The Proviso Township High School District 209 school board has a new president, vice president and secretary. Election of new officers comes as the board and administration look to regain the trust of teachers, students and community members after a tense teachers strike, the first in two decades. The strike lasted for about two weeks.

During a meeting on April 26, D209 board member Della Patterson was nominated for school board president by outgoing board President Rodney Alexander, who served two 1-year terms.

Board member Claudia Medina nominated fellow member Ned Wagner, who served as board president in 2018 and 2019, but Wagner declined. Board Secretary Amanda Grant nominated Sam Valtierrez as board president, but Valtierrez also declined.

Alexander, citing board policy, said there was no need for a vote if only one member is nominated president.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to serve as president of the board of education now,” Patterson said. “We are at a critical juncture and what we do now, right now, could be the difference between improved outcomes or more of the same.”

Alexander nominated Theresa Kelly to remain as vice president, which she accepted. Valtierrez, nominated by Medina, and Wagner, nominated by Grant, both declined those respective nominations.

The board voted in favor of Valtierrez, who was nominated by Alexander, to succeed Grant as board secretary. Grant had accepted Medina’s nomination to remain in the position, but failed to secure a majority vote. Members Alexander, Wagner, Patterson and Kelly voted in favor of Valtierrez.

During the meeting, Alexander touted what he said were some of the district’s biggest achievements under his board presidency, including the state financial oversight panel’s exit, the completion of new culinary arts labs and auto shops, and the installation of air conditioning units, among other things.

The new board officer elections come after the school board voted unanimously on April 12 to ratify a new contract with the Proviso Teachers Union (PTU). The union voted to ratify the new contract 57% to 43%. The contract runs from 2021 through 2024,

The district has not yet released all the details of the contract, but some PTU members, speaking during citizen comments at the meeting, said they were unsatisfied with the new contract.

Neil Rutstein, a teacher at Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park, said the teachers voted to ratify the contract only after the board’s and administration’s “campaign of delay and intimidation,” including “a threat […] to our health insurance during the pandemic,” adding that a “bare majority” of teachers “felt they had no choice.”

Rutstein said “even after getting everything it wanted in the contract, including the unchecked power to pay sports coaches as much as they like, the board continues to view the teachers and community with contempt.

“Did you know that many classes do not have teachers even this late in the school year and the students in these classes have to learn their subjects on their own using a pre-packaged computer program?” he said. “This is a prime example of this district’s low teacher salaries coming home to roost.”

“The goals that we set out to reach at the beginning of this last negotiation cycle process have not been realized,” said Scott Hendrickson, a 17-year veteran teacher at Proviso West High School in Hillside and a PTU officer.

“These goals would have set the conditions, the climate, the culture to improve learning outcomes for students,” he said. “We Proviso teachers will not rest until these goals are accomplished. Proviso teachers are not going to back down, we are not going to disengage, and we are not going to go back to business as usual.”

In a statement issued in early April, D209 officials said the new contract agreement includes a “3% raise for our teachers each year over the period of the contract as well as an annual $500 Board of Education Appreciation Bonus. All athletic positions were removed from the teachers contract,” D209 officials said. The contract also includes an eight-period schedule starting in the fall.

The PTU, which includes roughly 280 teachers, counselors, librarians and social workers, had initially demanded a 12.75% increase over three years, in addition to smaller class sizes, among other conditions.

Throughout the negotiations, PTU members had argued that Proviso teachers are among the lowest paid in the region while D209 administrators are among the region’s highest paid.

Teachers, parents, students and community members have also complained about what they’ve described as D209 Supt. James Henderson’s poor leadership, most notably reflected in his staffing decisions, his fraught relationship with the wider Proviso Township community, and the administration’s lack of communication.

During the April 12 meeting, a Proviso East High School parent complained about constant fights at the school and a lack of teachers.

“Almost every single day is a fight — fighting in the homeroom, fighting in the streets and fighting inside the school,” she said, adding that her daughter is concerned about her safety.

“What are you doing about safety? I would like to hear an answer,” she said. “At the beginning of the year, my student went almost one month without a teacher. What’s going on? [There’s] poor communication with the parents. How is it possible you make robocalls about the games, everything, [but] nothing about the problems that happen in the school?”

Micaela Soto, a teacher at Proviso East, said there was a lockdown at the high school on April 11, but there was no district communication sent about the incident.

“When parents, teachers and community members come up here to talk about communications, we’re not exaggerating the circumstance,” said Soto. “It’s really plain as day.

“We have all this money for fifth-floor administrators [when] our children need deans in the buildings,” she said, adding that school board members aren’t in buildings every day to witness what teachers, staffers and students experience.

The April 12 meeting, the last regular meeting presided over by President Alexander, was a microcosm of his two years at the board’s helm, characterized by incendiary rhetoric and frequent spats with teachers, students, fellow board members and community members — many of them captured on video.

At one point during the meeting, a back-and-forth erupted between Alexander and Soto after the latter interrupted the board president’s comments. Alexander asked security guards to escort Soto out of the board room before Wagner, seeking to diffuse the tension, urged Alexander to continue his remarks.

“Rodney, you can’t argue, just go on,” said Wagner.

“You’re right, Ned,” Alexander said. “This is what we deal with. You’re right.”

Moments after she was named the new board president on April 26, Patterson sought to strike a more conciliatory tone, addressing teachers, students and community members.

“You are important to us,” Patterson said. “We need you. We value you. And we have to find a way to move forward together. We must trust each other.”

Addressing Henderson, the primary source of the teachers’ frustration, Patterson reinforced her support and faith.

“I believe in you and your leadership and I’m confident you will complete the job we hired you to do,” the new board president said. “We know there has been tension lately. We shall find a way to heal. This is a new day. Let’s move forward together with common goals and a shared focus.”