Candidates for the Proviso Township District 209 school board election are making the most of the campaign’s final days as the April 4 election draws near. With eight candidates running for three open seats, the Proviso 209 United slate composed of Sandra Hixson, Jennifer Barbahen, and David Ocampo are hoping to land in the public’s favor.
Ocampo, a data engineer for Energizer and 10-year Westchester resident, is a first-time candidate hoping to bring his best to apply changes to the operations of the district, creating a better school environment for his children who will be attending one of the three schools in the Proviso district.
“It’s multifaceted but essentially it’s for the children, and not only my children,” Ocampo said. “The current situation at the high school is abysmal, there is no nice way to say it. It needs to be a viable option not just for my children but for the community’s children.”
Ocampo believes the biggest issues plaguing the district are the lack of transparency with finances and the amount of money allocated for students.
“It’s not a question about money, it’s just a question of how it is being spent,” Ocampo said. “It’s obviously not being spent on students when student instruction is 29 percent of the budget.”
Considering the finances of the district as a top priority, Ocampo said every month the school board is receiving a list of expenses without information about where the money is going.
“They are not itemized so we don’t know what is going on with the district’s funds,” Ocampo said.
Ocampo believes the current state of the school is negatively affecting any potential learning opportunities for the students.
“When the children are in a classroom with no instructors or 34 other peers, learning cannot happen,” Ocampo said.
Comparing the current school board to an episode of Jerry Springer, Ocampo says a complete “reboot” needs to happen to reinstate civility and decorum to the board, allowing them to lead by example and follow what they preach in the expectations set for students.
By putting egos aside, Ocampo said the focus should be on student centric policies and reconnecting with the community, who have seen lines of communication with the board and Superintendent Dr. James L. Henderson fragment in the last two years.
“We have parents that are upset, we have students who are upset, we have teachers who are upset,” Ocampo said. “And yet the board majority behaves in a way that shows that none of that matters. We need to move away from that. The environment in which teachers have to work is the same environment in which students have to learn.”
To help create a culture of open communication, Ocampo said he would love to host meet and greet and community nights for district parents to ask questions and get direct answers. With a Hispanic majority in the district, Ocampo said he would be a direct contact for Spanish speaking families.
Also putting transparency and communication in the front lines of priority is Ocampo’s slate mate Jennifer Barbahen, who said the current board has a blatant lack of transparency.
Barbahen, who currently has a senior at Proviso East and lives in Forest Park, said when her family began attending the district, they were really excited in the direction that the schools were going but after the pandemic and leadership changes, they began feeling alarmed.
“I could feel the impact of those decisions affecting the students in the classroom,” Barbahen said, adding that the teacher strike last spring, increase in class sizes, and the way board meetings operated was confusing and appalling.
With the help of others in the community, Barbahen, a conflict supervisor at a law firm, helped in the creation of the Proviso 209 Cooperative, a Facebook group that shared information about what was happening in the district. But it wasn’t until witnessing the teacher strike in 2022 that Barbahen decided to throw her name in the candidate pool.
“The things that the teachers are fighting for are things that our students need too,” Barbahen said. “It became very apparent that the teachers are an island, the parents and community are an island, we should really be working on this together.”
With hopes of bringing change, Barbahen said after much vetting, the Proviso 209 United slate was formed to bring forward a strong team offering different skill sets.
“We bring a clean perspective of people who are involved and who know the community, they know the schools, they know the problems, but we also know that the trajectory can be positive,” Barbahen said, adding that the candidates also work well together and can bring much needed harmony to the board.
Barbahen agrees that a big issue is the lack of funds being allocated to student learning.
“Our instructional spending is very low,” Barbahen said. “We have students who are not performing, and they are not able to be competitive at the state and national level. We also have very high administrative spending.”
As a parent, Barbahen said she is frustrated in knowing that students have been left without instructors for multiple classes, that teachers are not made aware if a student has an Individualized Education Program, and there being a lack of seating in classrooms due to the increase in class sizes.
“Our public schools are the pillars of our community, they are in the absolute center of our community. … our schools absolutely affect every single person in our township,” Barbahen said. “Our tax dollars go to these schools…they should be thriving, not struggling.”
Composing the “H” in “HBO,” is Sandra Hixson, a resident of Westchester for 20 years and a former substitute teacher for District 209.
Hixson, who has been in the education field and involved in various community service projects, said she resigned from District 209 when she decided to run for a seat on the board. Hixson is currently a substitute teacher for Bellwood School District 88.
“It was great, it really was great until 2020,” Hixson said of her time as an employee of the district. “It had nothing to do with COVID.”
After witnessing the multiple cuts to staff and programs, Hixson began hearing complaints from disgruntled teachers and began considering what choices she had. She chose to do “something about it” and run for the board.
A concern Hixson has is the lack of resources students are afforded and an increase in student fights, which she said kept getting more aggressive.
“I have taught some of those students before, so I knew their potential,” Hixson said. “Them not having resources that they need, I was like ‘I’m done, I have to do something about this.’”
If elected to the board, Hixson said her priority would be to ensure that students come first. This would include hiring back teachers, adding faculty, updating technology and software, hiring back deans and having more security across the three campuses. Hixson also believes the district needs to look at students as a whole to be able to fully understand what they need to be successful. This includes a priority in understanding mental health and the social and emotional needs of students.
Hixson, who tries to keep up with her former students, said she understands the importance of keeping lines of communication open with district parents. Hixson said she would support community events, would encourage parents to reach out to board members, and maintain transparency throughout her time if elected to the board.
“Some parents can’t come to the school board meetings, they can’t, but if they can reach out to us say ‘this is what I like, this is what I don’t like, this is what I need help with, this is what I don’t need help with,’ now we are talking,” Hixson said. “That is the only way we are going to build back public trust is to be open and available to all parents in the district.”
While community members have expressed their discontent with certain board members who they believe did not keep their campaign promises, Hixson says she will continue to stand her ground.
“For me it’s about integrity and when you put your hand on an oath you are telling people that you believe in what you are saying, you believe in what you are doing,” Hixson said. “I’m a spiritual person so not only am I taking an oath to the community, but I am also taking an oath to God. I’m not going to go against that oath, period, for no one.”
Early voting in the April 4 Consolidated Election is already underway and will continue through April 3. Election Day is April 4.