For roughly an hour on Saturday, the Quinn Community Center in Maywood hosted the rarest of events — a forum where all eight candidates running for the four open seats on the District 209 school board race showed up.
Sparks flew as soon as the moderator asked the first question, which appeared to have been drawn up by someone in the audience. Did the candidates have children in either District 89 elementary schools (which comprise Maywood, Melrose Park and Bellwood) or the District 209 high schools?
On the campaign trail, the four candidates running on the Proviso Together ticket — challengers Sam Valtierrez of Melrose Park, Arbdella “Della” Patterson of Maywood, Rodney Alexander of Bellwood, and Amanda J. Grant of Westchester — have reinforced the fact that some of their opponents have children who attend private schools.
Sitting board members Brian Cross, Dan Adams and Teresa McKelvy are running for re-election, along with challenger Jacqueline Walton, who noted that her 40-year-old no longer attends school.
“If you’re going to sit on a school board and make decisions for other people’s children, then your children should go to the [district’s] public schools,” said Patterson, who noted that her three adult children all graduated from Proviso Township High Schools. “I would suggest you sit on the board of education where you send your children.”
Proviso First candidates countered that not having a child in the district shouldn’t disqualify them from serving on the board.
“I don’t think I have to have a child attending these schools in order to help the children,” Walton said. “I’ve also helped the children even though I had a business on the side.”
Brian Cross, a sitting board member, said the question “was extremely distasteful.”
“That’s a decision Sandy [his late wife] and I made,” he said. “I’m going to stand by that decision.”
McKelvy said her son’s decision to attend a private high school was his to make, adding that her younger son, who attends Macarthur Middle School in Berkeley, wants to go to Proviso West or Proviso Math and Science Academy.
“When it was time for [her older son] to go to high school, we asked him where he wanted to go,” McKelvy said. “He wanted to be in a different environment. He said to me, ‘Mom, I’ve been in this school district for eight years. I want a change of pace. I want to do it my way and make new friends.’ We have another son who wants to go to West or PMSA, but should he change his mind, then I’ll send him where he wants to go.”
Alexander and Grant said their children, who are currently in elementary school, will be attending Proviso Township high schools in the future. Valtierrez said his children attended District 89 and D209 schools.
Another major focal point of discussion was the state of the district’s finances. When the moderator asked what each candidate would do to keep the district from going bankrupt again, candidates from both parties pushed back against the question’s implication.
“It is fiction that our district is bankrupt and that we are having financial problems,” said McKelvy. “We are not having financial problems. Our budget is balanced and when we vote on the budget, it’s approved by seven board members. It’s on all of us, not just three of us. We have 56 percent of our funds in reserves in our round balance. That is not what broke school districts do.”
Patterson cautioned against characterizing the district as “bankrupt,” adding that she wasn’t aware that the district’s financial condition had slipped into that state. She did, however, advocate for the district keeping the state-appointed Financial Oversight Panel in place — even though she said she was dissatisfied with what she considered to be political appointments made to that board.
“Sitting board members don’t have authority to remove the FOP,” Patterson said. “The state sent it here. It can stay here for up to 10 years. We’re close to that, if I remember correctly. It’s been eight years. I was one of the people who went down to Springfield to make sure the FOP had the authority to hire and fire the superintendent and business manager. I’ve watched the oversight panel do some things I’m uncomfortable with because they’ve got political appointments [but] I think they need to stay.”
“I like the FOP and wish it were stronger,” said Grant, who criticized what she also characterized as political appointments made to the panel. “We would like to end that. We need an oversight panel [that’s independent and that should be in place] until the district is run in a financially sound and transparent way.”
For some members of the Proviso First committee, the March 18 forum was an opportunity to vent their frustrations with the Proviso Together slate.
“I’m not mad at these people running against me,” said McKelvy. “I don’t know these people, but every time I turn around, they’re attacking our character. They don’t know whether we have concerns for these children or not. All of us have concerns for these children. … For some strangers who I have never met to attack our integrity and accuse us of not caring about our schools is unconscionable. I care very much about our students.”
During an interview earlier this month, the Proviso Together slate vented about their own perceived mistreatment during the campaign, particularly pointing out campaign literature and a robo-call that attempts to connect the Together candidates to Republicans like Gov. Bruce Rauner and President Donald Trump.
On his Facebook page, Cross shares an email link to a landing page that includes a small puppy beneath the caption, “Dan Proft is up to his old tricks in Proviso, but this time, That dog won’t hunt!!! [sic].”
Below the image, a statement signed by the four Proviso First candidates blasts an article published in the West Cook News, a controversial right-wing media outlet that identifies as a newspaper.
The article, which lacks a reporter’s byline, mentions that McKelvy, Adams and Cross “approved $94.6 million in spending for fiscal year 2015, a $20.1 million increase from 2011,” adding that “the property tax assessment levied by the district on homeowners increased by 69 percent.”
The article mentions no other board members and doesn’t include any context for the reported increase. It also references another media outlet’s investigation revealing that “100 percent of the [D209] school board whose voting history could be identified voted Democrat in the most recent primary elections.”
“This fake news operations is run by Dan Proft through his political action committee, the ‘Liberty Principles Pac,'” writes the Proviso First candidates in the joint statement. “We need your help to stop Governor Rauner’s Cronies from taking over our schools [sic].”
The statement doesn’t explicitly mention the Proviso Together slate or any individual candidates by name.
During the March 8 interview, held at the Forest Park Review offices during the paper’s endorsement process, the Proviso Together candidates swatted away their opponents’ campaign tactics. The Proviso First slate did not respond to the paper’s requests to sit for an interview.
“They feed off of people’s ignorance,” said Valtierrez. “They’ll make something up and send out a $5,000 to $6,000 mailer. We don’t have that kind of money. We have to walk, knock on doors, talk to people. They’ll intimidate you. Intimidation doesn’t work. Why do you want so bad to be on a board of a district you don’t even send your kids to?”
“The three incumbents all have children at private schools and you have people who suddenly emerge when it’s election time,” said Grant. “They don’t even go to their own school’s events. They’re going to do what they do, but at the end of the day, they have to run on their record. They will be held to account.”
During Saturday’s forum, Proviso First candidates insisted that the campaign be about their board performance and not about where their children are educated.
“Just because we don’t have a kid [in the district] doesn’t mean we [don’t want to do what’s best] for the community,” said Adams. “We’re all parents here.”