Six school board candidates for the District 209 Proviso Township High School School board visited Forest Park Wednesday to present their ideas in a candidate forum in the basement of First United Church of Christ, sponsored by Citizens United in Forest Park and the Forest Park Review.
Candidates addressed issues of test scores in the district, as well as student safety, students opting out of the district and the legacy of former president, Emanuel “Chris” Welch. One candidate also claimed that her rival — with a name similar to sitting board member Theresa Kelly — would cause confusion at the ballot.
For the four open spots on the ballot, April 9, three of the candidates were incumbents: Dan Adams, Brian Cross and Kevin McDermott. The fourth spot has been vacated by Welch, who was elected 7th District state rep in November.
Candidate hopefuls were Teresa McKelvy, Arbdella “Della” Patterson and Jorie Wright.
In opening statements, current board President Adams said he was running as a taxpayer.
“When I open my tax bill, I’m mad just like everybody else,” said Adams, who lives in Melrose Park.
Board Secretary Cross, who lives in Westchester, said he was running for the “future of the children.”
Incumbent Kevin McDermott, who lives in Westchester, said he was proud that he had drafted the first-ever anti-nepotism policy in the district. He said the policy was not as strong as he would like it, but “it’s a start.”
The three newcomers, all female, presented a contrast in personalities:
McKelvy said she was a mother of young children. Her goals, if elected, were to be “transparent and accountable.” She also said she would research “policies and ideas that are proven and work in other districts” and bring them to the board. A Berkeley resident, she works in the office of Cook County Commissioner Earlean Collins.
Patterson, of Maywood, drew on her experience working for 20 years inside the district as coordinator of the D209 teen pregnancy and teen parenting program. “I am a parent of Proviso graduates and I am concerned as a citizen and a taxpayer,” she said.
Wright, also of Maywood, said as the single mother of eight children who were at various grades in Proviso school districts, she would bring “a motherly approach” and provide a parent’s perspective.
All six candidates said test scores were among the top priorities for the district.
McDermott and Patterson criticized D209 Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart, although not by name.
“The culture of low expectations is dreadful,” McDermott said. “We need to make administrative changes. The current superintendent has been there for five years and the students who are seniors now have spent four years under her watch,” he pointed out.
Patterson said the board needed to make “changes in leadership,” and pointed out that she went to Springfield to the Illinois State Board of Education to testify in favor of beefing up the district’s Financial Oversight Panel to 1H status, which gave it greater powers — including hiring and firing of superintendents.
Adams said the key to test score improvement was “early intervention” for students. “Catch them when they’re coming in and help them somehow,” he said.
Cross said it was important for the district to communicate well with feeder schools. “When they’re coming in at a fourth and fifth grade level, it’s hard to bring them up to grade level,” he said.
McKelvy agreed that working with feeder schools was important. She and Wright cited “parental responsibility” as a way to get test scores to rise.
All of the candidates touted the success of Proviso Math and Science Academy, which they pointed out had seen increasing test scores.
“PMSA is the bright spot in Proviso,” said McDermott. “But we need to find out what we are learning at PMSA and use it at other schools.”
Adams said school infrastructure: repairing and maintaining the buildings was a priority. McKelvy cited technology as one of her top interests. For Cross, state funding mechanisms were among his top concerns.
Families opting out of Proviso
Two candidates touched on the opt-out phenomenon in Proviso Township feeder communities. This subject is of interest in Forest Park, which sends fewer than 200 students to Proviso high schools.
McKelvy said she met a woman in Berkeley who temporarily left town while her children were in high school so they could “make sure they were getting an education” outside of Proviso. “She moved her kids out of Berkeley 20 years ago and now she moved back,” McKelvy said.
McDermott said he had encountered parents in Westchester who planned to move out so they would “not send their kids to Proviso.” Taxpayers “feel like they’re being cheated,” McDermott said. “If you’re paying taxes for the high school and you can’t use this service, you’re being cheated.”
School safety and zero-tolerance policies were also a topic of discussion.
Two student fights Feb. 3 and 4 at Proviso West High School were a hot topic among board hopefuls. Eighteen students were arrested by Hillside police in two fights that had purported gang overtones.
“I was embarrassed at what happened at West,” Cross said, “embarrassed and angry.”
McDermott said no matter which policies a board put in place, enforcement and school culture were what would make a school safe for students. “We were told ‘fights happen.’ Well, that’s not true. They don’t just happen.”
Wright said parents needed to be held responsible for the behavior of their children. But she said, “My child should not have to worry about being in a physical altercation at school.”
The candidates were asked to predict how the board would change after the absence of longtime board president Welch.
McDermott quickly pointed out that he and Patterson were “independent candidates” and said he considered the other four a slate.
“I get along with Welch,” said McDermott. “We had a little falling out when I wouldn’t agree to his $400,000 legal settlement,” he said.
Welch tried to get the school board to pay the settlement of a defamation lawsuit brought by lawyers Burt Odelson and Mark Sterk over anonymous comments in 2007 on the Proviso Insider blog, which were determined to be authored by Welch.
Patterson said “Chris Welch and I have not seen eye to eye.” In her opinion, Welch “ran the board like a dictator.”
But the other four candidates were more positive about Welch:
Wright said Welch was a lifetime family friend whom she’d known since childhood. “I have smacked him in the head as a little kid,” she said, to laughter from the audience. McKelvy pointed out: “Everybody can’t hate Chris if he keeps on winning elections.”
Cross and Adams both said Welch was a friend. Cross said Welch was at his side during the death of Cross’ wife.
“We fight too,” he said. Both Adams and Cross said they depended on the support of “five mayors” in Proviso Township.
In closing statements, Patterson mentioned that a similarity in names could confuse voters. She pointed to current board member Theresa Kelly in the audience and said, “I don’t want people to be hoodwinked.”
“Theresa Kelly is sitting in the audience and their candidate is Teresa McKelvy. That is by design.”
McKelvy objected to that characterization. “My name says ‘Teresa McKelvy’ on my driver’s license,” she said. “It’s not by design. I can’t help that my name is similar to a woman who sits on the board.”