In a sweep surprising the Proviso Township school community, the three candidates of the Proviso 209 United slate have dismantled the current board majority at the public high schools. Now all eyes are on the trio and holdover Amanda Grant to form a new majority.
Newcomer David Ocampo ran first in the April 4 election, and in an interview with Forest Park Review, said he would focus on school finances, investments in students and accountability for an oft-criticized superintendent, James Henderson.
As Ocampo is getting ready to take an official oath and be sworn onto the Proviso Township High Schools board of education on Thursday, May 4, he is ensuring his priorities are in order and is eager to get to work.
Considering himself “data inclined,” Ocampo said the first thing on his mind is to focus on the numbers and data to patch out the story conveyed and to start tracking the progress of D209.
“What I would like to see is month to month progress as we go through the school year,” Ocampo said. “If you have witnessed several school board meetings, there is no continuity from prior meetings. We don’t discuss what happened last time, we don’t follow up on what happened last month, we don’t know how the finances are looking year to date.”
Understanding the district’s finances, which have come under scrutiny from the community and other board members as well, is a priority. Henderson has been criticized for a lack of transparency in fiscal matters. Through assessments, Ocampo said the board would be able to get an idea of what is being spent where. According to Ocampo, he has spoken to a representative of the company that provided the district’s financial audit and the district is not in a “bad spot” financially.
“If we tighten our belt, so to speak, and redirect those funds to appropriate student-centered activities, it can get better,” Ocampo said. “But first we need to assess what is where and with the help of communities direct those funds and those activities.”
Additionally, looking ahead to the upcoming 2023-24 school year, Ocampo wants to ensure the district is ready for the first day of school, which hasn’t been the case in the past. Saying he doesn’t want to hear about issues that could have been prevented, he is focusing his attention on ensuring students can start off on the right foot with reliable transportation, security issues being addressed, proper supplies in classrooms, and having schedules and ID’s ready to go amongst other things.
Ocampo topped the election tote board following the April 4 election for the three seats open on the D209 school board. He received 5,975 votes, 18.50%, followed by slate mate Sandra Hixson, who received 16.71%, 5,397 votes. Jennifer Barbahen, the third member of the Proviso 209 United slate, received 4,811 votes, coming in third place and winning the last spot on the board. Out of the 79,279 registered Proviso voters, 12,699 ballots were cast, a turnout of 16.02%.
Ocampo’s win, along with the rest of the slate, overturned the current board majority, which was composed of previous board members Theresa Kelly, who lost her seat to Barbahen, Ned Wagner, who did not seek reelection, Samuel Valtierrez, Rodney Alexander, and current board president Arbdella Patterson, unfavorably dubbed the “Henderson Five,” by agitated members of the community who are not in support of Henderson.
Ocampo, who was publicly endorsed by current board member Amanda Grant, said while he feels the numbers have shifted to their favor, he is looking forward to collaboration with the remaining board members.
“I don’t want this to be a continuation of a fragmented board,” Ocampo said. “The perception now is 4 to 3 but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will always be 4 to 3. Let’s start working with the incumbents and try to bridge that gap. I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume positive intent, that they want the best for the district.”
For Ocampo, wisdom is seeking knowledge from people who have more experience, and in this case that would be working alongside Alexander, Patterson, Valtierrez and Grant.
Regarding issues with Henderson’s leadership, which has come under harsh criticism from some, Ocampo said it requires extensive assessments and an overview of finances, auditing personnel and getting a “10,000-foot view overview.” But the bottom line, he said, is accountability.
“The un-itemized credit cards, that needs to be rectified,” Ocampo said. “The public needs to have proper access to this information. If he doesn’t follow through with that, there needs to be some consequences. The people elected us to hold him accountable and people want access to this information. I do not know of any place of employment where if you don’t follow through on what you signed up for you can hang around.”
The final word on whether the new board majority will be able to work alongside Henderson falls on Henderson himself, said Ocampo.
“We are going to put forth a goal list and you can plan for everything but if no one executes against it, then something needs to change,” Ocampo said, adding the statement applies to anyone who will be working alongside the board, not just the superintendent. “The board needs to set the standard.”
An additional priority for Ocampo is improving D209’s strained relationships, including those with district teachers and feeder districts.
“There have been a lot of relationships that have been severed, specifically around the foundational schools, the feeder schools,” Ocampo said. “It is from my understanding that the current superintendent has no communication whatsoever with the superintendents from those schools. We can’t work in a vacuum because we receive those students. … to be unaware of their needs is self-defeating.”
Addressing future students’ needs in a partnership with those schools will only elevate Proviso high schools.
“I am a process oriented individual, so I like to first understand what issues we have before I make a decision,” Ocampo said. “I don’t like being a knee jerk type of reactionary. Let’s do the best we can to address these potential issues first.”
Ocampo, alongside Barbahen and Hixson, will be sworn in on Thursday May 4, at 5:30 p.m. at the Proviso Math and Science Academy, 8601 Roosevelt Rd., Forest Park.