Public Watchdog.org

Time For District 64 To Start Getting Its Due

04.29.09

We here at PublicWatchdog have been pretty focused on the goings on in City of Park Ridge government, especially during the last two years of the reign of Mayor Howard “Let’s Make A Deal” Frimark and his Alderpuppets.  And with good reason, we might add.

During these past two years of Frimark’s cut-in-half City Council, the City has booked over $3 million in budget deficits while neglecting such basic infrastructure needs as streets and sewers.  And it just passed a new budget that is showing a $1.8 million deficit, assuming every contingency ends up going in the City’s favor.  Otherwise, we’re in even more trouble.

But today we’re going to take a break from the City’s travails and looking at a local governmental body that gives every indication of being as ineptly managed as the City – School District 64 – even though it’s harder to tell because all seven of its Board members seem to be equally clueless about many of the matters under their authority, especially the financial ones.  That may be why they appear to have ceded most of the District’s financial decision-making (via “recommendations”) to the non-elected members of the Community Finance Committee (the “CFC”).

As reported yesterday in the on-line version of the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Positions approved for new school staff,” April 28), on Monday night the Dist. 64 Board approved the addition of four new staff members and two administrative positions for the 2009-10 school year: a full-time registered nurse, one special-education facilitator (Does he/she “facilitate” the teaching of special-ed students?  What happened to just plain “teaching”?), a literacy teacher for each of the two middle schools, and assistant principals for Field and Washington elementary schools.

According to outgoing Board member Chris Mollet, these new positions “will contribute…to the educational outcome that the children will now have the opportunity to experience.”  Huh?  Mr. Mollet, could you drop the edu-speak and try that again, this time in plain English?

We checked the District’s website of materials related to Monday night’s meeting and found these two action item forms [pdf] for the new-position vote.  Notice anything missing?  That’s right, the cost for each of these positions, or even all of them cumulatively.  And amazingly enough, the cost appears nowhere in the H-A article, either – although the article in today’s Park Ridge Journal pegs the total cost at $385,000 for four of the positions.  So we’re still not sure of the total cost of these new hires.

At least one resident, Tom Johnson, spoke out against increased costs in these tough economic times.  Thank you, Mr. Johnson.  Unfortunately, it didn’t stop the District 64 Board members, who are now flush with the cash from the 2007 referendum and can’t stop spending it – as evidenced by what appears to be an almost $5 million (7.9%) increase in expenses over last year. 

Hey, folks, since when did the cost of living go up that much?  And if we’re paying that much more in expenses, has the quality of the education – as measured by the same standardized test scores that everybody seems to use when rating the quality of schools and school districts – gone up 7.9%?  Or even 3.95%? 

Interestingly enough, the materials for the meeting included a Supt. Sally Pryor memo [pdf] announcing an “Award of Excellence” being issued to outgoing Board president Sue Runyon, who Pryor credits with being “intensively involved” in the last two successful D-64 referendums (the “Yes/Yes” Emerson one in 1997, and the financial bail-out referendum of 2007), as well as for making the District’s finances “more transparent and understandable to local citizens as a steering committee member of the Community Finance Committee (CFC).”   

If that agenda memo for the six new positions with no cost numbers attached is any indication, however, it would seem that “more transparent” still leaves a lot to be desired…and causes us to wonder just how bad “less transparent” might be.

But, then again, that award is coming from the Illinois chapter of something called the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) http://www.nspra.org, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that describes its “mission” as “to advance education through responsible communication” – which it accomplishes “through a variety of diverse services that we provide to Our Members and to other school leaders who contract with or buy from us.”

Hmmmm…that sure sounds a lot like “Have Propaganda, Will Travel.”  For a price.  From our perspective, that’s the last thing a school district (or any other governmental entity, for that matter) needs or should want.  Unless, of course, scamming the taxpaying public and avoiding accountability is the goal – in which case good P.R. is essential.

And guess what.  NSPRA’s website advertises how it provides “experienced advice on a wide range of troublesome topics” like: “Marketing your schools”; “Engaging your community on key issues” and “Passing a bond or budget referendum….” (like the two Dist. 64 referendums, perhaps?); and “Neutralizing pressure groups or dealing with the media during bad times.”  Sound familiar?

As best as we can tell, during Ms. Runyon’s tenure District 64’s finances spiraled downward to the point where the District had made enough appearances on the State Board of Education’s financial “Early Warning” or “Watch” lists that it was in danger of having its finances taken over by the State Board – before they were temporarily salvaged by the back-door issuance of $5 million of “working cash bonds” in 2005, without a public vote.  In 2007, the District finally went to referendum and, with a $25,000-plus campaign war chest from Citizens for Strong Schools, won itself what appears to have been the biggest District 64 tax increase in at least 20 years.

Per Supt. Pryor, Ms. Runyon was “instrumental” in that referendum request.  Too bad she hasn’t been “instrumental” in the biggest increase in educational improvement in at least 20 years…or even 10.

So Ms. Runyon will have to do without a congratulatory wag of the Watchdog’s tail, since it appears that her Award of Excellence has more to do with selling the residents on whatever quality of education the District provides than with actually improving the quality of that education in any notable, measurable way.

Vaya con Dios.

13 comments so far

My only quibble with your post is the Spanish phrase at the end, which should read “Vaya con Dios” (“May you go with God”).

