Forest Park schools have two different reputations, depending on whether you ask a parent or a resident without kids in the schools, the school board told administrators at a strategy session July 1.
In a discussion that lasted over two hours, the board hashed out a new goal for the 2014-15 strategic plan to target residents without children in the schools.
“We need to celebrate our successes louder and simpler,” said board member Sean Blaylock.
Board members mentioned three areas where parents and community stakeholders differed in perception. Non-school locals persist in the belief that students in Forest Park schools are border jumpers from Chicago, board members said. They also perceive the middle school as dangerous and the district as a top-heavy cash hoarder.
Parents have a different perception, said Rafael Rosa, especially about the middle school.
The district sent postcards to 7,000 households in Forest Park, urging citizens to take an online survey and rate D91 in terms of communication and let the district know how best to contact residents and parents.
Around 83 percent of the 176 people who filled out the online survey considered themselves “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the district’s methods and quality of communication.
But Superintendent Louis Cavallo noted parents answered the survey first, finding out about it in Thursday packets. When the postcards hit other households, the district got some negative comments and most of the “unsatisfied” votes.
Board members Heather Cianciolo and Rosa, members of the new communications committee, said they were concerned that future parents who have just moved to Forest Park heard badmouthing of the schools from neighbors whose children had already left the nest or who sent their children to private schools.
“Parents with kids in the schools are happy, for the most part,” said Rosa, who has sent three children through elementary school and Proviso Math and Science Academy. Rosa described how citizens would pull him aside and ask him why Forest Park schools were bad, or asked why so many students from Chicago were sneaking into Forest Park.
Cianciolo showed the board a communication schedule developed by a Skokie school district that mapped out, in grid form, when and how the schools would communicate with local citizens.
The board discussed finding a way to reach community stakeholders and provide good PR for the schools.
Sean Blaylock said the district had a duty to communicate with the outer community in a proactive vs. reactive way.
“It’s building your brand,” he said. “It’s not reactional, it’s intentional: to communicate with as many audiences as possible in as many ways as possible.”
Blaylock pointed out people without children in the schools could be considered “future customers.”
Residency rumors persist
Residency is a tough misperception to shake, school board members conceded. This year the board decided to make residency reports transparent by including them in school board minutes every month. In the 2013-14 school year, six total cases were investigated and of those five were cleared and one student was found to be ineligible to attend Forest Park schools.
Safety at middle school
The safety of the Forest Park Middle School is a perception that parents will usually confront. Cavallo said the safety of the middle school was a community priority from his first day on the job.
The district implemented the PBIS character education training program, now in place for several years. Cavallo said the district collects data of every student infraction leading to suspensions or office referrals. The number of infractions has dropped by almost half and now tapered off, Cavallo said, but the severity of incidents is much less. Fighting in hallways, bringing weapons to school or drugs and alcohol abuse just doesn’t happen in Forest Park, Cavallo has said.
The disconnect between parents and non-parents was evident at the April state of the district address, when village government commissioner Mark Hosty – the parent of children in private schools — challenged the PBIS data and said he had heard teachers were underreporting incidents to make the district look good. Hosty, who sells real estate as well as manages a Madison Street bar, also said parents were leaving Forest Park when their children got to fifth grade to avoid the middle school.
Parents at the meeting, including village government commissioner Rory Hoskins, jumped in to defend the middle school.
“I’ve absolutely noticed better behavior now,” said parent Mary Flanagan whose older children attended the middle school five years ago and younger children attend now. “They are very well-rounded and there are lots of opportunities in the arts.”
“A lot of people talking about Forest Park Middle School have no experience with the middle school,” Rosa said at the meeting. “I encourage families with younger children to go to the middle school yourself and see some fantastic kids doing creative things.”
Board members mentioned the perception that the district has too many administrators and too much money in reserve for the 870 students in the district. The district has a $26 million reserve, or 16 months of operating income.
According to the Illinois Interactive Report card, D91 has $17,255 in operational spending per pupil, while the state average is $11,842. The district spends 4 percent of its expenditures on “general administration” while the state average is 3.3 percent.
Taxpayers in the village have noticed their bills rising after the 2004 school referendum that filled a $1.9 million deficit. Board members said they needed to get the message out to taxpayers that the district is debt-free, able to build the Betsy Ross addition without floating bonds and ready to withstand any pension blowback the Illinois General Assembly can throw at them.
Cianciolo suggested a video on the website that explained the district’s finances.
“We have a responsibility to explain to our citizenry about our budget and our reserves,” she said.
How to deal with rumors
But Cavallo disagreed with some board members that addressing rumors was productive.
Cavallo and the board alluded to an anonymous election season blog — Forest Park Truth Squad — later found to be orchestrated by village government commissioner Tom Mannix.
On the site, which is no longer online, the unnamed author accused the district of lying about two tax abatements totaling $1.5 million. The anonymous site also insinuated that the superintendent ordered two electronic tablets for his children around Christmas time, paid for by the district.
“Doing nothing is an option,” Cavallo said. Sometimes the best way to respond to rumors is not to engage, he added. “There are always going to be people out there who are loud.”
But Cianciolo disagreed, saying it was important not to let rumors take hold in an “information vacuum.”
“The solution to rumors is to get ahead of the curve,” she said.
The board agreed to look into ways to canvas the opinions of non-parent residents of the village, possibly by hiring a consultant. Once a benchmark of local resident sentiment was collected, the district could see if they could improve the image of the district among non-parents.