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.
Let’s make this perfectly clear right from the start: I do not think that Betsy DeVos is qualified to be Secretary of Education and I did not support her controversy-laden nomination process which ended in a 50-50 vote in the Senate. For the first time in history, a vice president had to cast the deciding vote; DeVos enters office with the least popularity and most notoriety of any cabinet-level appointment I can remember. And that’s what bothered me more and more as the whole cabinet Senate-approval process has gone on—given the relative importance of the various positions Trump has at his disposal to appoint, DeVos is a very small fish in the sea of incompetence and/or disregard (if not outright desire to harm) that other departments will have to endure, yet those appointments have generated much less furor than DoVos’s.
Don’t misinterpret me here: Of course I believe public education is crucial! I spent thirty-three years teaching, so obviously I’m biased, but it doesn’t get much more significant for the continued success and growth of the country than how much education our kids get. From income to contribution to society to likelihood of voting, the better your education, the better your chances to contribute and to achieve. And when you achieve, you’re also more likely to recognize the need to give back, not to mention having the resources to do so. Public education is one of the greatest assets America possesses, and it is the pipeline that supplies what is truly our crown jewel and the envy of the world—America’s outstanding collection of colleges and universities which have fostered creativity, innovation, and leadership second to none. Yeah, I think education is important.
But Betsy DeVos won’t have much impact on most of the educational world, especially the middle-class enclaves which receive scant monetary support from the federal government whose budget Betsy will now influence. I spent twenty-five years teaching and union agitating in one of the better school districts in the state, Hinsdale Township High School District 86, home to Hinsdale South and Central. Through eight different teacher contract negotiations, I became familiar with the financial condition of the district, and we never got more than a percent or two of our funding annually from Uncle Sam. Of course, every cent matters, but it wouldn’t be a huge hardship for many of the suburban school districts in Chicagoland to blow off the relative chump change they get from the feds should DeVos try to ram through some controversial change. And do you really think Donald will let her go after the ‘burbs with their bastions of conservative, management types as opposed to the wicked cities?
Those city schools will be the ones to get the brunt of DeVos’s attention since those enormous, cash-strapped districts depend much more on federal money. For instance, Chicago schools are budgeted to get over 12% of their funding from Washington this fiscal year. That’s a lot of programs, teachers, and facility upgrades/repairs. These districts, however, have been the most troubled for the longest time due to conditions which often hamper the ability of children to function well in school—less local tax money, higher percentages of low-income families, and eroding facilities. There is much that needs improvement in some areas of our cities, and it’s a pretty safe bet that DeVos will push one of her favorite programs, charter schools. Certainly vouchers will also be encouraged, but her inclination in this direction will be staunchly opposed in the suburbs since most people are happy with their schools. (They’re happy with them because they’re damn good, by the way.) And in the cities, vouchers have much less impact since most families have no other reasonable options save their local public school. The main battle ahead, in my view, is between the federal government trying to leverage its more significant monetary contribution to the large urban districts where the teacher unions are pretty strong. We can anticipate some epic confrontations, but it will be hard for DeVos to dislodge many state laws which provide a basis of power for the unions. Much work needs to be done for our city schools, but I’m doubtful that we’ll see a revolution educationally in Chicago’s public schools; she’ll just try to increase the speed with which cities are moving in the directions fostered under the two previous administrations.
On top of that, educational bureaucracy is largely decentralized and notoriously slow-moving. It will take years for DeVos to get up to speed and even longer for her to mount any effective legislation or initiative. Plus, it’s not like she has a stellar record of achievement shining down on her from the recent past courtesy of either the Bush or Obama administrations. Her poor performance won’t be unusual given how Arne Duncan, Margaret Spelling, and Roderick Paige did preceding her. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core all had laudable goals and motivations, but none of those programs has really made a dent in the most stubbornly underachieving districts any more than they impacted to any great degree good, independent, locally supervised schools. Then too, teachers can be (speaking from first-hand experience) extremely stubborn in refusing to do things which they don’t believe are in the best interests of their kids. Okay, maybe that sounds naïve and idealistic, but keep in mind this assessment is coming from someone who spent years fighting with his bosses for better teacher rights and was a noted challenger of authority (aka “a huge pain”)—I’m not exactly a dewy-eyed neophyte on how school systems work. I’ve witnessed what teachers do, and believe me; no math department in the world will veer one problem away from what they have determined to be the best route until you have proved to them the new way will be significantly better. Schools have a rich history of ignoring grand plans from on high, and DeVos doesn’t have much of a track record in accomplishing the radical change she often espouses. For an alternative view (fact?) check out this article I found pretty amusing—there’s absolutely no evidence supplied to support the attention-grabbing title, not to mention this one which has a heartfelt and inspiring back story, but again offers not one iota of support to show how DeVos will wreck schools.
