Challengers have emerged in the District 91 Board of Education race, where three seats will be open come April. This is the first crowded race D91 has seen in years.
Shannon Wood, an incumbent, will run for re-election. Greg Mitchell, recently appointed to a seat on the board, will seek election. Incumbent Christina Ricordati has announced she will not seek a new term. And residents Steve Rummel and John Lyons have joined the fray.
After a board member announced he was moving to nearby Oak Park, Mitchell was appointed to the board in September, amid some outcry over his lack of community and school involvement. He is a marketing manager for a financial services company and former captain in the U.S. Army, who has no children in the district.
Mitchell credited increased interest in the race this year to heightened national consciousness about politics, his controversial appointment, and the video gaming referendum.
“There was a fairly contentious election a couple three weeks ago and so I think that got people a little bit fired up,” he said. “There were maybe some people who were less than happy I was selected. They feel like there are better options and that’s great for them. You want people engaged. At the end of the day, as long as the kids are being served and the community’s being served, I don’t see how we lose.”
If elected to the post, Mitchell said he would continue the work the board is doing with the National Equity Project — a national leadership training institute that identifies opportunity gaps among student groups — and named equity as the greatest challenge D91 faces. Once negotiations begin with the teacher’s union in early December, he believes his professional experience negotiating contracts with vendors will also be an asset to the board.
“In a teacher contract, you’re negotiating with a group of employees, not just about money, also about benefits provided. It’s about language in the contract to make sure it’s fair to everybody, taking care of our teachers and taking care of our taxpayers,” he said.
He wants D91 to evolve as a community institution.
“I’d like to see the district and community, D91, become a destination district,” Mitchell said. “I want to be recognized for the curricular and academic excellence, the diverse population and the successful students.”
Along with having a first- and third-grader enrolled in D91, Rummel pointed to his experience as a data scientist and sergeant in the U.S. Marines for his interest in the post.
“I think civic engagement is important; I think America runs because we all pitch in and do things,” Rummel said. “This is democracy, it’s a government by and for the people. I feel like we should be invested there. I look at it as a duty.”
Over the past few months, Rummel has been attending D91 board meetings and crunching numbers, to provide the board with context on how the district’s state test scores have compared with similar districts over the last decade. The Illinois State Board of Education currently administers the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) test to all public elementary and middle schools although the exam given has changed over the years.
“I want to be sure we are using the PARCC data and all the other evaluator tools that we are given in the proper way,” Rummel said. “If there are flaws in the way they are being used or interpreted, we should understand and speak about that to the community, and use this to further our opinion of how well or not well we think we’re doing.”
He said there seems to be a disconnect between the people in the district and the board itself. If elected to the board, he said he would work with the communications director to explain to residents why the district and board make decisions, and point to data to drive his point.
“I think it’d be helpful to have someone on the board who’s really willing and able to explain the details of the challenges that face us,” said Rummel, pointing to the north-south divide around town as unhealthy. But the greatest challenge the district currently faces, he said, is the possibility that the state will hand over the responsibility for teacher pension payments.
“We have the reserves for it now, but we’re going to need a much more permanent solution,” Rummel said. “I think planning for that is a difficult thing but, at some point, I feel like we’re going to have to do it. It’s more a question of when, not if.”
Lyons, president of a high precision machining firm, said he believes D91 needs a more robust curriculum, should better communicate with residents, and that the current board does not embrace the diversity of Forest Park. Lyons has a daughter enrolled in third grade in the district.
“They say the renters are keeping kids away, but if you have a great school system, the renters will come and put their kids into the school,” Lyons said. “Having a student within the district, it kind of allows me to get a good sense of some of the issues, the strengths, the weaknesses, that are currently taking place.”
He believes D91 should embrace more technology-based learning, citing online-based curriculum as an example. Lyons also feels D91 should better align its curriculum with Proviso Township High Schools District 209.
“If you look over at D209 they’ve made some great strides with their board, and I feel this board is in kind of the same need,” Lyons said, noting that the district’s greatest challenge is “everybody just agreeing on the same thing, over and over again. We’re not driving change.
“I feel like there’s no connection between D209 and D91. That is the high school these kids will be going into. We’re lucky to have one of the best high schools in the area in our district.”