After hearing for the first time directly from Forest Park’s elementary school superintendent of a proposal to radically alter the district, village commissioners wasted no time in tackling a prickly issue that has been addressed mostly in hushed tones.

Mayor Anthony Calderone, prefacing his comments with an acknowledgement that he may lose favor for saying so, divulged what he described as racist remarks that parents have made to him as reasons for not supporting the superintendent’s proposal. According to the mayor, parents have said that mixing the predominantly black student body at Grant-White Elementary with other more racially balanced schools would be a mistake. Specifically, parents have told him they do not want their children attending school with “those kids,” said the mayor.

“The mayor is absolutely correct,” District 91 Superintendent Lou Cavallo said. “The issue of race has come up more than once. It is there.”

Though the village council and the school district have no official overlap, Cavallo addressed Forest Park’s municipal government on Nov. 6 to outline his proposal. The superintendent is asking the school board to do away with traditional neighborhood attendance boundaries and institute “developmental centers.” On the north and south sides of the Eisenhower Expressway, students would be grouped according to grade level rather than their home address. Students in kindergarten through second grade would attend one center, and students in third, fourth and fifth grade would attend the other.

As he reiterated to the council, Cavallo has said this change – or perhaps a variation – is necessary because of declining student enrollment.

A handful of parents have been particularly outspoken in their opposition since the plan was revealed in September. They are asking that multi-age classrooms be considered so that the tight-knit environment of neighborhood schools can be retained. Many of these parents have children at Garfield Elementary, which would be combined with Grant-White Elementary on the north side of town. Garfield Elementary students have traditionally outperformed Grant-White students in dramatic fashion on standardized tests. However, in 2007 and 2008 that gap was closed significantly.

“I personally feel that we are one community,” Calderone said of the provincial mindset fueled by neighborhood boundaries.

The mayor said he is not endorsing the superintendent’s proposal.

The District 91 school board is expected to vote on the measure next month.

Several parents within the Garfield neighborhood have denounced accusations that racism has any role in their objections to mixing the schools. Their concern is with the need for additional busing, the potential for a drop in parental involvement, and the introduction of an extra transition between buildings, which studies have shown has a tendency to harm academic performance.

Following an October school board meeting, one Garfield parent lamented that she and her husband paid a premium on their house so that their children could attend what is arguably the strongest school in the district. If the superintendent’s proposal is approved, the woman said, she and her husband would likely send their children to private school.

Commissioner Marty Tellalian offered the harshest criticism of the superintendent’s plan on Thursday, saying the need for additional busing jeopardizes the safety of the students. He also questioned how a greater racial balance in each of the buildings would be a benefit since Grant-White students are now among the top performers, according to the 2008 Illinois Standards Achievement Test.

Parents were not given an opportunity to ask questions of the council or the superintendent during the meeting.

In addition to regularly scheduled board meetings, the school district has held five meetings to discuss the superintendent’s recommendation.

Commissioner Rory Hoskins, one of two council members with children in the district, was direct in his praise of Cavallo’s recommendation. Hoskins said community members may not fully appreciate the superintendent’s responsibility to both the academic and financial health of the district. That the proposal would create greater racial diversity in all of the classrooms is an added bonus, said Hoskins, but clearly is not the driving force behind the process.

“I applaud what you’re trying to do,” Hoskins said.

What next?

The District 91 school board is expected to hear a presentation from Superintendent Lou Cavallo on transportation issues surrounding his proposal. Also, the board's citizens advisory group, which visited other districts to see how their structure works, will announce its findings.

What: More discussion on restructuring plan
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13
Where: District 91 administrative building, 424 Desplaines