Thirteen percent. That’s how many of the students attending Proviso East have an adequate understanding of math, science and reading. Just 13 percent. It’s hard to say that number without shaking your head.

The failures in District 209 are many and longstanding. Too many parents aren’t paying enough attention. Students aren’t held accountable. Teachers don’t have the support they need, and money is routinely flushed down the toilet. There’s a revolving door leading to the superintendent’s office. And dozens of school employees are on the payroll because of patronage, nepotism and cronyism.

That is a back-breaking list. Yet, the root of these problems – the district’s most desperate circumstance – has little to do with education and everything to do with politics. School board members selfishly serve their own interests in the hopes of winning favor with township heavyweights. Connected vendors line their pockets with cash and board members are added to payrolls and clout lists.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can’t catch our breath when a number like 13 percent emerges from the rubble.

Consider the following. In Illinois, the average school district spends $5,808 on instructional costs per student. The statewide average for all other expenses is $9,907 per student.

Proviso Township District 209 spends more than $9,000 per student on instruction. Operating expenses exceed $17,400 per pupil.

Taxpayers here are spending top dollar for an absolutely deplorable product.

We must acknowledge that the news this year isn’t all bad. At Proviso Math and Science Academy, a magnet school in Forest Park that opened three years ago, educators saw 73 percent of students do well on the Prairie State Achievement Exam. However, those scores account for only 108 students in a district with more than 5,000 young minds. Also, with federal benchmarks increasing every year, the academy will not make “adequate yearly progress” in 2009 unless math scores improve. The academy is a bright spot, for sure, but there is still work to be done.

At Proviso West in Hillside, fewer than 19 percent of the students are doing grade-level work, according to the test scores. If we take the academy’s scores out of the equation, the district has fewer than 16 percent of its juniors performing at an 11th-grade level.

On a Chicago Tribune list of 654 high schools in Illinois, the students at Proviso East are ranked 602nd.

There’s a myriad of ways for District 209 to improve academic performance, and the responsibility will fall on many. It’s probably tough to inspire the many to do their part, however, when Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart insists on hiding behind a spokesperson. It will also be difficult to make improvements with Emanuel “Chris” Welch as president of the school board. Welch is up for re-election this spring, but the right thing for him to do would be to step aside. Welch is a cancer on the school system.

Thirteen percent.