Monday, March 30, 2015 || By Michael Romain
The District 209 Board of Education race is essentially a contest of two opposing visions. The two competing sides offered stark contrasts in both governing style and potential policy directions during Wednesday Journal endorsement interviews in March.
The Children First slate, comprising municipal and education attorney ShawnTe Raines-Welch; youth minister Theodore Matthews; and current D209 board member Francine Harrell — wants to build on what it believes has been significant progress the district has made under Supt. Nettie Collins-Hart.
The 209 Together slate — comprising Theresa Kelly, the longest-serving member on, and former president of, the D209 board; Nathan Wagner, a psychology and human services administrator; and Claudia Medina, a school board advisor, teacher and administrator— wants to initiate bottom-up reform of a district they say is broken and in need of substantial repair.
Below is a rundown of areas both slates addressed during the interview process. Although all three 209 Together candidates were available for questions, only Raines-Welch appeared for the interview from the Children First slate.
Dr. Nettie Collins-Hart’s performance
Children First: In her questionnaire, Harrell wrote that she is in full support of Dr. Hart. During the interview, Raines-Welch said, “I have seen the progress the schools have made under her direction” and that “at the end of the day, facts don’t lie.”
She cited higher test scores across district schools, and Hart’s implementation of joint board meetings between D209 and its elementary feeder districts, as evidence of progress.
209 Together: Wagner said that if he and his running-mates were elected, they would raise their expectation of Hart’s performance.
“A good example,” he said. “One of her jobs is to communicate and do public relations in the community. I don’t see her doing that,” he said.
Proviso Math and Science Academy
Children First: Raines-Welch said that the school has been a success based on its high ranking among other high schools in the state and the performance of its student population on standardized tests.
As to its effect on Proviso East and Proviso West, she said, “I don’t think the other sister schools suffer by having three schools.”
209 Together: Wagner and Kelly addressed PMSA’s underutilization, noting that, although the school only has about 821 students, it is built for 1,200 kids. The slate feels that PMSA has diverted resources away from its sister schools.
District 209’s relationship with its feeder districts
Children First: Raines-Welch said that the relationship between D209 and its feeder districts “needs to be one of cooperation.”
She noted that Collins-Hart has instituted joint board meetings between the districts, in which officials from the high schools and elementary schools visit each other’s meetings.
209 Together: Kelly said that there had once been an articulation committee set up to act as a liaison between District 209 and its feeder districts.
However, “no one has done that job for years,” she said. “I was [once] assigned to that committee and [a month later] it was pulled.”
Kelly also noted that the district has initiated annual articulation summits — which are conferences that allow D209 officials to intermingle and bounce ideas off of officials from its feeder districts.
One year, however, District 89 had no representation. Wagner said that the feeder districts or “not accountable to 209 or to each other.”
D209’s financial condition
Children First: Raines-Welch said that the district has made some positive budgetary changes within the last 10 years that have led to better fiscal management and balanced budgets.
209 Together: Wagner said that “there’s a lot of money that can be created just by spending it properly.”
Medina noted that while the district has made progress with the Financial Oversight Panel (FOP) in place, the fact that the FOP is getting ready to leave in 2016 “terrifies us.”
“We had a $76 million reserve and it’s all gone with nothing to show for it,” she said.
The general state of District 209 high schools
Children First: Raines-Welch said that her party is focused on emphasizing the positive developments that have occurred in the district.
“We’re vested in this community, we’re from this community [and] we’re proud of our school district. It’s not perfect, but point me to a school district that is,” she said. “We have to accept our students for where they are. … Our slate is running on the positive achievements the district has made. … You can’t go into elected office with such a negative mentality.”
Raines-Welch said when her two young children get old enough, they’ll be going to Proviso West. She and her husband, former Proviso District 209 board President and current state Rep. Emmanuel “Chris” Welch (D-7th) live in Hillside.
209 Together: Kelly said that D209 schools are at the worst level she’s seen during her time on the board and that parents don’t feel welcome when they go into the schools.
“My son walked into [Proviso East] with me while I was taking a tour, and he was scared,” said Medina, adding that she hasn’t encountered a parent who looks forward to sending his or her child to Proviso East.
Members of the slate pointed to a lack of resources such as textbooks, low teacher morale, political hiring and an intimidating atmosphere that prevents many willing parents from volunteering at the school as reasons for their pessimism.
Both Wagner and Medina said that they would not send their own children to Proviso East in the state that it’s in. Medina said that, if her son tested into PMSA, she would consider allowing him to attend.
On candidates’ perceived weaknesses
Children First: Raines-Welch was asked if her being married to the former D209 board president would have any bearing on her decision-making on the board.
Raines-Welch said that it’s unfair and tacitly sexist to make the inquiry, since it assumes that she can’t decide independently of her husband.
She said she doesn’t often encounter the question on the campaign — only among “the naysayers.”
209 Together: Medina was asked whether or not her deep emotional ties to the schools situation would impair her ability to govern relatively impartially as a school board member:
Medina conceded that she is very passionate about the issue, but that it would only inform her skill set and knowledge base she would bring to the board.
The party also noted that empathy toward students was lacking at the board level and that it would bring more of it when making board decisions. VFP