Thursday, August 24, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
Nowadays, the climate at Bellwood School District 88 board meetings is a lot more placid than just a year ago — when they were policed by armed, bulletproof vest-wearing security guards hired by former D88 Supt. Rosemary Hendricks.
Hendricks was ousted earlier this year by a new board majority that includes three members — board Vice President Maria Perez, board Secretary Dorothy Clark-Smith and board member Deborah Giles — who won their seats in April. The three women ran as the Bellwood Education Dream Team party, whose platform was deeply critical of Hendricks and the former board president, Marilyn Thurman.
Since storming into office, the new majority—helmed by a new board president, Sondra McClendon, has enacted swift personnel and structural changes, which include replacing Hendricks with an interim superintendent, Mark Holder, and reviving the tradition of holding committee of the whole meetings to discuss district business — a practice that was discontinued under Thurman.
During a 3-hour board presentation on July 24, Holder and his administrative staff laid out an ambitious, optimistic new agenda for the district. The presentation also constituted something of an indictment of the previous administration.
“To our parents, this is now the hub that belongs to you,” Holder said of the D88 administrative building that, under Hendricks, was protected by more security guards than the district’s largest school, according to the former superintendent’s critics.
“We’ve shut our parents out where they didn’t want them in board meetings,” Holder said. “If our parents don’t support what we’re trying to do, or if we don’t bring them in … our kids lose.”
Holder, a former building principal in the district, said that one of his early priorities has been improving how the district communicates with the wider community and with parents, students, teachers and staff.
In August, the district unveiled a new website and Holder said he’s planning to be more vigilant with how the district “messages” its successes to the wider community — not just Bellwood, but neighboring towns as well.
The interim superintendent also said that he’s intent on opening the district back up to the world. In the recent past, he said, D88 had gained a reputation for keeping to itself.
To illustrate the reality, Holder said that when he attended a recent meeting of a local special-education cooperative, some people “were in awe” that someone from D88 showed up.
Holder added that he’s also been in regular communication with Bellwood Mayor Andre Harvey about ways the school district can collaborate with the village, community groups and outside individuals.
“I’m developing a Men on the Move group, where we’ll ask male community leaders to come in and help us deal with a lot of our at-risk boys,” Holder said, adding that he’ll also devise programs for at-risk girls.
The open communication lines, Holder said, have been extended to the inner workings of his administration.
In a sharp break from the past, when district employees reportedly operated in an environment of intimidation and fear, Holder said that he’s emphasized a culture of collaboration and openness. The interim superintendent added that he’ll be a regular presence in school buildings, classrooms and staff meetings.
“Our schools are vital centers of community life,” Holder said. “That means we embrace PTAs and parents … we focus on a high level of transparency and we’re not going to be operating in the dark any longer. Not under my watch.”
Holder said that he’s implemented weekly cabinet meetings with central office administrators, biweekly meetings with department heads and monthly meetings with a newly proposed Parent Teacher Advisory board.
He said that, in addition to enacting process changes, he’s also identified a range of cost-saving measures.
“Everybody in the district has a cell phone,” he said. “We’ve closed so many accounts. [In the past], everybody wanted a computer, a cell phone, an iPad — and we kept giving them these things.”
Holder said that the closed cell phone accounts could add up to a savings of $1,500 a month. He also said that he intends to stop the practice of contracting out the district’s landscaping, which Holder estimated could amount to $5,000 a month in savings.
Joseph Burdi, D88’s building and grounds director, said at the July meeting that the district could realize more cost savings once four new custodians are hired.
“[The new hires] will eliminate a lot, if not all, of the [custodial] overtime,” Burdi said at the time.
Other changes the interim superintendent announced included conducting a time management study in every department to identify whether or not employees are abusing overtime, reforming the practice of buying out vacation days and cutting the amount of money the district spends on stipends.
“The most important thing I’ve learned in this district is that people aren’t working for an 8-hour pay,” Holder said. “In three years, we spent almost $4 million on overtime … Can you imagine what we could’ve done with $4 million in terms of providing services for our kids?”
Holder referenced the district’s past practice of paying employees for unused vacation time, which he said was rife with favoritism.
“The way it was done in the past was just horrendous,” he said. “If we didn’t like you, we didn’t pay you. We only paid folks we liked. Now, we’re looking at equity across the board to make sure that everybody is treated fairly and given a fair shake.”
In another break with his predecessor, Holder said that he’ll start requiring all purchases to receive the superintendent’s approval. He said that, in the past, the district has purchased materials that have been duplicated “10 and 11 times over” and have gone unutilized.
“No more random purchases,” he said. “And if I see something that shoots a red flag, I’ll say something.”
In the area of instruction, Victoria Hansen, D88’s curriculum director, said that each department will be responsible for streamlining instruction across buildings. Hansen said that she’ll be pushing for STEM instruction to be applied more uniformly across the district. She said that she also wants to enhance math instruction across the district.
Jeninne Hixson-Rusike, the district’s new HR consultant, said that D88 is “20 years behind” current technology. She also condemned the practice of political decisions influencing personnel choices. Hixson-Rusike said that employees shouldn’t have to come into work stressed “when elections are happening.”
Touting a plan she called Mission 2018, Hixson-Rusike said that one of her biggest goals is for the district to have all personnel files and documents stored online in an electronic database by April 2018.
“I cannot stress the importance of using electronic database,” she said. “God forbid there’s another flood or snow storm … There have been documents that have been completely lost.”
Charlotte Larson, the D88’s special education director, said that D88 splits half the cost of transporting homeless students with other school districts, which are required to pay D88 the other half. But Larson said that when she started in her position in July, “we had not billed any invoices [to those other districts] for this past school year.”
One of those districts, Larson said, is Chicago Public Schools, which owes D88 over $18,000 that it didn’t pay out in the 2015-16 school year because district officials didn’t bill invoices. Another school district in Aurora, Larson said, owes D88 nearly $16,000 due to unbilled invoices.
“That will not happen again,” said Holder during one point in Larson’s presentation.
Tyrese Stafford, the district’s transportation director, was even more vocal about the district’s past failures. When it comes to transporting its students, Stafford said, “District 88 has been left way behind in all aspects.”
Stafford criticized the district’s practice under Hendricks of utilizing People Cab Co. to transport homeless and special education students, some of whom lived a few blocks from bus routes.
Last November, the Chicago Tribune published an article documenting D88’s expenses with the People Cab Co., which was paid $605,000 by the district between 2011 and 2016 to transport homeless and special education students.
According to the Tribune report, the company’s contract was approved without a bidding process. Thurman, who was board president at the time, supported the no-bid contract. The Tribune reported at the time that her son’s father drove for the company.
Stafford added that, among other challenges, D88 drivers had not been keeping accurate travel logs, had not been conducting pre-trip safety inspections (which is mandated by state and federal regulations), and had not been held accountable for keeping up with mechanical parts and supplies.
Stafford also said that some schools in the district were not adequately keeping information on the students who rely on the district for transportation. Stafford said that one of his priorities has been improving travel routes and collecting more comprehensive data on students who rely on district transportation.
Holder said that he hopes the changes result in a renewed focus on “the whole child.”
“It will not be a day in District 88 that we will not make children our priority,” he said, adding that in his many years of attending district board meetings, the discussion has rarely been about children.
“We have to be about kids,” he said. VFP