adroit tennis player was scheduled to attend South), a school board determined that it would permit certain geographical sections of the District 86 attendance area to select between the two high schools.  I wasn’t in the district at this time, but I’m sure the concept of balancing attendance so that neither high school would be disproportionately larger than the other would have been the main rationale given to allow this.

But that’s clearly not the case anymore, if it ever were.  On the most recent Illinois Report Cards (2014-15 school year), Central’s enrollment was 2,813, which is 1,219 more than South’s 1,594 (any school’s report card can be found at https://www.illinoisreportcard.com/).  So if “balance” were still the issue, the only solution would be to redistrict so that more students attended South since almost twice as many kids go to Central—and no, that is not going to happen any time soon, as can be seen in the district’s building plans (more on that later).  Instead, the one reason provided for this latest request was that given the location of certain houses currently required to attend Hinsdale South, students have to cross Plainfield Road to reach the school, which parents feel is too dangerous.  That safety concern was apparently enough to convince the board, even though 75th and Route 83 would also seem to be roads equally, if not more, threatening to any student who might have to cross them.  And if safety is the issue, then it would not be difficult to provide more busses to ensure no one has to walk to or from either school.

However, what I believe is the key motivation behind this desired expansion is revealed in a quote attributed to one of the parents making the request, who said he would like his kids to have “a choice, based on the educational opportunities that differ between the two schools.”  And that’s the public perception myth which the school board should have quickly and vehemently crushed when it arose.  If that were true—that there are different educational opportunities provided by the two schools—then there should be a much bigger hue and cry over this issue.  “Different opportunities” implies quantitative measures would show one school was better than the other in providing educational growth opportunities for its students.  I’m not talking about ACT scores, which are most positively correlated to parents’ income and education level, both of which are greater in the Central attendance area.  No, what’s being implied here is that Central’s course offerings, programs, facilities, and/or staff provide superior opportunities for two equally talented students, and this parent believes he should be able to send his child to that better school.  And that’s a poor opinion for ANY school board to foster, much less encourage by agreeing to the change.

That’s not to say that a student would have exactly the same experience in the two schools.  Of course there are differences:  Virtually every human being in South is different from those in Central, and that difference alone makes it impossible for any one person to have the same experience in the two places.  The goal of the school district isn’t to provide exactly the same experience for every individual regardless of the location.  No, the district’s mission should be to provide its students with the same opportunities.  But because of those aforementioned test scores, there are some who believe that the standards to which students are held are lower at South than at Central.  As someone who taught advanced English courses at South (Advanced Placement seniors for five years and honors freshmen for twenty-two), I know that is not the case—whenever we compared the data on various tests (ACT or AP, for example), the performance of the top students at South was always comparable to (and sometimes even better than) the top kids at Central, as defined by who was in the two schools’ honors programs.  The difference was that Central had more academically talented kids overall, not that South didn’t challenge its students.  And rather than pointing this out to those requesting the buffer zone’s growth, the school board simply caved, accepting the unspoken but clear denigration of the academic rigor at South.

So the bias against one of the two District 86 high schools will continue.  If you recall, last October the school board brought up and then quickly dropped the idea of merging the two schools with all freshmen and sophomores attending one of the two schools with juniors and seniors at the other (à la Lyons Township high schools).  There was probably little chance of that happening, but it got jettisoned before any interesting and potentially helpful discussion could take place.  My (unsupported) belief is that those in the Central attendance area made board members very aware that they had no interest in combining the two schools.   Now, the board is needlessly expanding the buffer zone to placate a few parents who prefer Central.  And this fall, the district is advocating a referendum of up to $94.2 million in new funds for building modifications to the two schools: $84 million for Central (including adding twenty new classrooms/labs) and $10 million to modify the cafeteria, auditorium, and library at South.  (You can read about this plan here.)  Obviously the plan is to continue to expand Central, despite South’s having room for many more students.  With fewer than 1,600 students, South is at least 300 pupils below its capacity; and you could probably accommodate another 500 without any new building additions needed—we were over 2,000 students without overcrowding for many of the years I taught there.  Again, however, the unspoken taboo of never changing attendance areas so that those currently slated to go to Central would have to go to South prevents this from even being brought up, much less seriously considered.  And that could result in a revenue increase being approved with almost 90% of the new money being spent on the “favored” school.