Other than that little comment, thanks for a wonderful roundup of less-than-wonderful developments. The resident who rose to comment reminds Rorschach of being ignored by the city council a few years back. “Talk to the hand.” Hopefully we won’t have to wait a few years to bring accountability to the school board as it finally arrived at Butler Place.

Thank you, Rorschach. Correction made.

Rorschach, we won’t get accountability at D-64 until we get real candidates to run for the seats on that Board, not the stooges who the Caucus cranks out every two years to run unopposed.

I don’t have kids in D-64 anymore, but unless the people who do start demanding better performance, we’re going to keep on paying more taxes for an inferior product.

Don’t know why they need assistent principals for the elementry schools.

For years that was just for the Junior Highs and Hiigh Schools.

They don’t need assistant principals at the elementary schools. COmpletely unnecessary. And why did the Pioneer press fail to mention the co-principal positions at Lincoln in yesterday’s paper? I read it posted online this morning. If they had two candidates who weren’t good enough to select from, why are we getting stuck with both of them for an interim year. Mr. Blouch has big shoes to fill. Maybe he will stick around until someone good enough to hire is found.

PW or Anon 4/30 @ 12:27p — Can someone please explain this insider vetting of school board candidates for us? It seems there is some group that “endorses” the candidates. OK — not a new idea (ABA for judges, LWV, et. al.). My main question is: Does this group gatekeep who actually gets on the ballot, or can any citizen run for school board as long as they get petition signatures, etc., such as candiodates for mayor or alderman?

You all seem very sure of yourselves. You may be right, but can I ask on what you base this position that “they don’t need assistant principals at the elementary schools. COmpletely unnecessary”. Just curious.

Rorschach:

Any citizen can collect petition signatures and file as a candidate for the School Board.

But if that candidate is not endorsed by the “District 64 and 207 General Caucus” – a quasi-official “organization” that re-forms every two years to hand-pick and endorse a slate of candidates – he/she can expect strong opposition from the Caucus and its supporters; which is why only two candidates have challenged a Caucus slate since 1997, with only one prevailing.

But since the Caucus candidates tend to be decent people but extremely uninformed with no real grasp of educational policy, we believe any knowledgable challenger could give their slate a run for its money. 

Having served on the caucus, and as a relative newbie to the process, I can tell you that it was pretty much like pulling teeth to get candidates to step forward. This blog and others have characterized the caucus-endorsed candidates as a hand-picked group. In reality, there is a list of people to call, but in no way are you limited to that list. You can call anyone or ask anyone you think might do a good job. People are reluctant to come forward, it seems to me, and we were fortunate to have a full slate for D64. I did not find there to be any insider aspect of this, other than the list, which has been culled from previous community involvement, as I understand it. Anyone can join the caucus, as long as you represent a community organization, and I think if you do participate, you will find that the allegations that this is a fixed process are false.

I too have served on the caucus. It’s a “fixed” process…with holes big enough to drive a semi through…but most folks don’t know how to find the stearing wheel.

anona on 05.04.09 9:29 pm

As this blog has pointed out, and as I was able to confirm by my own memory and going to the Cook County Clerk’s election website, District 64 has had the least number of contested elections of any of our three main Park Ridge units of government. To me, that is not a good thing, nor is it an endorsement of the Caucus system of fielding candidates.

And when you look at how poorly those Caucus candidates managed the District’s finances during the first half of this decade, that is also not an endorsement of the Caucus system.

Finally, look at the quality of education as measured by test scores, and I don’t see the Caucus system having distinguished itself on that front, either.

If the Caucus was putting up good candidates who were producing excellent results, that would be one thing. But I have been singularly unimpressed with the vast majority of the Caucus’ candidates, and the results show why. “Previous community involvement” is a really weak standard for soliciting school board candidates – or any other public office.

Hoover:

I do not disagree with anything you have said but…..you knew there was a but….as I understand it, there are no barriers to entry. Anyone can follow the process and run. You do not need to be caucus endorsed. If things are as bad as many protray, and with megaphones such as the blogs, it would seem to me that a successful campaign could be waged. While such a campaign might have a hill to climb, this is a local election. It is not like our two party system at a national level where the money keeps any legitimate “other guy” out.

The caucus is far from perfect but blaming it on the cuacus downplays the real issue – apathy. It is easy and fun to come to a blog and bitch but how many actually step up to run (school board, alderman, mayor etc). Just so you don’t thing this is a lecture, I am as guilty as anyone. I have no interest in running for any of those positions.

anon on 05.05.09 7:55 am

The Caucus IS a political “party,” except without any real platform or principles. The closest it comes is some go-along-to-get-along stuff titled “Qualities of an Effective School Board Member” that it claims to have borrowed from an article published in the magazine of the National School Boards Association.

The Caucus format enables a relatively small group of semi-knowledgeable people to manipulate a group of largely ignorant “community organization” representatives into endorsing a slate of candidates that is usually recruited by the semi-knowledgeables.

Anybody who runs without Caucus endorsement ends up being portrayed as running against the candidates chosen by all of these community organizations, which is a real disadvantage in a small town like this. And if somebody does challenge its slate, the Caucus also provides a ready-made campaign organization to raise funds and campaign for its slate. And then, if the challenger wins, he or she faces the prospect of being a minority of one among a majority of Caucus members.

That pretty much explains why over the past 15-20 years, the District 64 board had so few contested races.



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