By Dan Haley
On Saturday, friends and supporters of the Proviso 209 Together slate gathered at the Forest Park home of Claudia Medina to celebrate a political victory, mark what they consider to be the start of a social justice movement in Proviso Township, and sort out the political, social and educational challenges they expect to quickly face as they are sworn in next month as part of a new majority on the school board for Proviso's three public high schools.
Sitting in Medina's dining room, with the sounds of a party still unfolding outside, were Medina, running mates Theresa Kelly and Ned Wagner, and board incumbent Kevin McDermott, who will join the slate to make a narrow majority on what has been a school board run in the past by Proviso political forces, including state Rep. Chris Welch, who served on the school board for a decade, and Mayor Ron Serpico of Melrose Park.
On that front, the victors in last Tuesday's election made three points clear:
- They consider the wide margin of their collective victory "an overwhelming mandate" from voters across Proviso's 10 towns.
- They will work from the first day to "eliminate the political culture," which they say permeates all aspects of the school district. Teachers and staff, says Kelly, a veteran of the school board, will no longer be expected to buy tickets to Welch political fundraisers.
- And, finally, there will not be any sort of political purge undertaken. "We are not on a vendetta," said McDermott, "where we take out their people and replace them with our people." Everyone in the district, they say, will be evaluated going forward on the basis of their educational efforts.
Most specifically to be evaluated by the new board majority will be Supt. Nettie Collins-Hart. Members of the new board majority say they plan to meet with Collins-Hart early and lay out their expectations for the school administration. "We want to hold her accountable to her contract," says Kelly. "We're not just going to go in and fire someone. But we are going to hold them accountable," she said.
Asked his thoughts on the future of District 209's current and sometimes controversial legal advisors, the Del Galdo Law Firm, McDermott took the same tack. "We will evaluate them and take a critical look. If we need to replace them, we will look around at alternatives."
An early and key decision that will involve both the superintendent and the board will be the hiring of a new principal at Proviso East. In just the past two weeks, the current school board demoted the sitting East principal to a dean's position, opening the top job at what the new slate calls "our school in crisis."
Kelly and her new colleagues are clear that they see this hire as an opportunity to implement the "radical" and "transformational" leadership change they are looking to spark. "We need a turn-around principal," said Kelly, someone experienced in turning around a failing urban high school. They were clear that the next principal at East will not come from within the district, and they are not looking to retread a past employee as has often happened in the past.
"We want the very best principal for East," said Wagner, and "the superintendent has to support that person."
Addressing what they say is dismal morale among teachers, Kelly said the new board plans to meet early with the faculty — "Maybe we'll have a tea for them," she said — to make the point "that we are there for them." She decried a lack of text books in classrooms, the state of technology in the district, and Kelly and slate members promised that teachers "will have input" going forward in shaping curriculum and policies.
Kelly also said the district must start immediately to change its attitudes toward parents. "We have to make parents welcome in our schools. You can tell the atmosphere of a place when you hit the door." That new attitude, she said, "must come through the teachers, the principal, the security guards,"
The members of the new board majority were plain-spoken about both the political challenges they will face and the educational challenges. None expect that the political forces that have run the district will simply back away.
"They won't be easy on us," said Kelly. "They will use every trick in the book" to undermine and distract the new board, she said. With that in mind, Wagner said the Proviso Together group will stay intact across the township and will start planning now to build an election slate for the four board positions that will open in 2017.
McDermott, for one, said he plans to run for re-election that year. "I'm still pinching myself [over last week's victory]," he said, "the idea that we can actually do things, that we can change the culture right away, from the first meeting. We have broken the deadlock." And while he cautions that the new slate needs "to temper expectations," he also allows that holdover members of the board aligned with Welch and Serpico might not be automatic opponents. He said he has talked since the election to Dan Adams, Welch's key ally on the board and the current board president. "He seems happy that we can go in a different direction," McDermott said.
Wagner said he will urge the board to work quickly to "agree on a vision for the district that goes all the way from the board to the janitors." That vision, he said, can guide the board's decisions and keep it on track with the principles his slate campaigned on. Creating that vision should not be complex or lengthy, he added, and Medina immediately suggested it be focused on "child advocacy, educational excellence and community presence."
"The energy from the new majority will be radically different," said Medina. "Effective change can't happen without collaboration. It can't be imposed. But genuine cultural change can happen, and within a couple of years."