You might remember the controversy that surrounded the District 86 school board almost two years ago when a four-board-member majority tried to change the district radically for the worse, and we would be remiss if we didn’t point out how much better the district has been run since the April 2015 school board elections when the current majority took over.  So I do want to temper my criticisms here by acknowledging that.  That said, however, we can’t ignore this error in judgement that increases the public perception that the two high schools in District 86 might be better known as Hinsdale Central and Hinsdale Lite (“Teaches great, but less filling!”).  And no, the couple of kids who might go to Central as a result of this new buffer zone expansion won’t change any building or teaching plans in District 86.  But the reinforcement of the misguided belief that Central is a bastion of academic wonder whereas South is for lesser students is a real disservice to the quality education South teachers provide.  Here’s hoping the board will reconsider this change and work harder to help the community understand just how equally excellent both high schools are.

For more on avoiding administrative mistakes and helping teachers to make public education as good as it can be, check out my eBook, Snowflake Schools.  You can read excerpts here.

The District 86 South-Central Merge Question

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At a recent meeting of the Hinsdale Township High School District 86 school board, two-term board member Jennifer Planson brought up the question on the feasibility of merging the district’s two high schools (Hinsdale South and Hinsdale Central) into one two-building school.  Freshmen and sophomores would attend one campus with upperclassmen going to the other.  (You can read the Chicago Tribune story here.)  Doing this would create one large high school with two campuses, as is the case with local high schools in Lyons Township and Lake Park (in Roselle).  While I’d guess that this kind of change in District 86 is unlikely, studying the pros and cons of the idea is certainly worthy of the board’s time. (For those of you new to this blog, I worked in the English Department at Hinsdale South for twenty-five years, retiring in 2012).

Planson herself made it very clear in raising this issue that she has no opinion one way or the other on the merits of this idea, but it does bring several issues that surround the schools into sharper focus and helps everyone to understand how the high schools function.  The choice to remain two distinct high schools or to merge into one will also allow discussions on the district’s top priorities to take place.  That those discussions might not always be easy ones shouldn’t stop them from happening since there on benefits and drawbacks to both arrangements which is why not every school district in the area uses the same organization—back in the day when I attended Libertyville High School in Lake County, there was a freshman building separate from the sophomore, junior, and senior campus. Every situation is unique, so it’s worthwhile to examine all possibilities.

The key reason for considering this is the enrollment imbalance at the two schools.  Central has over 2,800 students with projections for even more, which is straining its facilities.  South has been declining the past few years and currently has fewer than 1,700 students in attendance.  The question then becomes is it economically reasonable to build yet another addition at Central to accommodate the current numbers while South has room to spare.  Instead, if whole classes of freshmen and sophomores were in one building with juniors and seniors in the other, capacity needs would be roughly equal for both campuses.  Given Central’s growth in recent years, there would probably still need to be some renovation for South to be able to hold half of District 86’s students.  Once that had been done, however, building additions would most likely cease as both campuses would be able to deal with future fluctuations more easily.  In the past twenty years, both schools have been subject to multiple renovations to meet attendance needs, at the cost of tens of millions of dollars.  So, does the district add on again at Central—which may or may not be all that is needed over the long term, or should a smaller addition take place at South which could end this cycle of over-crowding at both schools leading to piecemeal, temporary solutions. Make each building capable of serving half of what experts believe is the maximum capacity necessary, and the crisis-building mode cycle in which District 86 has found itself repeatedly over the last twenty years would finally end.