Contrast the limited impact she will have with the potential for harm coming from the rest of Trump’s awful cabinet. Rick Perry was appointed to the Department of Energy without even knowing he would be overseeing our thousands of nuclear weapons. Ben Carson was selected to head Housing and Urban Development as the token black, despite admitting how little he knows about running a huge department. Steve Mnuchin worked for the much maligned Goldman Sachs as well as evicting thousands of homeowners during the 2008 financial meltdown, so we have a pedigreed swamp dweller at the helm of Treasury. Likewise, Rex Tillerson comes to the State Department with years of experience glad-handing various repressive governments (especially Putin’s Russia) to advance the interests of Exxon. Scott Pruitt will head the Environmental Protection Agency with a history of opposing most of its works and filing lawsuits against it. Tom Price is in charge of Health and Human Services despite several conflicts of interests, mainly revolving around his habit of pushing legislation which would benefit pharmaceutical companies in which he had purchased stock. Jeff Sessions is our Attorney General although his past is littered with racist, discriminatory behavior. All these men will be able to change our country in much more significant ways—from the air we breathe to the wars we fight to our economic well-being to the laws we enforce—than Betsy DeVos’s feeble attempts to expand charter schools.
Yet, the outrage over DeVos burned brightly while most of the others were approved with much less rancor. Yes, Elizabeth Warren did crusade against Sessions and Al Franken has been tough with whomever he’s questioned (including DeVos), but the antipathy to DeVos seems much greater and louder. So what is it about this particular appointment that so galvanized the opposition to the point where even a couple of Trump’s lapdogs (aka Republican Senators) voted against her?
The obvious answer is how important everyone sees education as being. More than that, though, everybody has a strong reaction when we believe our kids our threatened. Some of the DeVos firestorm, then, came from our knee-jerk reaction to potential negative outcomes for our kids. As The Simpsons character, Helen Lovejoy, is fond of wailing, “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” Nobody ever wants to be seen as short-changing children or puppies, so it makes sense that once it became clear that DeVos was hardly a wonderful candidate for Education we all sharpened our knives and had at her. That she won’t have nearly the negative influence as Sessions, Pruitt, Tillerson, or any of the other bad cabinet members gets lost in the invective. That she’s a billionaire only makes it easier to pile on when she doesn’t even know the difference between growth and proficiency.
Sadly, however, I believe there’s more going on here than just a bad candidate for an important position. In this case, we have a bad woman candidate. I know there were a couple of other females nominated (although pathetically few), but they had more political cover than DeVos—like newly appointed Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who also happens to be Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s wife. Yep, America’s blatant sexism, which in my view is one of the key reasons Hillary Clinton is not our President, has reared its ugly but equal opportunity head in going after another woman who has poor public relations skills. Don’t get me wrong—I disagree with almost every education pronouncement DeVos has ever made, but at least she has been interested in the field over the past several years. I know she didn’t go to, send her kids to, or work in any public schools; yet she has been lobbying, proposing, and working on educational issues for years. No, that isn’t the same as direct public education know-how, but it’s more experience than Carson or Perry, more transparency than Price or Tillerson, and less corrupted values than Sessions or Mnuchen bring to their departments. Yes, she doesn’t like unions and has no problem with tax dollars being shifted to parochial schools as part of parents’ being able to choose their child’s school. But she will have a much harder time enacting that agenda than Pruitt will in lowering clean air and water standards for the profits of industrial barons at the cost of everyone’s health—Flint was just a warmup with a guy like this having so much influence. And that’s just fallout from ONE of the other departments peopled with Trump’s much more deplorable choices. Essentially, I believe that DeVos would have gotten significantly less flack if she had been a man, and the men got off way too easily since most belong to the “old boys network.” (As I was writing this, one of the old boys did get rejected as Andrew Puzder—who despises labor unions, opposes any minimum wage, and of course was slated to be Secretary of Labor. So at least when a man has an undocumented servant and was once accused of abusing his ex-wife, even Donald can’t get him through the Republican Senate.)
I’ve written before how we need to prioritize in the coming battle with Trump in charge. Like everybody, I’m just now coming to grips with how bad it is rapidly becoming, not to mention concerned as hell about how much worse it could get. But expending huge amounts of energy and devoting significant dollars against DeVos is to misallocate vital resources that we’re going to need for other more dire crises to come. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly throughout this essay, I am NOT in favor of Betsy DeVos or her plans for American education. I do, however, have much faith in the teachers, students, and their parents who are not going to let their schools be taken over by some unqualified rich person in Washington. State legislatures and local school boards are the keys to most school districts, and coupled with energized teachers unions, I am confident that DeVos’s impact will be minimal. With so many other more important challenges ahead from those who face much weaker opposition, save your time and energy for Mother Nature, Lady Justice, Columbia, three women who are going to need all our help from attacks coming from the Trump administration.
And of course, you should check out the arguments which contradict what I have written here, so here are several I have come across. Hey, I’ve got no problem with people criticizing DeVos’s record and opposing her agenda, and if you disagree with my assessment and want to spend your time and energy making public education better, that will never be a waste of time and will always be beneficial. Just don’t over-exaggerate the damage she will cause. These articles come from the following sources: Gizmodo, NPR, Policy.Mic, Vox, Inside Higher Ed, North Carolina Policy Watch, and The Chicago Tribune.
And if you’d like more ideas on how public education can be improved, please look into my eBook, Snowflake Schools, which has way better ideas than any DeVos has every articulated from someone who went to public schools, studied them in college, worked in them for thirty-three years, and sent his kids there as well. Take that, Betsy!
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.
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 post, The 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.