The Proviso District 209 Board of Education, on March 14, approved the architectural firm Perkins+Will as its top choice to draft a master facilities plan for the three-school system.

With D209 Supt. Jesse Rodriguez set to begin negotiations on an agreement with the Chicago-based firm, the district is one step closer to dissolving the state-mandated Financial Oversight Panel. Developing a long-term facilities plan and a viable way to pay for necessary upkeep to the district’s buildings is the most significant remaining hurdle toward the FOP’s exit.

“That’s the number one thing that has to happen,” Craig Shilling, the panel’s chairman, said March 14. “It is primarily getting the facilities piece into something that is sustainable.”

Completing a master facilities plan, however, could take several months to finish. Firms audit current facilities, conduct demographic surveys, and look at enrollment projections, among other things. And after a plan is presented, there will be discussions by Rodriguez, the FOP and the high school board to find a way to pay for the plan. So even with this latest board approval, a possible FOP exit is still many months away. 

The board first appealed to the Illinois State Board of Education in December 2008 for the creation of a Financial Oversight Panel. At the time, D209 was running a large budget deficit. The district has since improved its financial situation. For the last few years, the State Board of Education has given Proviso 209 “financial recognition,” the highest available designation the state has for rating the financial health of school districts.

Still, Schilling demurred on setting a timeline for an FOP exit, saying the last time he tried, he was wrong. In summer 2014, there were discussions of ending the panel’s oversight by June 2016. However, with the significant leadership change — Dr. Rodriguez began his tenure on July 1, 2016 — along with the continued absence of a long-term, comprehensive facilities plan, those discussions did not lead anywhere.

“We felt it would be helpful for us to be there as someone transitioned in,” Shilling said, referring to the panel. “We thought we could be of assistance.”

Rodriguez told the Review on March 3 that he appreciates the panel’s help in getting acquainted with both D209 and the state of Illinois. Rodriguez previously worked in Wisconsin. But he is now ready for his office and the board of education to have full autonomy.

“I believe in local decision making and local authority,” Rodriguez said. “Having a financial oversight panel helped Proviso in a time when Proviso needed it. I don’t see the need for the FOP [now]. The board of education and the superintendent, we are ready to do the work.”

Schilling was careful to credit the district for its progress and called the FOP just “a mentor, a coach.” He also noted the FOP cannot place items on the board’s agendas. FOPs do sometimes draw criticism from community members who see panels as outside influence by experts with no ties to the local district. But the FOP only provides financial oversight and guidance to issues the board of education brings to it, Schilling said.

Even as the district’s financial health has improved, however, academic achievement on a variety of metrics is still less-than-stellar. The district’s 2016 four-year graduation rate was 74 percent, well below the state’s 86 percent average, according to the Illinois Report Card, the state’s official source. And in 2016, half of the district’s students did not meet Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) benchmarks.

The FOP’s focus is financial health, but Schilling did say it’s important for district officials to get the most “bang for their dollar” and ensure they are delivering a proper education to all students.

“There are only so many resources,” Schilling said. “It’s about effectiveness and efficiency.”

In 2012, after a change to Illinois law regarding FOPs, the panel was reorganized and granted additional powers. The panel also expanded from three educational finance experts, including Schilling, to include two local community members. At the time, some board members, including then-board president Chris Welch lobbied for the panel’s termination.

Financial oversight panels, according to Illinois law, are a way for the state to offer emergency financial services to local school districts and “promote sound financial management to assure the continued availability of educational opportunities.”

The state superintendent of education appoints members — who are volunteers — to the panel. Members cannot be school board members, employed by the district or have a financial stake in the district.

There are currently three active financial oversight panels in Illinois, including D209. The other two are East St. Louis School District 189 and North Chicago School District 187. Both the East St. Louis and North Chicago panels have existed since 2012.

If Rodriguez and Perkins Will cannot reach an agreement, the district can reach out to its two other top choices: Fanning Howey and ARCON Associates.

Shilling also said the district’s new leadership, including Rodriguez, is an encouraging sign. But with the April 4 school board race — four of the board’s seven seats are up for election — more leadership turnover is possible. But, Shilling said, that possibility will not significantly affect the drafting of the plan and a possible FOP exit.