Besides capacity equalization, there are other benefits from a merger:  If every freshman English I or World Studies class is taught in the same building under the auspices of a single department chair, the classes should be more uniform than the same number of English I or World Studies sections taught in two buildings with two department chairs overseeing two sets of teachers.  It’s just easier for one group of teachers with one boss to interact and work toward similar goals than it is when two locations and multiple leaders impact how things function.  Time to cooperate between departments in the different high schools has always been extremely limited in District 86—the last several years I worked at Hinsdale South, we had a single half-day institute where the two English departments would meet.  And at that once-a-year meeting, for the final three years of my career, an outside speaker was brought in, meaning we had absolutely no time for teachers to talk to one another.  This separation and isolation of those teaching the same classes in the same district is a significant issue in District 86, and a merger would greatly enhance all teachers at the same grade level being able to plan with each other.

A further benefit would be cost savings.  No, personnel would not shrink, at least not much.  You’d still need roughly the same number of teachers, administrators, and support staff; but sports would be much cheaper with a single high school.  While this issue will also be part of the negatives we discuss, there’s no question that going from two varsity football, basketball, and volleyball programs to one would save a lot of money.  From coaches to uniforms to buses, the district would need significantly less cash for sport programs.  While there might be a team or two added which would keep the savings from being 50% (say, some junior varsity teams could be added on top of sophomore teams already in place, and more B teams at the freshman level could be created to supplement the A teams), my guess is that you could spend at least 40% less overall on sports if the two high schools became one.  You could also assume that the combined teams would be more competitive at the state level with that many more potential players for each team.  It’s silly to claim that this should be an overriding concern after Hinsdale Central walked away with eight different state championships in the 2014-15 school year (and has already won Girls and Boys Golf this year), but hey, nobody would complain if that went to ten or even twelve with a single high school.  Cost of athletics and competitiveness would be two ways that the merger would benefit District 86.

But there would be fewer opportunities for kids to participate on those teams.  We mentioned that a couple of lower-level teams could be added to get a more athletes involved, but there could still only be eleven varsity football players on the field.  This would be especially hard during the first couple of years when star players at one school would suddenly become bench warmers while some athletes who had been on squads for two or three years might get cut.  Then there would be the problem of which coaches would be retained and which would not, as well as demoting half the head varsity coaches.  You would also have the challenge of coming up with a new mascot for those teams.  It would be way too controversial to become the Hornets while dumping the Red Devils (or vice versa), and trying to combine them just doesn’t work—the Red Hornets or the Black and Gold Devils—the Devil Hornets?  There would definitely be major problems about condensing the teams, coaches, and creating a new school identity.

And that leads to another problem with a merger:  Combining two schools with long histories and cultures into one new entity would be hard to do psychologically.  Yes, you might eliminate some of the class warfare that has taken place over the years with both schools stereotyping the other.  At South, Central students were often characterized as rich snobs who were spoiled rotten; and at Central, South got portrayed as a dangerous ghetto by some.  My favorite District 86 myth was the widely circulated story that once upon a time some Central students were planning a field trip into the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago (now demolished, but then notorious for gang activity), but were told by “somebody” (the story had a variety of culprits in this role) that it would be much easier and quicker just to travel over to South to witness the same type of environment.  That kind of ignorance and bias would be lessened as both sides of District 86 got to know each other more thoroughly, but you could anticipate many hurtful and damaging comments coming from both South and Central backers as the merger was debated and came closer to reality.  While the physical merger could happen from one school year to the next, there’s no question that a cultural merger would take much longer.  I’m not saying it would be like the intense racial problems of Remember the Titans, but if a merger does happen, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Denzel Washington to take all community members away to a remote camp to work out some issues in order to foster South/Central bonding, not to mention choreographing a cool dance the football players could do as they take the field.

