Getting everybody together in the same room often seems to bring conflicting parties closer to cooperation. Thursday night, stakeholders from Proviso Township District 209 gathered and discussed changes made to the district’s Financial Oversight Panel, which was given new powers and upgraded to “1H” status by the Illinois State Board of Education, effective July 1.

The school board, Financial Oversight Panel and school administrators talked in small groups and then brainstormed ways to make the new designation, and its powers, work best for the district. They were helped by educational consultants, Great Lakes West Comprehensive Center.

For the first time in three years, the two boards – whose members rarely set foot in the actual schools – heard voices from the trenches. Employees of the school district made their feelings known about their misgivings and hopes for the finance board.

“We attend every [FOP] meeting, just to be available if they have questions, and I don’t think they even know who we are,” said Proviso West High School Associate Principal Dan Johnson.

But both finance panel and school board members listened attentively when district administrators expressed their concerns and struggles. Present were all three high school principals and their associate principals, the curriculum planner, superintendent and finance officers.

Administrators spoke of the frustration of serving two masters – both the FOP and the board.

An example of this occurred this month when the finance board directed Supt. Nettie Collins-Hart to prepare a proposal for a district in-house attorney. Outsourced legal bills have totaled almost $500,000 per year and finance panel members say that amount could be cut in half.

But after she submitted her proposal, the school board overruled it 4-3 on Aug. 23 with Vice President Dan Adams saying, “I think our attorneys at Del Galdo do a good job.”

A week later, the FOP directed Collins-Hart to reduce the legal expenditures of the district by $200,000 (around 40 percent) for the upcoming school year.

“How are conflicting directives to be resolved without putting us in the middle?” the administrators asked.

They also pointed out that their job was to educate students, and the FOP directives were to cut costs and save money. “There’s a disconnect between finance and academic instruction,” they said. “We’re cutting down to the bone.” They also complained of uncertainty and “increased scrutiny” and having to justify things no other high school is made to justify: specifically extra-curricular activities, out-of-state band trips and college tours.

The staff also complained about inefficiencies. Time gobbled up preparing 300-plus-page board documents for two different meetings creates a burden on the system, they said. The school staff also said they had no map to figure out what they would need to do to end financial oversight by the state-approved board. Another hardship they spoke of were delays caused by running everything through two boards for approval.

Proviso West Principal Roudell Kirkwood pointed out that because two governing bodies had to vote to approve the district’s budget, the schools could not order textbooks until the budget was finally approved by the finance panel on Aug. 28. That meant not being able to order supplies until two weeks into the school year. He also noted that a double approval creates delays in nailing down employment contracts for teachers and staff for the following year.

The finance panel did not complain about being bumped up to 1H status. The designation gives them new powers to hire and fire superintendents and finance officers, to negotiate contracts (except collective bargaining contracts) and to obtain emergency loans from the state of Illinois. It also expands the panel to five people by adding two community members.

Panel members said the new designation and two new members would help them understand the needs and culture of the community better and give them more flexibility. With ability to hire and fire, they said they could help the district save money.

“We want to provide our expertise pro-bono and help with data-driven decision-making to help students get good outcomes,” said panel member Craig Shilling. “We want the highest standards and decision-making that is ethical and fair.”

The school board, on the other hand, said they wanted clear delineation of their powers and limitations. “What is the role of the school board?” they asked, complaining there is a public perception that they were no longer functioning as a board.

School board President Chris Welch suggested that the board work on district goals at a retreat and develop “processes and procedures the board and the FOP can agree on.”

This was a change from his previous stance on retreats. The superintendent has been begging the board to schedule a retreat (where her annual evaluation is conducted) for months. At a spring meeting, Welch, who had just won the 7th District state rep nomination and had a new baby at home, refused to schedule a board retreat, telling the board, “I’ve got people I’d rather spend my summer with than you all.”

Although he has announced that he will not run for re-election to the school board in April, Welch seemed to change his tune about cooperating with the finance panel and working collaboratively. The board said they wanted to continue to build trust and commit time for learning and development, “so all 12 people can agree.” Welch said an improvement would be to get board documents finished the week before the meeting so they could be thoroughly reviewed before any meeting.

All in all, the groups expressed hope that greater trust and collaborative work would help them get along.

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...