Tensions were high on Nov. 15, when a packed Proviso Township High School District 209 Board of Education meeting held at Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park was cut short by Board President Della Patterson during a heated public comment period during which two individuals were forced to leave by security.
Nearly a hundred students, parents, teachers and community members were there to voice concerns about how the district is being run and to demand that the board not terminate four teachers who face allegations of encouraging student protests.
As community members packed the hallways and cafeteria waiting for the public meeting to begin, the school board met for several hours in a closed-door session that included a catered dinner. When the meeting opened to the public, the board tabled the vote to terminate the teachers and removed it from the agenda.
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Prior to the board meeting, supporters held a press conference with Chicago Teachers Union President Stacey Davis Gates, Forest Park Mayor Rory Hoskins and Bellwood Mayor Andre Harvey, who joined community members demanding the board not terminate the teachers.
“We do not make it our business to tell a separate elected body how to conduct theirs. However, we recognize that this community is still struggling through the pandemic,” said Hoskins. “We know that there’s a shortage of teachers and we know that these are some of the most experienced and most well thought-of teachers in Proviso Township […] We would simply say to the board that terminating four very experienced teachers would not be in the best interests of the students.”
In October, a group of students called Students For A Better Proviso began protesting poor conditions in their schools, ranging from overcrowded classrooms, late buses, a teacher shortage, deteriorating buildings, rotten food, among other conditions caused by what they claim is a misuse of funds.
“We started the group because we noticed a lot of stuff wrong with the board,” said Ashely Stohl, a senior at Proviso West. Stohl said conditions at her school have been chaotic, adding that her African American History class has 47 students in it and didn’t even have a teacher until three weeks ago. It’s why she and her classmates put up signs around school to bring attention to these issues with messages like “We Support Our Teachers.”
The district responded to the signs by initiating termination proceedings against four teachers of color who they claim helped form the student group.
Stohl says the idea was a student-led initiative that did not involve teachers. During the meeting she informed the board that the signs were made at her home and were funded by her father, not by any teacher.
The Proviso Teachers Union, an affiliate of the West Suburban Teachers Union, IFT Local 571, which represents nearly 300 educators employed by D209, claims that the four teachers are being retaliated against and that their termination would be a violation of their collective bargaining agreement. Last March, D209 teachers went on strike for two weeks advocating for better working conditions.
When the public comment period opened during the board meeting, of the 12 scheduled public speakers, only seven were able to speak before board President Patterson ended the meeting early.
One of the first people to speak was Max Olszta, a student at Proviso West.
“I have three classes without teachers,” Olszta said. “If you terminate my teachers, that number will go up to four. As a senior, I fear I will not be able to graduate.”
The meeting escalated when Jennifer LaBash, a D209 teacher, was called to speak and began criticizing how the district manages its funds.
Board President Patterson began pounding her gavel and interrupting LaBash throughout her public comment. As the crowd began cheering in support of LaBash, the teacher was escorted out by security and Patterson abruptly ended the meeting.
District 209 Superintendent James Henderson did not respond to a request for comment on Friday afternoon.
Gabriel Casas, a student at Proviso West who also spoke, said he was “pissed off” by the conduct of the meeting.
Kyle Stren, the president of the West Suburban Teachers Union, noted that the meeting was a minor triumph considering the board did not vote to terminate the teachers.
“So, we live to fight another day,” Stern said. “However, there is still something to hold over their heads. I hope the board makes a rational decision, but based on what we saw tonight I question the rationality of the board.”
The next board meeting will be held on Dec. 13 at Proviso East High School in Maywood.