Other issues are less clear as positives or negatives.  From a teacher’s perspective, teaching different classes would be limited since all course offerings wouldn’t be available at both buildings.  For most of my twenty-five years at South, I got to teach both freshmen and seniors (English I Honors and Expository Writing being my most common combination), and I loved the contrast between the dorky ninth graders and pseudo-mature twelfth graders.  However, some teachers like to limit the breadth of their preparations, and we do live in an age of specialization, so having a single prep and/or age group might be preferable to them.  Course offerings would also be a mixed bag as it would be tough to have some of the electives now available at both buildings with a single high school.   Without all grade levels in each building, some courses like acting or ceramics might not have enough registrants to justify a class at each school, and the logistics of getting students back and forth between campuses would be challenging given the three-mile distance between them.  Conversely, with almost double the freshmen (or seniors) in one building, some other electives that have struggled to attract enough registrants might now have more than enough.  Latin and German are two courses at South, for example, that often are forced to have multiple levels (German III, German IV, and Advanced Placement German IV, for example) in a one classroom and period.  Combining all juniors and seniors in a single building could alleviate that issue, allowing for more concentrated study and less fragmentation for teachers.

Another “unclear” issue would be the make-up of students in each building.   A merger would mean that the age range would be halved in each building.  It’s uncertain how beneficial or harmful it is for freshmen to be exposed to seniors and vice versa, and no one really has shown whether having only two age groups in a high school has any positive or negative effects; but it would be different than it is now. It would probably take years to figure out whether the change was overall good or bad, but there’s no doubt that it would have some effect.  Diversity would change as well.  According to the 2014 Illinois school report card, Central students are 76% white, 15% Asian, 4% Hispanic, and 2.5% black, with 6.3% of those low income; contrasted to South’s 57% white, 20% black, 10.5% Asian, and 10% Hispanic, with 27.4% low income.  Would the increased diversity broaden some sheltered people’s perspectives or drive them to private schools?  Would exposure to more wealthy or poor individuals improve perspectives or lead to more clashes and hurt feelings?  Teenagers are notorious for extremes in emotions, so any changes would have impacts—there’s just no way to know whether they would be beneficial or problematic in the long term.

All of which leads me to believe that most District 86 residents will not want to take the risks of changing two already top-notch high schools, and the merger won’t happen.  It is encouraging, however, that just one year after District 86’s divisive and controversial teacher contract negotiations last fall to see the new board majority is focusing on issues that really matter.  Yes, we still have the foolishness of some board members trying to file grievances against community members who said “mean-spirited” things or refusing to drop lawsuits against District 86 employees, but at least those embarrassments have become side shows to the important work the rest of the school board is doing.  And while many might find it prickly to confront some of the issues that considering a merger will bring up, everyone should be thankful that at least now the community is debating meaningful questions and not worrying about if somebody’s doctorate title is being appropriately used in e-mail communications or if community members will be allowed to attend press conferences held by board negotiations teams.  Whether or not District 86 moves to consolidate its two schools into one, there’s little doubt that the school board members, at least most of them, are moving in a much more positive direction.

Newsweek versus Hinsdale Central

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In a recent letter sent to Newsweek and printed in both the Darien and Hinsdale/Clarendon Hills versions of The Patch (find it here), Hinsdale Township High School District 86 superintendent, Dr. Bruce Law, protested the omission of Hinsdale Central High School from Newsweek’s list of the top high schools in the country.  Law also argues that Hinsdale South High School—which came in at #415 out of 500 in the rankings—should have been ranked higher. (The Chicago Tribune has also run a story about this.)  Although it’s understandable that any superintendent of any high school in the country left off the list would be upset at the slight, Law should know better than to argue about anything as bogus as a list claiming to determine a high school’s quality, especially in relation to other high schools.

Even though Law does rightly point out that “no thoughtful person thinks news magazines’ rankings are a way to judge the worth of schools,” he then states that these ratings are important to many people (Are those people, then, not “thoughtful”?) and attacks Newsweek as making a mistake in leaving Hinsdale Central off the list, the second year in a row that this “error” has occurred.  Unfortunately, he never provides any evidence of problems in the way the rankings were tabulated; apparently, we have to accept his word that Central belonged on the list.  Newsweek, in fact, does offer statistics and explanations of its methodology. (This article provides an overview, and there is a much more detailed analysis embedded near the bottom of the page.)  As a retired teacher who evaluated hundreds of research papers over thirty-three years, I’d have to grade Law’s letter way down for making unsupported assertions.

