Since 2017, the District 209 school board has live-streamed its regular board meetings. On Tuesday night, however, that practice came to an abrupt and chaotic halt.
District 209 board President Rodney Alexander said he and D209 Supt. James Henderson made the decision to not record the Oct. 12 regular meeting—a decision that Alexander said will stand as long as he’s president of the board.
“We don’t by law have to record at all,” Alexander said during an interview on Oct. 13. “The superintendent and I are responsible for setting up the meetings. We knew the crowd was coming. We knew that the teachers union was putting together these theatrics or whatever.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, a crowd of several dozen people lodged a variety of complaints about the school board and administration that ranged the gamut — from a ongoing outbreak of fights at Proviso East to teachers complaining of working without contracts to a lack of transparency.
Since the district did not live-stream the Oct. 12 board meeting, a resident recorded and uploaded the meeting to the Facebook group, Forest Park Advocate Community. After learning about Alexander’s decision, some community members have vowed to step in and start recording the meetings themselves if they have to.
At one point, the Facebook video shows, the meeting devolved into a shouting match between some board members and audience members, prompting Alexander to recess the meeting before reconvening shortly afterward.
Several students and teachers complained about what they described as an unsafe environment at Proviso East, where fights are now so frequent that they overwhelm the school’s 12 security guards.
“I feel like our school is not safe at all,” said Terry Bowers, a student at East. “There’s about five fights every day. People throw water bottles in the lunchroom. People get hurt every day. There’s this stupid [TikTok] challenge with kids stealing teachers’ stuff.”
Another East student, whose name could not be made out, said extracurricular clubs at the high school haven’t started due to teachers working without contracts and, echoing Bowers, that fights are common.
“Ever since [former Proviso East principal Dr. Patrick Hardy] left, I’ve been seeing more and more fights,” the student said. “Some of these security guards don’t have relationships with these students. That was the only thing keeping these kids on track and y’all are firing them.”
Other people who commented demanded that the board host more town halls to talk about some of the changes that have happened in the district since the school board voted in February in favor of a series of major administrative realignments proposed by Supt. Henderson.
Some of those changes included a proposal to bring food and transportation services in-house and to begin the process of outsourcing information technology (IT) services.
Most of the speakers were teachers working without contracts as the union negotiates with the administration.
“I am a teacher working without a contract,” said Carissa Gillespie, who teaches English in the district.
“It was never this bad,” she said, before lambasting what she described as inadequate staffing levels, poor or nonexistent food service and a lack of transparency in the wake of the superintendent’s realignments.
Gillespie said the changes have been “chaos we are trying to pass off as restructuring,” adding that her “teaching, mental, physical and counseling capabilities are being stretched to the brink.”
Randall McFarland, the founder of Best of Proviso, a local nonprofit, spoke out in favor of more town halls, adding that they were essential to the Facility Master Plan the board developed during the tenure of former superintendent Jesse Rodriguez. The plan resulted in what has so far been $77 million worth of construction projects, among which the newly constructed football stadium was one.
“When we had the master facility plan, we had town hall meetings,” said McFarland, an East alum and student advocate. “All of us were able to give input. When you stifle input, you stifle greatness. Look at what came out of those master facilities plans.”
McFarland, referencing the new Proviso East football stadium that was dedicated on Sunday, said “to see that field, to see that stadium, I know the ideas of the community and alumni were heard during those town hall meetings.”
After the public comments, Alexander apologized for his conduct during the meeting.
“We’re all human,” he said. “If you had to endure personal attacks without people getting to know you while you attempt to serve and do your best — it would be a bit much.”
During an interview the following day, Alexander said as long as he’s board president, he’ll use his authority to discontinue the recordings of both regular board meetings and board committee meetings in what he described as an effort to get them under control.
“That was not the community that was represented last night,” he said. “That was a concerted, planned effort. Those were teachers from the union. They’re always disrespectful to us.”
“They just believe they can come and air their union concerns and try to embarrass and hurt us. People have a right to speak, we’re just going to keep asking for some decency and respect in the district,” he said.
Alexander addressed the complaints about fighting and disrespectful behavior at East, which have been echoed by other teachers who have spoken with this publication about their experiences. They requested anonymity out of fear of retribution.
“They said that when Dr. Hardy was here,” Alexander said, of the safety concerns. “Change is hard. We were out of school for a whole year. What do you think these students are going to do? Nobody is the same, so we have had to give our students a chance to readjust. We have two classes of students who have not been adjusted to the high school environment [due to the pandemic].”
Alexander said that 12 security guards at East “should realistically be enough. What are we saying? We need more? We shouldn’t have to hire more security. Parents control your children. Teach your children how to behave.”
The board president said he has no plans to host the town hall meetings that were requested at Tuesday’s board meeting but said “if there’s a desire of the people” to have the district’s long-standing practice of live-streaming meetings reinstated, he’ll reconsider.
“If there is a concerted desire by the community at large to have these meetings recorded, they should let us know,” he said. “Email and let us know.”
This is Alexander’s last year serving as board president. His term ends in April. Since 2017, it’s been a courtesy of the board to allow presidents to serve two years, which Alexander said he plans to do — albeit with reservations.
“I would step down now, if I could,” Alexander said. “It’s a bit much. I don’t want it.”