The Forest Park Review sent questionnaires to each person running for public office in 2023. The Review’s questions are in bold and the candidate’s responses are below.

Jenny Barbahen | Provided

Name: Jennifer (Jenny) Barbahen

Age: 41

Previous Political Experience: None

Previous/Current Community Involvement: Past president and current member of the Forest Park D91 PTO; member of the D91 Board-sponsored Citizen’s Advisory Council (CAC) for several years;  member the D91 Asset/Needs Assessment Committee; Scoutmaster/Committee Chair/Committee Member for Forest Park Scouts BSA Troop 107; Co-Chair of the Proviso East Action Team for Partnerships (ATP), 2019-2020; Co-Chair of the Proviso East Parent Advisory Council (PAC), 2021-2022; member of the Superintendents’ Parent Advisory Council (SPAC) October 2020-December 2021 (since discontinued). 

Occupation: Conflicts supervisor for an Am Law 200-ranked law firm

Education: Some college

1. Please describe what, in your opinion, have been specific accomplishments made by District 209 over the past two years.

The Facility Master Plan (FMP) started under the former Superintendent in 2017 and continues to make progress and improvements needed to all three Proviso school buildings. New parking lot and green space at PMSA, air conditioning and HVAC improvements at Proviso East and West. While still a work in progress, Parent Advisory Councils have been established at East and West. There is an active PTO at PMSA. And while PAC expectations, procedures and structure are being worked out, there is a way for parents to get involved. 

2. Dr. James Henderson has had both supporters and critics of his administration since his appointment as superintendent of Proviso Township High School. Please provide your opinion of the work he has done at D209, including his relationship with faculty, his communications with parents and community, his management of a complex organization through a pandemic.

As a Proviso parent and community member I have not seen any evaluations from the board of education on Dr. Henderson’s work performance, even though yearly evaluations are required in his contract. No data has been presented from the Board or district regarding success, or lack thereof, of the changes implemented during Dr. Henderson’s tenure in D209. The outside data provided from the Illinois School Report Card and the Illinois 5Essentials Survey, shows that Dr. Henderson has not been successful. 

The district, under Dr. Henderson’s leadership, has undergone tremendous changes and restructuring with no clear key performance indicators provided. The community does not have access to the data driven effects on student performance under these changes over the last 2 school years. With the changes and restructuring of Dean positions, Special Education services, English Language Learner (ELL) services, College and Career Counselors, the IT department restructured, food service brought in-house and the plan for transportation to be brought in-house, are the students provided the resources they need to succeed? 

As an involved parent, I have witnessed the management style of Dr. Henderson through the lens of his employment actions, resource allocation decisions, and contract negotiations. The start to each school year is a public demonstration of the management abilities of each Superintendent and if we look at the start of SY 22-23 as an indicator of Dr. Henderson’s ability to manage our district, there are improvements to be made. Parent engagement with Dr. Henderson started on a good path, Dr. Henderson created the Superintendents’ Parent Advisory Council (SPAC) which met for the first time on Thursday, October 15th, 2020, and then met monthly during the school year. I was a part of that advisory council until it was cancelled indefinitely by Dr. Henderson in December of 2021. The energy of the meetings changed over time when parent advisory members started asking questions and wanting transparent answers about the plans to address the issues facing our schools. Dr. Henderson eliminated opportunities to communicate and build stronger bonds with parents and as a result parents and community members are not getting positive, accurate and timely information on a consistent basis. 

Speaking to Dr. Henderson’s relationship with faculty we have witnessed the district experiencing unprecedented turnover in educators, counselors, admin, and security. The working environment for our teachers and staff is the learning environment for our students and the working environment right now is not healthy. District 209 is not able to retain and attract quality educators because of the broken relationships with Dr. Henderson. The community has witnessed retaliatory actions against educators, unprofessional attacks on parents and community on social media, violent outbursts, and interactions with board members with no accountability for those behaviors from the board of education. The lack of positive relationships is contributing to the negative climate in Proviso and is detrimental to the districts mission of Equity, Excellence, Relevance for ALL. 

3. As a board member, how would you respond to complaints and protests brought by students concerned with their education?

First and foremost, listen, with respect and with intention to truly hear and understand the students’ experience. 

  • Students should feel empowered to share their voice regarding their education and provided with opportunities to engage and be included in improving the educational experience and outcomes for all students and trust that it is a safe space to speak. 
  • Create a clear structured path and opportunities within our school buildings by supportive administration, that will provide students an effective way to voice concerns and more importantly having their concerns addressed.
  • Ensure that Citizens’ Comments at Board of Education meetings are conducted without censorship, harassment, and demeaning comments.
  • Include the student voice in board of education meetings through Student Achievement Committees that will partner, engage, and empower our student voices.

4. Do you believe that the strike by teachers last year was unavoidable? How do you believe the district benefited by the strike’s resolution? 

The historic 2022 teachers’ strike in D209 was avoidable. Negotiations between the district and the Proviso Teachers Union should have begun, and in good faith, prior to the previous contract expiration in June of 2021 to ensure that an agreement was met before teachers, librarians, social workers, and school counselors were working without a contract. The collective bargaining agreement is a contract between the Proviso Teachers Union and the District 209 Board of Education, yet no board member sat in on negotiations. A negotiation team on behalf of the district should have been established instead of the Superintendent alone, who lacks experience with union strong states. A significant goal of the district was to make East and West into an 8-period day schedule, an equitable change that was needed. However, the resources needed to implement an 8-period day successfully were not provided by the district. The PTU advocated for students’ needs as well as competitive compensation during negotiations requesting smaller class sizes. Efforts to bargain in good faith were questioned at board meetings which was followed by a series of unsubstantiated claims in several incendiary documents released by the district against the PTU, using district resources, that only served to intensify tensions. Financially the district may have gained short term from not increasing salaries to be competitive with surrounding districts, but the fallout is that D209 lost talented educators and professionals. With the growing number of teacher vacancies and lack of successful recruitment efforts the Superintendent and the Board made further cuts to the number of Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) teachers increasing class sizes and ultimately contributing extensively to the beginning school year chaos. Any financial savings from the district are now being consumed by paying teachers to take a 6th period assignment. The district did not benefit from the strikes resolution because it ultimately ended up exacerbating our teacher and staff shortage and retention issues, resulting in classroom overcrowding, lack of consistent teachers and an increase in utilization of online learning platforms that do not benefit our students.

5. If you are elected to what continues to be a divided school board, what skills would you bring to governing productively? 

I am focused on creating stronger bonds between myself and all other school board members and strengthening the bonds by restoring civil interactions between the school board and all stakeholders: students, teachers, parents, community, and taxpayers. I am ready to participate responsibly and respectfully, as a school board member, serving all children with decisions and thoughtful actions driven by data and a student first focus. I would bring to the board over 15 years of risk management experience including navigating complex interpersonal relationships while maintaining a respectful way to dissent to differing opinions. We have a chance to establish fresh relationships with fellow board members, staff and community members and a chance to build trust in our roles as the trustees for the Proviso district and Proviso communities. Good governance requires that the board be responsible for itself, its processes and contributions and that means establishing accountability for all.