The District 209 school board president’s decision to stop live-streaming and recording board meetings may have backfired, igniting a burgeoning grassroots movement that so far has taken the form of a closed Facebook group, an online petition and a call for volunteers to fill the information void that decision has created.
Kathleen Franzwa, parent of a Proviso Math and Science Academy student, was inside her Westchester home, preparing to watch the Oct. 12 D209 board meeting on her laptop, when she got a text from her husband.
“My husband was at the meeting and I was home with the kids and he started texting me saying that he didn’t see any cameras set up,” Franzwa recalled. “A couple more people at the meeting were texting me telling me cameras were not set up and we were alarmed.”
So Forest Park business owner and community advocate Connie Brown tapped Jordan Kuehn, another well-known community member involved in D209 issues, to live-stream the meeting on the page of a Facebook group that Franzwa created that night.
That’s how the Proviso 209 Cooperative was launched. A week into its existence, the closed Facebook group already has more than 500 members and counting.
“There are so many people across the district impassioned about our schools over this issue and many others,” Brown said, emphasizing that she’s played a very minor supporting role in the Proviso 209 Cooperative. “The organic groundswell of interest is amazing to watch. When people pay attention and get involved for the greater good of our schools, incredible growth happens.”
Jenny Barbahen, a D209 parent who administers the group with Franzwa, said the Proviso 209 Cooperative is also behind a change.org petition created in order to persuade D209 board President Rodney Alexander to immediately resume live-streaming and recording the district’s regular board meetings, committee meetings, and any public forums it hosts.
They’re also calling for volunteers to live-stream and possibly even take notes at D209 meetings, as long as Alexander refuses to live-stream and record them.
In an interview on Oct. 13, Alexander said that, as board president, he has the authority to suspend live-streaming district meetings — a practice in place since at least 2017. He pointed out that live-streaming meetings is not a legal requirement, adding that he made the decision to stop the practice because board meetings were getting too disorderly, a reality he blamed on the teachers union.
Alexander said he and D209 Supt. James Henderson made a joint decision not to live-stream the Oct. 12 meeting because they knew a crowd would show up at the behest of the teachers union. The district is currently in the middle of contract negotiations with the union.
The board president said as long as he’s in charge, he doesn’t plan to resume live-streaming, but that he’ll reconsider his decision if enough community members express a desire to resume the practice.
Barbahen said when they learned that the board president was open to reconsidering his decision, the group figured creating an online petition would be the quickest way to register community concern. As of Oct. 17, the petition had garnered 417 signatures — less than 100 shy of its goal of 500.
Barbahen added that anyone who wants to volunteer to live-stream or take notes at meetings should contact her on Facebook.
Both she and Franzwa said the group’s ground rules are evolving as it grows. They’ve already added a few requirements for membership. One, no current D209 school board members are allowed to join.
And anyone else who wants to join the group has to explain their relationship to the D209 community, provide their zip code and agree to group rules (no bullying, no hateful or hurtful comments, no promotions or spam, etc.).
Barbahen and Franzwa said the group has plenty of D209 teachers and administrators who are members, but they’re careful to point out that the group is meant to be a modulating force in the often tense dialogues about district issues.
“If anything, we want to show that there is a middle ground,” Barbahen said. “We can be with Supt. Henderson and question the things he’s doing. This is not a group that is picking sides. We just really need transparency.”
The irony that she’s part of creating yet another movement to reform D209 isn’t lost on Franzwa, who volunteered with Brown and Proviso Together in its infancy.
Brown was one of the driving forces behind the creation of Proviso Together, which evolved from a Facebook group called Forest Parkers For Better Schools, created in 2014. Some members of the group would eventually meet in person at Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor in Forest Park, which Brown owns.
The group is informally known as the Brown Cow 20 and their organizing efforts resulted in the election of board members Claudia Medina and Ned Wagner to the D209 board in 2015. Longtime member Theresa Kelly won re-election with the Proviso Together slate. The next year, the board discussed the possibility of live-streaming its meetings, which has become a standard practice in the district ever since.
Eventually, Proviso Together recruited Amanda Grant, Rodney Alexander, Della Patterson and Sam Valtierra to run for board seats. In the 2017 election, all four of them won. What started as a Facebook group had snowballed into a school board supermajority.
Now, four years later, Franzwa is feeling déjà vu.
“Disappointment is an understatement,” she said. “I worked really hard to campaign for these board members in my community, so I am more than disappointed — I’m devastated.”
But starting the fight anew is also invigorating in a sense. She’s still friends with some of the pivotal Proviso Together players, such as Brown and Smith, who along with Medina and Wagner have indicated that they’re against Alexander’s decision to suspend live-streaming.
Franzwa said she often relies on Brown for advice and support. She’s also become more connected to the many teachers, students and parents in the district who are trying to make a difference, she said.
“I’m a little overwhelmed because we have to start over, but I’m also optimistic,” Franzwa said. “If we did it once, we can do it again.”