It is not easy being a school board member. We’re certain that members of Forest Park’s diligent District 91 elementary school board already knew that. But it was reinforced last week as the board purposely put a hot potato on its agenda with no possible outcome that would offer wide satisfaction.
The issue is how to best offer Spanish in the middle school. Last summer, in its big picture strategic plan, the board directed its administration to expand the number of students exposed to a foreign language in its middle school. Board members did not tell the superintendent how to accomplish that goal. It did not tell the superintendent he was to use the current Spanish program, which is offered as an option to top students, as a base to build off of. The board just said, more foreign language for more students.
And in April, the superintendent came back with his plan which eliminated the small but popular current Spanish program and replaced it with Spanish-lite, a 12-week “exploratory” in which every kid gets to learn how to count to 10 in a different language. Parents of students who have benefitted from the current Spanish program organized and objected loudly, an unusual but welcome occurrence in this district.
Those parents demanded and received a hearing in front of the school board last week. While some board members appeared perturbed that Supt. Lou Cavallo did not offer a more notable and responsive compromise plan, the board voted unanimously to support the superintendent’s recommendation. Their logic, while not popular in the packed board room, has a solid basis. The school board’s job is to set broad direction not to micromanage decisions that professional staff is hired to make. The school board’s direction was more Spanish. The superintendent offered up more Spanish.
That said, there is a new variable in the D91 equation and that is more vocal parents. Not cranky, irrational parents but determined and demanding parents. This is only good for this district. If Dr. Cavallo has an Achilles Heel it is his sometimes tone-deaf response to critics.
The school board said that foreign language will be on the list of topics for this summer’s strategic planning. We imagine it will also make the list of topics for the next superintendent evaluation sessions.
We see this tension as healthy and as an opportunity for all parties to recalibrate a bit. The main cause of failed school boards is micromanaging staff. So we support the D91 board in its decision. The main cause of failed superintendencies is an inability or unwillingness to listen well and find balance among legitimately competing interests.
This, then, is a teaching moment.
It is not a done deal. But we’re encouraged and enthused about the current planning between the Historical Society of Forest Park and the First United Church of Christ. The result could be a permanent home for the vibrant local history group and a positive resolution for the dwindling congregation at the church.