By Nona Tepper
Members of the Forest Park School District 91 Board of Education voted unanimously to appoint Greg Mitchell to a vacant board seat at their meeting on Sept. 13, amid some outcry over Mitchell's seemingly lack of community and school involvement.
Mitchell, who has lived in the village for more than three years, takes the place of Blake Harvey, who announced in July he was moving to Oak Park.
In an interview after the meeting, Mitchell pointed to his professional experience negotiating with vendors and working with numbers -- he serves as vice president of the program management office at the Fay Servicing financial services firm, according to his LinkedIn profile -- experience as a father of three children, and passion for service as benefits to the board. He said he talked about D91's need for greater public relations during his interview with the board.
"I certainly don't have any kids in the district, but I think the schools are important not just to parents but to the entire community, because it's a public impression of our community," he said. "I take this very seriously. This is not for me. I have no other political aspirations."
Mitchell said he was "tentatively" planning on running for election in April 2019 when Harvey's unexpired term is up. Seats occupied by board members Christina Ricordati and Shannon Wood will also be up for re-election during that time.
"Measure me with my actions and not just, you know, what I say in a meeting," Mitchell said. "Notice I've been to school events already. I will continue to go to school events and meet these parents, because ultimately they're the ones that we, as a board, have to answer to."
He invited community members to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In an interview after the meeting, board President Mary Win Connor said Mitchell was chosen because he was the best candidate.
"He is a new voice, and because he is someone who brings a new perspective, I think that would be good," Connor said. "I had no life experience, other than having children in school. He had children in school. Very few people have life experience for a school board position."
In an email, Connor said that five people had applied for the open board position, and all were interviewed. She said one of the applicants had attended a board meeting prior to applying, three had a "footprint in the community" and one was an acquaintance of a current board member. She did not define Mitchell's relationship with the board or community.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, resident and D91 parent Julianne Bonwit outlined her expectations for all board members, saying officials must respect parent and children's concerns, come to school events and embrace the economic and racial diversity in Forest Park.
Students at D91 are majority black, 22 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian, according to the Illinois Report Card.
"I had honestly hoped the school board would use this opportunity to try to appoint someone that would reflect this diversity," Bonwit said. "It is so important to have children to see and interact with leaders that look like them."
Connor said in an email that, of the four men and one woman who applied for the open board position, none was a person of color.
Resident and D91 parent Maria Maxham, meanwhile, used the public comment portion of the meeting to question who Mitchell was and why he applied for the position since, to her knowledge, he had never attended a D91 board meeting.
She criticized the board for his appointment, calling Mitchell's appointment "problematic" and "strange," and said she wished their decision-making process was more transparent.
"I really hope there is no political agenda involved in this," she said.
Maxham added: "In the past, there have been very committed, involved people who have applied for positions and were told, 'Sorry but your footprint in the community just isn't big enough.' And these are people who have been here for five-plus years, who are very involved in the schools, the community, regularly attend meetings."
Later in the meeting, board members voted unanimously to appoint Eric Connor as school board secretary, a position Harvey formerly held; Mitchell was not seated as a board member at the time of that vote.
Maxham added in her public comment that Eric Connor's appointment to board secretary was "weird and inappropriate," since he is married to President Mary Win Connor.