That’s not to say I don’t agree that Central is an excellent high school. Having worked in District 86 for twenty-five years (in the English Department at #415 Hinsdale South), I know first-hand the superior quality of the teachers, the dedication of support-staff members, and the excellence of the students in this school district.  If anything, South has always felt slighted over the years, considered the ugly step-sister to Princess Central.  And don’t for a second believe that I would try to use the flawed rankings of Newsweek to claim that South has now surpassed Central.  Central is and has been a fantastic high school, setting an Illinois record of eight IHSA state championships in the 2014-15 school year (which you can read about here) and having over thirty National Merit Semifinalists announced just last week, to cite a couple of its many recent accomplishments.  That makes it even more unfortunate that Law is complaining about not being on some stupid list that everyone should recognize as nonsense.

Because it is a fool’s errand to try to figure out how good a school is based on the data Newsweek uses.  The six “indicators of College Readiness” Newsweek chose were as follows:  College enrollment rate (weighted as 25% of a school’s total score), graduation rate (20%), Advanced Placement tests taken compared to number of students in the school (17.5%), weighted ACT/SAT composite scores (17.5%), student retention (or dropout) rates (10%), and counselor/student ratio (10%).  Those statistics combined for the “absolute” list that received all the publicity and on which Hinsdale South was ranked 415th.  There was another list created based an analysis of the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in the school who performed above state averages for similar students, as well as those other six metrics (neither District 86 school made that list).

None of those statistics are meaningless, but arguments could be made for many others as well—advanced education of teachers, class size, extra-curricular opportunities, and technology availability are all measurable areas which could have been considered.  (And that’s not even getting into how they determined the percentages each metric was worth—student/teacher ratios aren’t even on the list, but counselor/student ratios are worth 10% and are equal to dropout rates?)  Probably the key metric that was overlooked would be the progress students made from their first day of freshman year to commencement senior year.  Standardized tests could be used to come up with some number for that, and I would argue that statistic would be a better way to attempt to determine a school’s effectiveness rather than how many kids took AP tests, whether or not they did well on them.

But even that “objective” data would scarcely make a dent in assessing how good a high school is.  There are countless more subjective issues that contribute to the graduates who emerge from high schools.  To give you a brief sampling of other factors I would argue also contribute to the quality of a high school:  How diverse is the student body?  The staff?  How tolerant is everyone to differences in race, religion, and sexual orientation?  How tough are the school’s anti-bullying policies?  How many incidents of bullying take place annually?  How often do fights break out?  How many suspensions occur each year?  What are they for?  How many deans are on staff?   Are support-staff wages competitive, or does the district scrimp on paying them, leading to a high turnover and less quality individuals who will be coming in contact with students every day?  Are teacher salaries competitive enough to attract the best candidates?  What are the facilities like?  How often are fire and safety monies spent, and has every concern been addressed?  What’s the relationship between the school board and its teachers?  Any contract problems recently which could negatively impact the “school climate,” which is code for employee enthusiasm?  How do the administrators relate to both the school board and their teachers?  How much money is spent per pupil?  Does the school board find the right balance between fiscal responsibilities to taxpayers and making sure the schools have adequate budgets?  How up-to-date are the facilities and technology?  How many computer labs and/or student tablets does the school have?    What kind of relationship does the school have to local businesses?  How robust are the parent/teacher organizations and the booster clubs?  Are there any mentoring opportunities for student-to-student, student-to-teacher, or student-to-community member?  How experienced is the staff?  What interventions are in place to address at-risk students and how quickly are these students identified?  When new teachers are hired, can the district hire experienced teachers from other districts or do only first-year teachers apply?  How many teachers are rated as “Unsatisfactory” or “Needs Improvement” each year?  Are special needs students mostly included in regular classes?  How many separate classes are there for these students?  Are classes with included students team-taught (with a special education teacher and a subject area teacher in the room together all the time)?  How many special needs students are there?  How big is the special education department as a ratio of total teachers?  How many course offerings does the school have?  How many field trips or special events does a typical student attend over the course of four years?  How well are the art, music, and drama departments supported? Does the school emphasize physical education in a way that encourages students to learn how to be healthy rather than simply putting on a gym uniform?  What is the ratio of junk food to healthy choices in the cafeteria?  Are all students encouraged to join clubs and activities, or do coaches and sponsors fight over only the “good” kids?  How well do coaches and sponsors cooperate with each other so that kids can participate in many activities, rather than being recruited to join a sport/club that more closely resembles a cult?  Does learning about the sport/activity and good sportsmanship take precedence over winning?  How often is the curriculum updated, and are teachers the driving force behind any and all changes?  How often are standardized tests taken, and how much class time is wasted preparing for them?  How many students have substance abuse issues, and how prevalent are alcohol and other drugs?  Of those graduates who go on to college, how well do they do and how many graduate in four years?  What kinds of programs are offered to prepare students for careers that do not require four years of college?  Believe it or not, I could go on and on with many more considerations that contribute to the quality of a high school.

