Candidates for empty slots on the Forest Park Elementary School District 91 school board and the Park District of Forest Park discussed issues during a forum at the Forest Park Middle School Cafetorium March 19.
Five of six candidates for the school board discussed testing, the district’s finances and communication.
The forum was co-presented by the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and the Forest Park Review.
Five of the six candidates for the D91 board showed up at the debate. They were Eric and Mary Win Connor, Michael O’Connor, Rafael Rosa and Thomas Bradley Keefner. Candidate Brian Moritz said he was unable to attend because he was traveling for work and sent a statement.
In opening remarks, Michael O’Connor described starting a job with the Forest Park Police Department and visiting the village with his wife.
“We fell in love with Forest Park,” said O’Connor, who has three children attending D91 O’Connor serves as PBIS liaison between the school district and the police department. During his remarks, he mentioned school safety and his police training as a priority. He said he believed in public service.
Eric Connor said his interest in being on the school board came from attending national and statewide school board conferences with his wife, Mary Win, who is the only incumbent running in this election.
“At these conferences I was awakened to the important work done by school boards,” he said. He hoped to bring knowledge of “best practices of school districts around the country” to the D91 board. Connor said the school district has turned around in the past decade.
“Ten to 12 years ago, this district was virtually in bankruptcy,” he said, noting that as a taxpayer he wanted “value for our money.” During the debate, he mentioned childhood obesity as a concern the district should address.
His wife, Mary Win Connor, pointed out that, if elected, she would be the only woman on the board. She characterized women as being more detail-oriented as opposed to “big picture.”
“When you’re running a multimillion-dollar corporation that employs several hundred people and has six locations, you need both the big picture and detail-oriented,” she said, adding that when she was elected, the board re-wrote their mission statement, and over the past seven years she’s seen that “vision” come to life. She also said that, prior to marrying Eric Connor, she been a single mother for seven years and could relate to many parents in the school district who were having difficult financial times.
Rafael Rosa, who formerly served on the board in an appointed position, also said his love for Forest Park had kept him in town for 12 years. As his two children grew older, Rosa said, he and his wife looked at “the looming issue of high schools,” but decided they “would do whatever it took to stay in this town.” Rosa’s children attended D91 schools and one is now at Proviso Math and Science Academy, where he will be joined by his eighth-grade brother next year, Rosa said.
Rosa runs the education program at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and mentioned that he has given science demonstrations at the local schools and helped with the science fair. He also mentioned his membership in D91’s Citizens Advisory Council, which meets to relay concerns from the community to the district.
Thomas Bradley Keefner said he was running because he believed in the value of public education. He cited his work in child protection proceedings with his job at the Cook County Guardian’s Office. “I’ve worked with students with behavioral issues. I’ve worked with gifted students.” He said the district’s goal should be about “meeting the needs of all of the students within the school district.”
Keefner said he grew up in Kewanee, a small town similar to Forest Park and appreciated the community and members who participated. He referred to Supt. Lou Cavallo as, “intelligent and thoughtful,” and said he hoped to work for the families of Forest Park. During the debate he mentioned webcasting board meetings so more community members could watch, even if they couldn’t attend.
To a question about the prevalence of computerized testing in schools, all five candidates noted that testing was mandated nationally and statewide.
Mary Win Connor referred to the ISAT tests as a, “snapshot” of a child’s proficiency. Eric Connor said he was “a big believer in technology if it’s used in a proper way. He referred to computerized testing as a way for teachers to grade. Keefner said children had different ways of learning and the district needs to bring in “creative teaching” to make sure that students performed well on standardized tests.
O’Connor said he found the teaching of his own children to be outstanding, despite the prevalence of standardized testing. “We’re fortunate to have a community of educators who think outside the box. Every one of my kids is a strong, creative thinker,” he said. “And I’m not just saying that because they’re my kids,” he added, to audience laughter.
Rosa agreed that testing was too prevalent but said that the new MAP tests, started last year, tracked the individual growth of a student’s learning over time and could be used as a tool to custom-teach each child.
Financial reserves and pension reform
When the question of the district’s large financial reserve was raised, the board candidates agreed that having a large reserve was a better problem than to be critically short of money, like many other Illinois school districts.
Rosa pointed out that Illinois pension reform legislation was probably going to push teacher pension costs back to local school districts, and he was grateful the district had enough money to cover those costs.
“Pensions pushed back to the district could cost the district $800,000 a year,” he said. “Good money management” has put the district in a better place over the past couple of years. He also pointed out that state aid to schools was dropping, and that the federal sequestration budget cuts might also affect school programs.
“In the worst-case scenario, we can cover this without going back to the taxpayers,” Rosa said.
Mary Win Connor pointed out that the district had paid off all debt and was able to fix unexpected structural problems in the middle school building without asking for money. “We want to get rid of that trailer at Betsy Ross,” she said, adding that reserves would make it possible to add an addition to the school without floating a bond.
Eric Connor said having enough money to pay pensions if necessary would make the district competitive. “If 20 percent of districts can afford a pension to teachers, where will the best teachers want to be? Forest Park. It will let us hire the best and keep the best.”
Keefner said the district needed to do a better job at telling the community about the reserves and the district could use more transparency.
Candidates disagreed about the extent to which the district needed to improve communication with parents and the general public. Michael O’Connor said he was “flooded with emails” from the middle-school principal and that he felt he knew what was going on. Mary Win Connor said the board was frustrated and had been working on the problem of communicating with the community for years. Eric Connor agreed.
“How do you talk to people who aren’t interested?” Mary Win said. “I’ve noticed that if they want to know something, they find it out.” The district’s Facebook page was criticized by Rosa. He also touted the upcoming State of the District presentation on Tuesday.