A grassroots education advocacy movement, created nearly a decade ago as a Facebook group in response to Proviso Township High School District 209’s dysfunction before morphing into a full-blown political party, is disbanding.
Meanwhile, another education advocacy movement that started last year as a Facebook group in response to D209 dysfunction has evolved into a burgeoning political force.
Proviso Together is officially no more, but Proviso 209 Cooperative is just starting to come into its own.
In an email message sent to supporters earlier this month, Proviso Together leaders announced that the organization “will no longer exist by name,” but that “as individuals, we are deeply committed to being part of the continued solution right along with you.”
Westchester parent Kathleen Franzwa and Forest Park parent Jenny Barbahen, the cofounders of Proviso 209 Cooperative, said that the organization will start a political action committee (PAC) in order to slate candidates to run for the Proviso Township High School District 209 school board in next year’s elections, in order to bring accountability into the district.
Along with Franzwa and Barbahen, Maywood resident Eileen Olivier is also a co-chair of the Proviso 209 Cooperative’s PAC.
During an interview earlier this month, Franzwa and Barbahen said that they decided to get into the political fray in order to hold D209 Superintendent James Henderson’s feet to the fire or, if that fails, mobilize a board majority to get rid of him.
“I think the first line of defense is to hold him accountable,” said Franzwa.
“If that can’t happen, what other recourse is there? If there’s no accountability, if there’s no financial transparency and we’re getting more of the same — that would be the next push,” said Barbahen.
The co-founders pointed to the dissolution of the district’s finance committee, which the board allowed based on Henderson’s recommendation, the district’s lack of a finance director, and questionable spending practices, among other concerns.
“To my knowledge, these board members don’t even get budgets or plans in front of them and sometimes they are given information hours before a meeting to vote on it,” said Franzwa.
They said the board has been making decisions on “huge ticket items” without any robust consideration of how those expenditures might affect the district’s finances.
Proviso 209 Cooperative was started as a closed Facebook group that Franzwa created on Oct. 12, the night she and other D209 parents and community members learned that D209 school board President Rodney Alexander decided not to live-stream and record that night’s school board meeting.
Franzwa and other community members started recording the meeting themselves and uploaded the video to the Proviso 209 Cooperative Facebook timeline. The group now has about 1,100 members.
Franzwa and Barbahen were both volunteers during Proviso Together’s historic push to oust the power structure within D209 about a decade ago. According to Forest Park Review reporting, a group of Forest Park residents were communicating in a Facebook group called “Forest Parkers For Better Schools” before they decided to meet later that year at the Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor in the village.
The group would become known informally as the “Brown Cow 20,” which included the Brown Cow’s owner, Connie Brown, whose organizing skills helped propel the group into a political and communal force.
In the 2015 school board elections, all three of the Proviso Together candidates — longtime school board member Theresa Kelly and neophytes Ned Wagner and Claudia Medina — won seats on the D209 school board.
Two years later, four more candidates running on the Proviso Together slate — current school board President Rodney Alexander, Amanda Grant, Sam Valtiarrez and Della Patterson — won seats on the board, giving the party a rare supermajority.
The political organization began to splinter a few years ago amid interpersonal conflicts, clashing personalities and governing styles, and racial strife.
In their email statement sent March 6, Proviso Together organizers said that although the group will no longer exist by name, “as individuals, we are deeply committed to being part of the continued solution right along with you.”
Together organizers recommended that community members continue to support the 209 Scholarship, an entity that was started by many Together members, but that is completely separate from the political organization.
The scholarship’s board chairperson, April Baker, explained in a statement that the 209 Scholarship “continues to grow every year,” adding that, “in addition to funding at least nine $1,000 scholarships for District 209 graduates, we will be raising funds to ensure for $1,000 renewal scholarships so that our students can count on our support every year they are in college or trade school. We are proud to have the support of our community in this endeavor. To donate or volunteer, please visit our website 209scholarship.com.”
The Together statement also recommended that community members join the Cooperative’s Facebook page. Franzwa and Barbahen said that they’re still amicable with Together members and organizers, adding that they’ll lean on their experiences and resources as the Cooperative charts its own course.
“We can learn from their mistakes and successes,” said Franzwa. “I respect what they did a lot. I volunteered for Together. I canvassed Westchester and talked to friends and helped these folks get elected. I care about it a lot and I respect [Together] for what they did.”
The Cooperative co-founders declined to comment on whether or not they’ve identified any potential school board candidates.