By Jean Lotus
Come April, Forest Park District 91's school board will have a number of new faces, as four slots open up on a board of seven.
Incumbent Mary Win Connor is the only member to run again this election, and if she wins, will be the only woman serving on the board. The three other current female board members are all stepping down.
The large number of vacancies on the board has attracted six different candidates to fill four positions. School board newcomers Brian Moritz and Thomas Bradley Keefner have never attended a school board meeting, nor have they had children in the district. Keefner moved to Forest Park in 2010. Forest Park Review profiled Keefner and Moritz in January.
Three other new candidates, however, are more involved with the district and the board — one is married to a current member.
A 16-year resident, Forest Park attorney Eric Connor is married to Mary Win Connor. They have five children, three of whom attended D91 schools.
Eric Connor said he learned about "a high functioning school board," by osmosis — attending board meetings with his wife and even tagging along, "at my own expense," to state and national school board association conventions. The pair splits up at conventions, so Eric can attend seminars and panel discussions that Mary Win misses. He has reported on those panels at D91 board meetings.
"I'm highly impressed by the quality of these events and the innovations and best practices that other board members are suggesting," he said.
Eric characterizes challenges of the district as maintaining a growing and safe environment in the climate of state cutbacks, keeping high quality teachers, and dealing with the looming Illinois pension crisis. If elected, he said, his top priorities for the board would be to give teachers and administrators tools and resources to advance the education of Forest Park's children. He also sees school security as an issue and thinks the board should address health and nutritional needs of children to combat childhood obesity district-wide. He also wants to see the district focus on integrated technology for students, which he calls "the wave of the future."
Eric said he was on the fence about his candidacy until he found out that Forest Park Commissioner Tom Mannix was assisting Moritz and Keefner, whom he said were collecting signatures at Mayor Anthony Calderone's Toy Drive event at R-Place before Christmas. Only 50 signatures were required to run for the school board. He said he didn't want village politics to infiltrate the school board.
"Initially I thought I would fill an empty slot on a highly functioning board. When I heard Mannix was helping [Keefner and Moritz], I realized I would hate to see the board disintegrate into bickering over inconsequential stuff for political reasons."
Keefner is a former apartment-mate of Mannix, and Moritz is married to Village Clerk Vanessa Moritz.
"I object to politicians pushing to get onto a school board," Eric said.
Community police officer, liaison to schools
Detective Michael O'Connor is a police officer on the Forest Park force, and works as the D91 liaison between the police and the schools. But he's also a father of three children in the district. His family has lived in Forest Park for 10 years.
"I run into [O'Connor] at almost every school event I attend," said Superintendent Lou Cavallo. "He's very engaged in the district."
O'Connor said he enjoys public service and when he saw several seats open up on the board, he saw an opportunity to help the district.
As police PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention & Supports) liaison, O'Connor works with the department and the district to make sure that the district's behavior rewards system is replicated outside the school buildings. Using consistent PBIS vocabulary at the library, park district and among police officers helps reinforce the positive behavioral methods that schools introduce to students.
O'Connor said as a police officer, he values security at the schools district-wide. He wants to encourage and protect the district's "out-of-the-box, progressive approach to education." He also said keeping up with current trends in technology is a challenge the district faces.
If elected, he said his priorities would be to maintain open communication between the board, administration and community, provide fiscal transparency and create a safe school environment "that promotes creativity, self-expression and individuality."
At a recent board meeting, O'Connor weighed in on the proposed universal preschool program being introduced next year and its partnership with the Park District of Forest Park. He pointed out that the program will most likely influence the design and plan for the Roos Building, if it is acquired by the park district, and that perhaps the entire preschool program could be staffed by D91 teachers but run at the Roos.
Science museum director sees curriculum challenges
Rafael Rosa previously served on the school board and knows what he's getting into. Rosa was appointed for 2010-2011 and had previously served on the Citizens Advisory Council. He lost to current board member John Tricoci in the last election by getting the fewest votes in a four-way race for three seats.
Rosa, who has lived in Forest Park with his family for almost 13 years, has sent two children, kindergarten-through-middle school, in the district and now has one at Proviso Math and Science Academy.
Rosa graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from Cornell University. But he feels his real strength and value to the district draws from his job as vice president of education at the Chicago Academy of Sciences and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago.
Statewide changes in science education are on the horizon for Illinois school districts, and Rosa said he's been working with a national group at DePaul University to discern how school districts can transition to the next generation of science curriculum standards.
"A lot of things are happening, and it's a lot for teachers to digest. My strengths are making sure the teachers and administrators are heading in the right direction by asking the right questions," said Rosa, who is a regular attendee at school board meetings.
He said another priority would be addressing communication between the district and parents.
"I'm still struggling with the communication issue," Rosa said. "The district could use social media better, for example on its Facebook site." He thinks the new website for the district is sometimes "stale."
"We need to have a better strategy of getting information out to people," he said.
School finance is also a potential crisis for many school districts, he noted. "Thankfully, the pension issue may not affect us. Forest Park has been fiscally responsible. It's great that we have a reserve for pensions; a lot of districts will be in trouble."
Rosa said he wants to help the district spread the good news about itself.
"I've not been unhappy with my kids' education from the time they've been here," he said.