As you look over that lengthy list of questions, you should quickly recognize that it would be impossible to assess all these questions unless you had worked in the high school and school district in a variety of positions for decades, as well as having several of your children attend the school—preferably with one child being gifted, another troubled, and the third special needs.  In short, nobody can determine a school’s quality in any replicable, scientific, objective way, certainly not with a scant six characteristics.  What Dr. Law should be chastising Newsweek over isn’t its lack of recognition of Hinsdale Central, but its amazing chutzpah in suggesting that it has the wherewithal to take a couple of self-reported statistics, crunch those meager numbers, and then come out with a supposedly accurate ranking of the “top” 500 high schools in the country.

And sadly this drivel carries a great deal of weight. Although I have no inside information on what stimulated Law to write this letter in the first place, my guess is that he wouldn’t have done so if it hadn’t been for outside pressure from those indignant that this “important” ranking had somehow missed how awesome Hinsdale Central is.  Other high schools that Central has always been compared to were on the list—Stevenson (82nd overall), New Trier (14th),  Naperville North (58th) and Central (95th), Lake Forest (34th), Barrington (161st), Glenbrook South (95th), Maine South (380th), and Highland Park (263rd) to name a few—so I’m not denying that it’s ridiculous Central wouldn’t be included somewhere with them.  But the more significance we grant these futile attempts to assess a school’s overall worth, the more time and effort we waste trying to measure the unmeasurable, which can have unforeseen negative effects.

At Hinsdale South, for example, there has been a huge push in recent years to get more kids to take AP classes and tests, at least in part because it “looks” better.  Weighted grades—the opiates of public education—have been liberally applied to attract kids to A.P. classes, resulting in virtual open enrollment in many courses that require skills not all students possess.  This winds up hurting everyone as the students who don’t really belong in honors classes motivate teachers to water-down their curricula to accommodate the unsuspecting hordes being recruited, many of whom can’t do the work well (even after the curricular dilution), feeling lost or stupid as a result.  And those who have the skills to do A.P. work can’t progress as far as they might have since the courses’ standards have been lowered.  No one will admit it, but rankings such as those in Newsweek can contribute to dumbing-down courses simply to bolster enrollment.

So these kinds of lists can harm schools which pay too much attention to them by weakening the very courses that make the schools rigorous.  And in the final analysis, that’s much more significant than whether a particular school was gypped by not being included in the top 500.  Dr. Law is absolutely correct when he points out that Newsweek has made errors in creating its list, but the key problem is not the unjustified omission of Hinsdale Central; what’s wrong is that we give any credence to these lists at all.

