The first forum for candidates for School District 65 focused heavily on budgetary issues and teacher compensation. Candidates were also asked about differentiated instruction, parental involvement, consolidation of the school districts, and the practice of rolling extensions to the superintendent’s contract. Sponsored by the Central Street Neighbors Association and Haven School PTA, the forum was held at Haven Middle School on Feb. 10.

The Budget/ Teacher Compensation

When asked what they would do to keep property taxes in line and for comments on teacher compensation, many candidates noted that about 80% of the District’s operating expenses were allocated to salaries and employee benefits and that it would be difficult to make a major dent in expenses without reducing the number of teachers. Most of the candidates also said it would be difficult to cut expenses by reducing teacher salaries, saying that the District needed to offer competitive salaries to attract the best teachers.

Richard Rykhus said an easy starting place would be to look at the superintendent’s contract. He said he would look at the provisions that allow sick days to accumulate over time without restrictions, and that allow a stipend for an automobile without restrictions. As to teacher compensation he said he would ask staff to conduct a competitive analysis to see how the District stacks up with other like school districts.

Katie Bailey, currently on the School Board and chair of its Finance Committee, said, the District has done competitive analyses of teacher compensation in the past, but added, “We have to look at this all the time.” She said the Board would be looking at teacher compensation again when the teachers’ contract was renegotiated in 2012. She said non-contractual administrative expenses would be the first area to look at.

J.B. Rees said he would seek community input on the budget, to brainstorm on ways to cut expenses. He also said he would like to see a forensic analysis done every five years which could help focus on smaller things that tend to get lost in the shuffle. He said, “Teachers who do a good job should be rewarded for that – merit pay. That’s something that should be on the table.”

Keith Terry, current president of the School Board, said to hold the line on taxes, “I would ensure, as we always do, that we’re looking at every aspect of the budget. It’s very difficult to reduce the budget of a school system unless you’re going to get rid of teachers.” He said in the last contract negotiations with teachers, the District negotiated a 20 minute extension of the school day, and a provision that assesses teachers based on student achievement.

Ms. Budde said the District should “use the most conservative estimates of what’s going to happen to the economy when we make big decisions with respect to our space issues.” Before building a new school “we have to look at all the options” she said, adding that she would use the most conservative projections of student enrollment. One specific thing she said she would look at in the context of teacher compensation is the practice of paying increases to teachers for advanced degrees. “I am not entirely convinced that advanced degrees are correlated to outcomes,” she said. “In my ideal world there would be a way to pay teachers who get the best outcomes more.”

Parental/Community Involvement

The candidates were asked if too much was being asked of the schools and if the schools should elicit more support from families and the community in educating students.

Mr. Rees said some charter schools require parents to sign a contract that they will limit the amount of time their children can watch TV, that they will require their children to spend time on homework. He said he would like to see parents getting together and signing informal contracts. He added that the District should extend the school year from 176 to 180 days and extend the school day by 40 minutes.

Mr. Terry said “The parental component is the most important part for an early start.” He said the District offers parental support programs to assist parents to help their children to learn to read and to motivate their children. He said it was important to partner with community organizations, such as Foundation 65 and YOU.

Ms. Bailey said the District had implemented several programs to improve parental involvement, such as the Johns Hopkins model, and had assigned certain teachers an academic caseload of students and were expected to develop a working relationship with parents. She said working with community organizations was important.

Ms. Budde said the District could easily do some things such as educating parents about the importance of reading aloud to young children. She added, though, that the District needed to keep a focus on its core competency, which is teaching students, and that it needed to “encourage and coordinate with community partners as much as possible to get children ready for school.”

Mr. Rykhus said school districts needed to be careful when they add initiatives so they did not overburden teachers. He added that Illinois has one of the shortest school years in the nation, and the district needed to look at the length of the school year.

Differentiated Teaching

The candidates generally favored using differentiated instruction in a heterogeneous classroom, rather than outright tracking. Several of the candidates commented, though, that providing differentiated instruction to a diverse group of learners was difficult to do, and one said some students at the high end are bored.

Mr. Rykhus raised one issue, saying, “I’m not certain to what extent they’ve identified outcome measures for differentiated instruction. How are the children achieving better? Are they more successful? What are the criteria? Let’s be clear about those criteria. Let’s be clear about how we’ll evaluate those criteria and when.”

Superintendent’s Contract

Mr. Rykhus said he would wait until the Superintendent’s contract had about two years left on its term and then decide whether to extend it. Mr. Rees said he would not agree to a one-year contract extension if it had four years left. Ms. Budde said she considers it a bad practice in general and a bad decision in particular.

Ms. Bailey said she supported a one-year extension one time, and voted no one time. Mr. Terry said he supported one-year extensions two times. He said he wanted the Superintendent’s contract to be coextensive with the five-year strategic plan.

Consolidation of the School Districts

All of the candidates said they were open to looking at whether School Districts 65 and 202 should consolidate.

Ms. Bailey said the issue was looked at in the 1990s and she heard that it would cost District 65 an extra $30 million in salaries if District 65 teachers were put on parity with teachers in District 202. If the financial piece could be worked out, she thought there could be a real benefit to having a K-12 district.

Ms. Budde said she was not convinced the teacher parity issues could not be worked out.

Mr. Rykhus thought one benefit of having a K-12 system, was being able to establish a twelfth-grade goal and then being able to work back and establish goals at eighth, fifth and third grades.

Mr. Terry said the District should look at the issue, but he thought the Districts should be skeptical of the potential outcomes.

Mr. Rees said the issue should be placed on the referendum for 2012.