Teacher pay, superintendent contracts, the importance of fine arts and D202/D65 consolidation were among the topics discussed by District 202 School Board candidates at a PTSA forum on Feb. 22nd in the Little Theater at ETHS.

The panel was moderated by Pat Albertson, former PTSA co-president. Ms. Albertson asked questions that were submitted in writing to her from the audience of about 50 people, and each candidate responded in turn.

All five candidates – incumbents Jane Colleton and Mark Metz and challengers Jonathan Baum, Cherie Hansen and Scott Rochelle – attended this forum.

Teacher Pay

Candidates were referred to a recent quote made by President Barack Obama: “We want to reward good teachers. We want to stop making excuses for bad teachers.” They were asked how they would accomplish such a goal.

“I don’t think I’ve ever made excuses for bad teachers,” said Ms. Colleton, but she said she thought a longer period before granting tenure ( four years in District 202) might help. Mr. Metz said he did not recall rewarding bad teachers.

Ms. Hansen agreed about not making excuses, but suggested that “bad” teachers might need more professional development.

Mr. Baum said, “We have all the mechanisms in place to get rid of bad teachers. We just have to have the political will.”

“Don’t let bad teachers in,” said Mr. Rochelle. “We have a rigorous system for the selection of teachers.” He stressed evaluation and “effective accountability.”

All of the candidates viewed the question about rewarding teachers as an invitation to discuss the topic of merit pay and most acknowledged that it had at least some value.

“It’s been raised nationally,” said Mr. Metz. “We need to start a dialogue with Teachers Council about it. It doesn’t need to be a confrontation.”

“Merit pay would motivate people,” said Mr. Rochelle. “It can’t be done without a long conversation.”

“We do need to explore merit pay in the context of negotiations,” said Mr. Baum. He advocated a definition of merit that is “jointly shaped, not imposed. We cannot reward teachers based on a single measure of student performance. It has to relate to growth.”

Ms. Colleton said she thought there were some “worthy parts to merit pay.”

Ms. Hansen said she wasn’t sure about merit pay. “We can honor teachers by letting them know how well they’re doing,” she said. “We could look at rewarding through pay.”

Superintendent Contract

Candidates were asked about the advantages and disadvantages of an annual extension of the Superintendent’s contract.

“I don’t think it’s smart either fundamentally or fiscally,” said Ms. Hansen. “I don’t think we have to keep holding on by renewing the contract.”

“The equity work that Dr. [Eric] Witherspoon is doing is of great importance to the sitting Board, and we want to see him continue it,” said Ms. Colleton. “That’s why I was happy to vote for an extension of his contract.”

“I voted for an extension this time because the changes we are undertaking will require a huge cultural shift,” said Mr. Metz. He said he felt the Superintendent’s continued leadership is essential. However, he also said that the extension should not be automatic.

“I would like to see him fulfill his goals,” said Mr. Rochelle. He said that in his experience, a superintendent generally gets a five-year contract and that he would prefer not to wait until the last minute to renew, “otherwise you lose them.”

“I don’t like the idea of the long-term contracts and particularly the extension,” said Mr. Baum, “it’s the enemy of accountability.”

Importance of Fine Arts

“We believe that [fine arts] is a jewel at ETHS,” said Ms. Albertson, who then asked the candidates about their vision for maintaining and expanding the Fine Arts Department at ETHS.

Although all of the candidates acknowledged the significant importance of the Fine Arts Department at ETHS, there was not any discussion of how it might be expanded. Rather, candidates struggled to maintain their support for the arts in the face of financial realities in the District.

“I believe in it,” said Mr. Baum, “but I cannot tell you that it [will] be exempt from the budget axe.”

“I’d hate to see us lose anything we’re doing, but Jonathan’s right,” said Ms. Colleton. However, she continued, “It’s a link for kids [that] grounds them in the institution.”

Ms. Hansen, Mr. Metz and Mr. Rochelle stressed the values-based budgeting process at District 202 that “puts the kids first … protecting the core educational process,” which Mr. Metz, said included the arts.

“We have to preserve the student experience,” said Mr. Rochelle. “Students who excel in arts develop a confidence that transcends through their personal life and academics.”

“It would be a shame if those kids should have to disengage, but we have to make choices,” said Ms. Hansen.

District Consolidation

Consolidation of Evanston’s two school districts, 65 and 202, has been discussed frequently over the years and has more urgency given Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s recent consideration of reducing the state’s 868 school districts to no more than 300.

Candidates said their views on consolidation were based on whether it would benefit students and be economically advantageous to the community.