For more on these rankings and trying to use objective data to evaluate subjective concepts, check out the following articles:  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/02/14/the-order-of-things;

http://www.scribd.com/doc/238785187/Newsweek-s-Top-High-Schools-Methodology; and

http://www.shankerinstitute.org/blog/quick-look-best-high-school-rankings.  For more on how public education can be improved without the use of lists or rankings, see the e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found at http://www.snowflake-schools.com/snowflake-schools-the-book.html.

Quarter Century Club Rises from the Dead!

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This is an instance when I’m happy to have to update one of the essays I’ve posted about Hinsdale High School District 86 (see https://jamescrandell.wordpress.com/2015/02/19/quarter-century-clubbed/ for the original article).  For those of you new to this blog, I worked at Hinsdale South, one of the two high schools in District 86, for twenty-five years.

Two months ago, via an e-mail sent to employees from the administration, an honorary dinner for teachers who had worked in the district for a quarter century held annually for the past thirty-one years was cancelled.  At the time, the business manager was forecasting a $1.7 million deficit at the end of the fiscal year on June 30, and so cuts like the Quarter-Century Club dinner were said to be necessary.  Despite its small cost ($10,000) in a district with a pretty large budget (over $80,000,000), the crisis of deficit spending meant the dinner had to die.  Then, last week, we (ex? zombie?) members received an invitation to the thirty-second Quarter-Century dinner.  I’m told that the explanation for the Quarter Century’s reinstatement was that the balances in various funds were turning out better than anticipated, so there was no need for its elimination.  Therefore, on May 19, I will be going to Ashton Place with many of my colleagues, both current and retired, to welcome four new members to the resuscitated Quarter Century Club.

Now, I could postulate political theories on why this wonderful recognition of longevity and hard work was cancelled in the first place, pointing fingers at certain board majorities that never got along with teachers all that well, and especially didn’t like the union to which virtually every teacher in the district belongs (or did belong, in the case of retired teachers).  And I’m certain a regular commentator on this blog (as well as all articles about District 86) will be happy to attack the union in the comments section below.  However, the voters spoke quite clearly on April 7 and selected board members who will soon make a new, different majority.  So I won’t claim that the original cancelation might have been for reasons other than projected deficits.  You could make that argument, but the more important story here is that what had been a $1.7 million deficit just over two months ago has turned into a surplus. And the long-term lesson that should be learned from this flip-flop on the Quarter Century Club is the folly of basing too many decisions on financial projections made in school districts.

I have written about this before, so I will just summarize here (for the more detailed analysis, go to http://patch.com/illinois/darien-il/bp–inside-public-education-school-finance ).  When making a budget for the next fiscal year and projections for years even further into the future, school district business managers have a vested interest in under-estimating revenues and over-estimating expenses.  The reason makes perfects sense, and I would do exactly the same thing in their situation.  Think about these two scenarios:  One, the business manager predicts that the district will have a surplus at the end of the fiscal year, but is wrong and a deficit results.  Or two, the business manager predicts the district will have a deficit at the end of the fiscal year, but is wrong and a surplus results.  In both cases the business manager’s forecasts were incorrect; however, in the first example, he would take a lot of heat and might even be fired, while the second would probably earn him a raise.  It’s simply smarter to be extremely conservative when making budgets so that any surprises at the end of the year turn out to be pleasant ones.

