This year Evanstonians are facing a 3 percent property-tax hike, their high school freshmen are participating in a , and last year superintendents for both Evanston/Skokie CC School District 65 and Evanston Township High School District 202 received controversial contract extensions.
Thus, the 10 candidates vying for six open spots (three on each board) face extra scrutiny from parents, teachers and residents when they go to the voting booth April 5. Thursday night’s school board forum held at Haven Middle School and co-sponsored by the Haven Middle School PTA and the Central Street Neighbors Association was an opportunity for new contenders to explain how they will use their new power and for the four incumbents to explain why they did what they did. Former CSNA President Jeffrey Smith moderated, reading out and consolidating pre-written questions from an audience of about 60.
“I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made at District 65, and I want to continue what we’ve started,” said current District 65 board president Keith Terry, in his opening remarks. “There is more work to be done, and quite frankly, one term is not enough to accomplish what I want to achieve and what you demand.”
Bailey, like Terry, joined the District 65 board in 2007 and cited her MBA and professional experience in strategic planning and business development as evidence that she will make sure board members are “financial stewards of community taxpayer dollars,” a term later repeated in variation by most of the candidates. Bailey said she would continue to focus the district’s efforts on “college readiness,” a subject that incited aggression at the January board meeting, as members argued over whether District 65 was misrepresenting Illinois Standards Achievement Exam scores to claim students are achieving college readiness. The argument led to a closed “self-evaluation” board session on Feb. 1.
“The competition students face in college and their careers is greater than ever,” said Budde, jumping on the college-readiness bandwagon. “We need to benchmark ourselves against the best school; we need to benchmark our spending against districts [reaching] the highest achievement.”
Budde has served on the Nichols Middle School PTA ever since she moved to Evanston three years ago, first as treasurer, currently co-president. She spoke to her experience as a former math teacher and current private tutor.
Rees and Ryhkus both claimed to have managed multimillion dollar budgets and cited their commitments to fiscal responsibility.
“We have a fiduciary duty to taxpayers in this district,” Rees said. “With the financial problems in Springfield, the budget is in a precarious position, and we’re not sure how much money’s going to be coming in to the district.”
Rees, an attorney for his family business who has previously worked in government, also cited extending the school year by four days and the school day by 40 minutes, as major platforms.
Ryhkus, married to a Mexican man who together raise an African-American son, appealed to his commitment to diversity and his experience as a director of strategic learning at Grant Thornton, LLP. He said his work would focus on ensuring achievement for every child at every level.
On the District 202 side, incumbents Jane Colleton, on the board for 20 years and a retired preschool teacher, and Mark Metz, a retirement-plan-services executive, who has chaired the board’s audit committee during his first term, spoke to the board’s successes in the last two years, in particular the recent freshman curriculum approval. Metz said he is expecting more from ETHS teachers and students and is committed to listening to teachers during this transition.
Richard Scott Rochelle, a second-generation graduate from ETHS and an education attorney, said his extensive study in education policy qualifies him for the position.
“My decisions are based on credible evidence and reliable data,” he said. I will demand proactive communication.”
Jonathan Baum, a civil rights lawyer, called for more transparency within the district and more collaboration with District 65.
“I see things from a K through 12 perspective,” he said.
Cherie Hansen, a former ETHS PTA president, could not attend the forum due to a family emergency. Smith read her statement, which also called for collaboration with District 65 and ensuring high education standards for all students at all levels.
Thursday was the last day for Evanstonians to appeal their property-tax assessments, so it was no surprise that most of the questions lobbed at this year’s upcoming school board candidates at Thursday night’s forum focused on – what else? – money.
Rykhus called for greater scrutiny of District 65 Superintendent Hardy Murphy’s contract, which he said reveals “fairly excessive” items, such as unlimited accumulated sick leave and an unconstrained automotive stipend.
Bailey and Terry defended the district’s eight-year balanced-budget record (this year’s budget is approximately $100 million) and noted the district is tied to a property tax cap and union contracts.
“What do you expect out of schools?” Terry said. “We don’t want outrageous class sizes. … We are looking at every aspect of the budget. It is difficult to reduce the budget unless we get rid of teachers.”
Budde said it was important to make conservative estimates on new initiatives the district has proposed to build a new school and fix the spacing issue at some of the middle schools.
The picture was similar on the other side of the table, with Colleton and Metz praising the school’s Triple A bond rating and commitment to “value-based budgeting.”
Baum pointed out some ETHS programs are demonstrating “negative growth” in terms of student performance and said the district has to stop putting money into failing programs.
“You need to choose between the good and the goody,” he said.
“If you are going to make cuts, you’ve got to make them as far away from the classroom as possible,” Rochelle said. “I can’t advocate for cutting workforce. We need to get the most bang for your buck. We need to communicate what programs are doing what.”
And speaking of workforce, teachers and administrators faced criticism for high salaries (creeping up to $70,000 and $90,000 for teachers at the high end for districts 65 and 202 respectively).
The majority of the candidates said teachers were not overpaid and that salaries must remain competitive to attract the best. The lawyers on the panel spoke about making more in their first year out of law school than most teachers make after 30 years. Budde said teachers should receive wage increases for performance but not simply for obtaining higher degrees, referring to a program District 65 instituted in its last round of teacher negotiations, in which they agreed to increase a teacher’s salary beyond the 3.5 percent per year increase if they go back to school.
Should teachers be given the right to strike?
Ryhkus, Budde, Colleton and Baum said yes, on the basis of fundamental democratic rights; Rees, Bailey, Terry, Rochelle and Metz said the students always come first.
Colleton and Metz defended their votes to remove tracking from ETHS freshman humanities, calling it a “modest change,” and Rochelle and Baum said they would hold the new curriculum to the utmost scrutiny.
“Philosophically I’m not into mixed-level classrooms or tracking,” Baum said. “I think we should be empirical rather than ideological.”
He said he was against Witherspoon’s proposal because it was “underprepared and oversold.”
“I think it’s a step in a direction,” Rochelle said. “In spirit, I think it’s the right direction. I’m committed to make sure it works; if it doesn’t work, I’ll tear it down.”
Asked if the candidates were in favor of consolidating both districts in the name of ensuring a more seamless transition from middle to high school, all but one contender gave the same non-response, saying they would be willing to do a cost-benefit analysis.
“This has been a longtime coming,” Rees said, “In the debate over the humanities course, District 65 got backhanded for not putting out the best students. It’s too easy to point fingers downstream. I don’t think we should wait on it.” He suggested the measure to consolidate the districts be put to a referendum vote in 2012.