In many ways, 2022 can be described as a year in transition.
The COVID-19 pandemic receded as an ever-present threat, but the businesses are still trying to figure out how to operate in the post-pandemic environment. The village and the Park District of Forest Park made some moves toward major development, but it will be years before the village sees the results. Forest Park School District 91 closed one elementary school, but it hasn’t ruled out closing another and potentially restructuring which grade levels are in which school further down the line.
Long-time village commissioner Joe Byrnes declined to run for re-election.
Forest Park Public Library Executive Director Pilar Shaker resigned at the end of October, and northwest suburban Barrington Area Library District director Vicki Rakowski, who started her library career in Forest Park, was chosen as replacement. And here at the Review, veteran Growing Community Media freelancer Igor Studenkov was hired as a full-time reporter.
Slow progress toward new developments
The Village of Forest Park and the Park District of Forest Park took a few steps toward major development projects – but it may take another year, if not longer, for it to bear fruit.
After the Altenheim Ad Hoc Advisory Committee was de facto shuttered last year, Commissioners Maria Maxham and Jessica Voogd spearheaded the effort to establish a new Altenheim Advisory Committee to finally figure out what to do with the village-owned portion of the retirement community site. The committee represents a broad cross-section of subject matter experts and stakeholders, including representatives from the Altenheim community and the adjacent Grove condominium development. The committee is still in the process of developing a final vision, but it is currently expected to present their findings to the council by early spring 2023.
Meanwhile, the Park District of Forest Park took several steps toward building a new indoor facility at 7400-7412 Harrison St., across the street from its main park and facilities. While the plans haven’t been finalized, the park district is looking to design a building to house its popular day camps and other programs. West Suburban Special Recreation Association (WSSRA) expressed interest in moving its offices to the new building from their current space at the Franklin Park School District 84 building at 2915 Maple St.
The park district acquired the property last spring and demolished the former Pines Restaurant, Oak Leaf Lounge sand Forest Park Foreign Car Repair shop buildings in late November.
This year also saw another development opportunity emerge further south. The U.S. Army Reserve closed the Forest Park Army Reserve Center in June. Originally, it offered to turn the property over via the Real Property Exchange (RPX) program, where the bidder gets the property in exchange for making improvements to another, active military facility. The village was the only entity to express interest.
During the July 25 village council meeting, Mayor Rory Hoskins asked the council to vote to submit a proposal. At the time, he suggested using the center as a new municipal building that would bring all village services under one roof. But Maxham and Byrnes balked out of concern about costs and the fact that the Pentagon wouldn’t allow the village to inspect the property ahead of time. With Commissioner Ryan Nero unable to attend because of the council’s remote meeting attendance rules, the council deadlocked.
The Army Reserve is still seeking possible developers, but there has been no movement on it since.
Madison Street bars
The perennial issue of rowdy behavior along Madison Street remained in the headlines this year.
The Illinois Liquor Control Commission ruled that last year’s 20-day suspension of Lantern Haus’ liquor license over a fight that broke out outside the bar in late June 2021 was improper. The state regulator found the village failed to prove that Lantern Haus didn’t do everything it could to stop the fight. The bar ended up closing in July, with 99 Haus Balloons, a party balloon supplier operated by owner Patrick Jacknow’s wife, Aubrey Jacknow, taking over the space.
Last year, the Forest Park Tap Room bar got its liquor license revoked, only to have the state overturn the ruling. But when its liquor license came up for renewal in May, Hoskins, who acts as the village’s liquor commissioner, moved to deny the renewal after police Chief Ken Gross argued that its owners, brothers Lance and Hansel Law, couldn’t be trusted after misleading the village about their criminal record and the track record of Berwyn Tap Room, a bar they co-owned.
The ensuing proceedings dragged on for four months, with several meetings getting postponed and one meeting halted after a court reporter took issue with the Review recording the proceedings. Hoskins ultimately ruled against the Tap Room.
The village council spent the first half of the year closely scrutinizing entertainment licenses – the licenses every business must have if it plays live music or holds any kind of performance. But by this fall, many of the concerns abated and, on Oct. 24, the commissioners voted to delegate the license approval to the village administrator. The business owners can appeal the license rejections to the village council.
High school strikes and strife
This year saw Proviso Township High School District 209 grapple with a nearly three-week teachers strike, teacher shortages, busing issues, and students protesting over said issues.
The strike began March 4 and lasted until March 28, though, since the last week fell on spring break, families only saw its effect for 19 days. The strike followed months of protracted negotiations between district officials and the Proviso Teachers Union Local 571, with the union pushing for higher salary increases, bonuses for teachers who have been with the district longer and smaller class sizes.
The agreement, which is retroactive to 2021, included 3% annual raises and an annual $500 bonus – less than what the union called for but more than what the district had offered.
Tensions were high during the strike, to the point where Supt. James Henderson and board member Claudia Medina, a vocal critic of the district’s current administration, got into an altercation at the March 15 board meeting. Video recordings show Medina approach Henderson and the two getting into each other’s faces. Security guards separated them.
While PTU called for Henderson to resign, the majority of the board backed him, subsequently approving a contract that included an extra $31,000 annuity and a three-year payout if he was fired for any reason over the next four years.
By that point, Henderson already faced complaints about the lack of administrative responsiveness, poor IT capabilities, security staffing shortfall and staff shortages in general, employee churn, and a general lack of respect shown by Henderson toward teachers and students. But the complaints intensified at the start of the 2022-2023 school year as students got sent into overcrowded, sometimes unstaffed classrooms and school buses either arriving late or not arriving at all, students taking as much as an hour-and-a-half to get back home.
By October, a group of students called Students For A Better Proviso began protesting poor conditions in their schools and other issues. The district responded by initiating termination proceedings against four teachers of color who they claim helped form the student group. But the vote was never taken. Board President Della Patterson ended the Nov. 15 board meeting during the public comment period after first trying to gavel down a teacher critical of the way the district managed its budgets.
Elementary school closing
Meanwhile, on the elementary school level, Forest Park School District 91 closed Grant-White Intermediate Elementary School at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, sending all third through fifth grade students to Field-Stevenson Intermediate Elementary School.
The plan unveiled in March called for a more ambitious restructuring of the entire school system. All preschool and kindergarten students would attend Garfield Primary Elementary School, while all first to fourth grade students would attend Field-Stevenson and all students in fifth to eight grades would attend Forest Park Middle School. Both Grant-White and Betsy Ross Primary Elementary School would be closed. The plan came in response to declining enrollment in several schools and was described as a way to more efficiently distribute the district’s resources.
The district conducted three public hearings in late March/early April, where parents and teachers expressed concerns about several aspects of the transition – most notably, how the changes would impact students with disabilities. In response, the board decided to hold off on closing Betsy Ross, at least for the 2022-2023 school year.
Since then, the district has been using the Grant-White building to hold board meetings, teacher coaching and other professional development activities. It also used the building to hold English language and citizenship preparation classes for immigrant families that it’s offering through a partnership with Triton College. While many Grant-White families expressed concerns about the transition, the initial response was positive.