District 86 has been doing this for at least the past twenty-eight years (I started working in Hinsdale South’s English Department in 1987 and retired in 2012).  Some of you might recall in the recent campaign for school board that one side touted the surpluses of the past two years contrasted with the $7,000,000 deficit of the two years prior to that.  If you look at the documents that support this claim (see pages 79-80 of the District’s  2014 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report), you will see that the only reasons for those two years of deficit spending are unusual expenditures—two years (2010 & 2011) of spending over $3,000,000 in the category of “Payments to other Districts excluding special ed”—and one year (2012) when the district depreciated its physical assets (buildings, mostly) to the tune of $5,616,356.  The almost $5,000,000 “deficit” which was reported that year, then, was simply the district having an appraisal done which indicated that its physical structures had aged  while property values had increased; thus, meaning it would take $5.6 million more to replace them in 2012 than it would have at the last appraisal.  It’s not as if the district had to spend $5,000,000 more than it took in; it was simply updating replacement costs, something which did not occur in any other of the ten years which appear on this report.  So during the ten years from 2005-2014, there were only two years in which deficits occurred, one of which was due to a once-every-decade reappraisal and the other which resulted from unusually high payments to other districts.  I have no explanation on why in those years the district spent some $7.4 million to other districts, while no other year had more than $425,000 expenses in this category (in three years, there were no costs at all), but they were clearly anomalies.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to pay enough attention to how the district operates fiscally to call out this Chicken Little, “The sky is falling!” approach to finances.  As I said, it’s totally logical to be conservative with the public’s money.  But that conservation in District 86 has led to expensive construction projects for which most school boards have to seek voter approval to fund.  Because District 86 has routinely been able to accrue millions of dollars in its reserves, it has also routinely been able to spend down those reserves by building (or buying as in the case of several homes and a day-care center that was converted to a special needs school) new facilities.   As someone who worked in those facilities, I do believe that most of the construction was valid and worthwhile.  But I obviously had a significant self-interest in working someplace with clean, modern classrooms, where I could get supplies (from paper to computers) to do my job well.  Should some of these projects have followed the more traditional approach of being voted on by the public?  Well, with the funds already available—some of the building was also funded by the board’s use of bonds—the question never came up in any way but an advisory one.  You know, a committee with a foregone conclusion as its charter is formed.  It’s sort of like those questions Steven Colbert used to pose, “Am I the greatest political satirist on TV or just one of the greatest?”  Instead, the question in District 86 was more like, “Should we build this addition now or a week from now?”

Regardless of any committees formed, District 86 has been able to spend millions and millions on construction improvements without asking its constituents if that money needed to be spent.  And there’s no real reason to challenge this process since surplus after surplus shows up at the beginning of each fiscal year.  Those who see the teachers’ union’s salary requests as “unsustainable”  and who yearn for inflation-based tax levy increases to be halted should really look into this amassing of surpluses to be used for construction.  Think about it:  District 86 has run several referenda in the last year on such “important” questions like teachers’ end-of-career bonuses and parental input on teacher evaluations, but it hasn’t sought approval for any of the multi-million dollar projects it has done over the years: the additions of field houses at both schools, an entire wing erected at Hinsdale Central, the numerous science labs added at Hinsdale South, or some six fields of artificial turf.  (And don’t forget the millions spent at each campus to put in air-conditioning.)  I’m not suggesting that these were not beneficial or useful; but when a thirty-one-year tradition that costs $10,000 gets dumped at the threat of a deficit, it certainly seems odd that nobody has raised an eyebrow over these past budgetary practices.  Based on my research, District 86 hasn’t put a referendum for additional funds before the public since 1962 when the money to build Hinsdale South High School was approved.

But at least the Quarter Century Club lives for this year.  Once again, however, the recently deposed school board majority has turned a positive into a negative as there was never any compelling reason to euthanize it in the first place.  It seems like an even worse choice when you consider that this life-threatening deficit reported and acted upon just two short months ago has now evaporated into the normal end-of-year surplus that District 86 has historically had.  Since a new board will take office in a week, we can hope it will be able to focus on the things that make District 86 one of the top high school districts in the state rather than obsessing over faux deficits.  The public, however, would do well to inform itself of the enviable financial position this district has so that predictions of devastating deficits that never materialize don’t create needless stress and over-reactions.  I’m happy that the district recognized the folly of disbanding the Quarter Century Club, and perhaps everyone can be more prudent to avoid making hasty decisions the next time projections scream of financial boogeymen lurking around the corner.

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.

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.