Who are the stakeholders in Elementary School District 91? What are their perceptions? How can they be reached? 

These were the questions the D91 school board tackled at the Nov. 13 meeting, suggesting a series of steps to engage community members and get their opinions.

“I don’t think any organization can go wrong with reaching out to ask, ‘Where can we do better?’ and ‘What are we doing [that’s] great?'” said board member Sean Blaylock before the meeting.

The board agreed to participate in a four-part community engagement pilot workshop developed by the Illinois Association of School Boards. 

By serving as guinea pigs for the workshop, the board doesn’t have to pay the $2,400 fee, said board President Frank Mott. “We can get going on this much sooner,” he said. 

The workshop focuses on identifying a school district’s “promise to the public” by identifying all stakeholders, including those who do not have children in the schools, those who have children in private schools, empty-nesters and parents with preschool-age children. 

The workshop aims to help the district develop ongoing best-practices and ideas to fold into the district’s communications strategy. It will also clarify the difference between community engagement and public relations, according to the course description. 

The board agreed to set up three workshop sessions, open to the public, in December and January. Taking part in the pilot will give the district a cutting edge, Mott said.

“Once again, we’ll be at the forefront [of school district best practices],” he said. 

Focus group postponed

The board agreed to postpone the hiring of a marketing firm to hold focus groups to survey residents about school perceptions. The idea would be to wait until the aforementioned community engagement workshop is over so the board has a better idea of what they’re asking for. The focus group proposal may be reintroduced in January.

Web-hosting with Review

The board voted to accept a web-hosting agreement with the Forest Park Review for a sponsored content space on the Review website. The site will be a place where the school can post teacher-written content, feature student essays and photos, as well as district sports coverage. The agreement will cost $7,000 for the rest of the school year. The agreement can be renewed for $12,000 for 2015-16, Cavallo told the board. 

The board discussed the pros and cons of allowing electronic comments on the district’s page. 

Cavallo said members of the Citizens Advisory Council had asked for comments to be permitted on the page. 

The board agreed to allow only Facebook-verified comments on the D91 site.

Cavallo said the page would be viewed by children and “if the comments are not what we want our kids to see, then I’ll have no problem shutting [the comments] down.” 

There will be no advertising on the D91 page. 

Coffee with the board

Board members Rafael Rosa and Kim Rostello will meet community members at a coffee hour to be announced, Rosa told the board. The idea is to give community members a chance to chat face to face with board members about any concerns involving the district. 

Rosa said this was not a pretense for politicking before the election.

Playground equipment ordered

The D91 board voted to approve a cooperative purchasing agreement to buy playground equipment for Garfield, Field-Stevenson and Grant-White schools 

The swing sets, climbing equipment and slides will cost $200,800 from NuToys Leisure Products of LaGrange. The labor costs for installation of the equipment will be a separate bid, Cavallo told the board.

By spring at the latest, all elementary schools will have playground equipment.

Computer backup devices

The board voted to spend $13,675 to replace two existing data backup servers. The plan also nails down a three-year service plan with Unitrends and an option to trade in equipment and upgrade in three years.

Tax levy

Asst. Superintendent Ed Brophy presented the district’s annual audit for fiscal year 2014. The audit noted the Betsy Ross addition, which required a transfer of $3,700,000 from the working cash fund to the operations and management fund. The audit said the district tax levy had a 1.36 percent increase over the previous year (FY 2013). 

District 91 email snarl leaves parents in the dark

When the school board asked for ways to communicate with community members, they didn’t have to look far for feedback.

Four parents from Garfield School attended the meeting and implored the board and district to get the parent-teacher email system functioning smoothly.

“We would love as much communication as you can give us,” said mother Kathleen Bell. “I get five emails a week from Land’s End. I would love to get five emails from the school.”

Part of the issue was the district’s switch to the “digital backpack” in which residents find pdf images of the piles of fliers and paperwork that previously came home with students. 

The backpack suffered a failure, Supt. Louis Cavallo told the board, because the new “Illuminate” email and grading system was glitchy. 

The system was installed this year to replace Edline, an online teacher grading tool. Emails allegedly sent to parents were stuck in limbo and parents who tried to contact teachers through Illuminate were sending emails into a black hole teachers never visited, Cavallo said. 

The result at Garfield was that parents had no idea what was happening at the school, or even that they were supposed to be getting weekly emails with a link to the “digital backpack.” Bell said the Uncle Pancake fundraiser for the North PTO was a flop because parents didn’t get the word.

Cavallo promised the district and the school would fix the problem. 

Jean Lotus

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...