A group of about 20 Forest Park parents, introduced through Facebook, met up Sunday night at the Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor to discuss high school options. Parents shared their frustration and anxiety that District 209 is a “failed district” which causes local parents to move away or endure wallet-breaking private high school tuition.
Members of the Forest Park Elementary District 91school board, Kim Rostello, Mary Connor, Eric Connor, Rafael Rosa and Nora Bowker attended the meeting, as well as Assistant Superintendent Ed Brophy.
The meeting was called by Maria Maxham, a D91 parent who formerly enrolled her children in St. Bernardine’s school until it closed. Maxham’s oldest child attends sixth grade.
“This meeting also isn’t necessarily about changing the situation, but to share ideas and opinions,” Maxim said.
But parents attending wanted change.
Ed Pogue, who serves on the North PTO, said he could not send his children to Proviso and was looking to move. “We love Garfield. Our hearts have been broken. It’s so much easier to move now. It’s very difficult to start a high school with no friends.”
Rosalio Medina said his children had grown up in their house and leaving it behind would be, “giving up our dreams. I’m not going to give my dreams away.” Medina said he paid taxes and his mortgage and wanted politicians to know, “they work for me. I don’t work for them.”
“Forest Park is the place we have to fight for,” he added.
“My children have had an idyllic childhood growing up here,” said Ned Wagner. “I’m enraged that my [children’s] right to public education is being compromised.”
“I’m a father of four,” said Mike Steger. “I bought a house here at the wrong time and now I’m stuck.”
Brian Kuhr, parent of a graduating senior at Proviso Math and Science Academy, said his son had done well at PMSA and was a National Merit Semi-Finalist, he said.
“PMSA will be a viable option, for at least a couple of years,” said Kuhr, noting the district is funding three high schools with the money for two. Kuhr said he thought it was easier for Forest Park students to get into PMSA than many parents believed.
Veteran Proviso parent Bill Lichtenberg, whose grown children graduated long ago, pointed out that groups of frustrated parents have complained about the public high school for 25 years and come to similar conclusions: Proviso East high school has a culture that is hard to change without a new direction from the elected school board. Forest Park de-annexing from the district would be a long and expensive process, attempted unsuccessfully by Westchester in 1994.
In 2001, the Village of Forest Park paid consultants $70,000 to research changing a school district boundary. They determined it was prohibitively expensive and difficult.
But rules have changed for annexation and de-annexation of school districts. District 91 lawyers researched the subject in Nov. 2013 and issued a report. The two alternatives researched were asking the Illinois State Board of Education for permission to form a K-12 Unit district, and de-annexing from D209 and hooking up with an adjacent school district: Oak Park and River Forest (D 200), Riverside-Brookfield (D 208) or Morton in Berwyn (D 201).
Eric Connor, a D91 school board member, pointed out either scenario requires a referendum and all feeder schools have to agree to allow one district to secede. Since Forest Park contributes 14 percent of Equalized Assessed Value, other districts would have to pick up the slack in property taxes. Other Proviso districts and D 209 would no doubt vote it down, and that would mean a costly appeal to the ISBE.
“[The process] would cost at least half-a-million dollars and the village won’t pay it. District 91 can’t do it.”
Claudia Medina suggested trying to find a way to divide the district into two, each with five feeder schools.
Lichtenberg said one solution that had not been tried is to work with parents in the other Proviso feeder districts who also don’t want to send their children to D209 and work toward dissolving the district, or reconfiguring it into smaller districts.
There are 18,935 students in the Proviso feeder districts, and about 10,000 are high school age. Of those, only 5,063 attend high school at D209.
“Those other 5,000 parents feel the same way you do,” Lichtenberg said. “The secret is working with them.”
“There has to be an option that gets everybody what they need,” said Connie Brown. “The people who care about their kids are the people you want in this town. And those are the people who are leaving.”
Brown suggested organizing with other feeder district parents to travel to Springfield to petition the ISBE to break up or change the district.
One woman, a former teacher at Proviso East, said the problem was a “culture issue.”
“The leadership is checked out. The teachers are fighting hard, but it’s not going to change without a new board.”
The group chose three strategies: Working with dissatisfied parents in other feeder districts to dissolve or change school boundaries, petitioning Springfield for a change that allowed Forest Park to leave the district, and – in the short run—changing the culture at D209 by working to elect responsive school board members.
Three D209 incumbents, Readith Ester, Francine Harrell and Theresa Kelly, are all up for re-election in April, 2015.
Teri Blaine said she would try to contact PTOs at other feeder districts.
The group also decided to brand a Facebook page with a Proviso orientation instead of a Forest Park. Cesar Moreno, who started the Forest Parkers for Better Schools page is moving out of town.
The group plans to meet again Jan. 11.