From left, Adrian Dortch, Omar Brown, Jennifer Phillips, Richard Rykhus

On March 5, the PTA Council and the Evanston League of Women Voters sponsored a forum for the four candidates for the District 65 School Board: Omar Brown (incumbent), Adrian Dortch, Jennifer Phillips, and Richard Rykhus (incumbent). This article summarizes their answers to three of the questions, which appear in an abbreviated form.

Question: With pending or potential legislation in Springfield that may reduce State grants  and shift pension costs to District 65, how should the District prepare for potential dramatic changes in school funding operations?

Omar Brown: “Transparent communication is where we should start,” said Mr. Brown. “We know these issues are coming. At a School Board level, we should be aware. … We need to develop a communication tool that tells a story that’s informative and easy for the community to understand.”

Mr. Brown added that the District should lay out the possible outcomes as soon as possible with three different scenarios: 1) the “best case” scenario, in which nothing changes; 2) the “most likely case,” and “this does take some research to sort of figure out where we think the cuts will be and estimate how it will affect our District;” and 3) the “worst case” scenario which would set out what would happen if the funding cuts were “dramatic and more than we thought.”

Once the Board comes up with these scenarios, it can provide them to the public. “Then we can have an open dialogue on how we can adjust and where we can cut.”

Jennifer Phillips: “I agree with everything that Mr. Brown just said,” Ms. Phillips said. “I feel like this should be our District’s highest priority right now. We may not be able to fulfill the new mission when there is almost a $6 million deficit projected for fiscal year 2016-17.”

She referred to legislation introduced in Springfield to reallocate State funding and to shift pension costs to school districts and said, “I don’t think it’s a question of ‘if,’ but of ‘when’ and ‘how.” I think the revenue side of the picture is uncertain and despite our best advocacy we may have little control as a Board and as a community over that side of the ledger. I think the control that we absolutely have purview over is on spending and expenditures. We really do need a more sophisticated and transparent process.” She said the strategic plan calls for “priority-based budgeting;” and “a very valid question is, ‘Is our system operating at peak fiscal performance right now.’” As an example she said the Board could take a look at technology.

She added that before the Board should ask the community for additional funding through either an operating or a capital referendum, “we really need to show we are doing an excellent job of managing current resources.”

Richard Rykhus: “The areas we should focus on are influence, analyze, and educate,” said Mr. Rykus.

“Under influence, we could really proactively influence our legislators who are going to have a great voice in the process and over what changes actually occur. He said Board members and the administration have been meeting with local legislators “to make sure they understand the impact of the choices that they will be making on districts like ours.”

In terms of the need to analyze, Mr. Rykhus said, the Board needs to understand what changes represent the best opportunities and what their impact would be. He added that the Board has talked about “program-based” budgeting and “priority-based” budgeting, which will be a different approach than the District has used in the past.

Third, he said, “We have to make sure the people in our community understand, as the process unfolds, what’s occurring, what’s within our control, what’s not within our control, and make sure they’re up to speed on the choices they may have to be involved in making.”

Adrian Dortch: “We already are entertaining the idea of consolidation with our joint ventures, and I do know how successful that would be. I know it’s not popular to say this with our staff working so hard and dealing with challenges for the good of our families and our community’s education system, real consolidation and creating a seamless experience, K through 12, with our Districts will solve  lot of existing and future funding and financial woes for all.”

An analysis made several years ago indicates that if District 65 teachers were brought up to the same pay scale as District 202 teachers as part of a consolidation, it would increase costs by about $17 million per year.

Question: How would you as a Board member raise the bar for students, teachers and administrators?

Mr. Dortch: “I think education where there’s teachers teaching the students who are having these incidents, I think it’s on an individual basis. How do we raise the bar? I think it has to be done on an individual basis. I think we need to figure out with the parents, with the teachers, and with the kids what their goals are, what makes them come alive. I think the curriculum and the things we bring to the kids should be something they can relate to … So how do we raise the bar? Figure out what the kids actually want to be taught, figure out what they actually know, but most of all they most definitely have to have the basics to understand and comprehend anything we want to give them.”

Mr. Brown: “I would say communication is the key,” said Mr. Brown. “Board members should be visible, active members of our community. We should be active listeners. We should be a resource for anyone in the community to be able to reach out and talk confidentially and ask questions that they want to ask … “

“The other thing I would say is Board members should hold the administration accountable, and be willing to ask tough questions to the administrators when they present things that sometimes don’t seem to make sense and that sometimes are hard to understand.”

Ms. Phillips: “There are three things I would try to bring to the table to raise the bar,” said Ms. Phillips.

First, she said, through her experience working for philanthropic organizations, she is constantly “getting so to see examples of innovation” around the country. “I think the term is ‘borrowed brilliance,’ – We could be bringing some of these things back into our own backyard.”

“The second thing,” Ms. Phillips said, “is looking inside Evanston. We really have to get smarter and more disciplined about knowing what’s working and what’s not working and really trying to focus on the things that are working for students.”

Third, she said the District should think about “How do kids learn best?” and think about “How kids actually absorb learning?” For example, she asked hypothetically if a double period in music might help or if an extra five minutes in the recess period might help students to be ready to absorb great teaching.”

Mr. Rykhus: “When I ran four years ago,” said Mr. Rykhus, “one of the topics I talked about was how do we ensure there are clear expectations of performance, at all levels across the District, for teachers, principals, and senior administrators. We can clearly say for the first time since I’ve been serving on the Board that we now have very clear rigorous expectations in place for our teachers, for our principals, and for our administrators. … I do think through that process we have already raised the bar and I expect we will continue to do so.”

Mr. Rykhus added that he was excited about the strategic plan’s focus on social and emotional learning and executive functioning. “While we focus a lot on academic success and making sure that all students are learning at grade level, for example, or prepared for college success, we need to make sure they have the skills that go beyond the academic.”

Question: What do you see as the biggest priorities the District should focus on as it enters into contract negotiations with the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers’ union) for a new contract beginning after this school year?

Ms. Phillips: “When you think about 2016, the financial projections are grim,” said Ms. Phillips. “There’s a projection of a $6 million budget deficit, and you need to think about a contract period and where are we going to put our priorities …

“A budget is about choices, and celebrating and rewarding teachers will need to be part of this conversation.” She said the Board will need to listen to teachers and she mentioned one concern raised by teachers was that K-5 teachers lack planning time. “Those are the kind of things we need to be listening to our teachers, thinking about our budget, thinking about our student priorities and making the best decision possible for our community.”

Mr. Rykhus: “I think there are a couple of things that will be important for us to focus on,” said Mr. Rykhus. “First, the long-term structural sustainability of the District. While I think I could make some suggestions, I think it will really be up to the negotiating group for the administrators and the teachers to really come together and identify where there’s opportunities for us to make sure we have structurally created a model in terms of our finances that we are going to be able to sustain. I think that will be difficult. I think there will be difficult choices across the board, but it’s something that we will have to do and do it collaboratively.”

Mr. Rykhus added that one area he was focusing on “is really cultivating a culture of trust and collaboration. And I think that starts with the Board, the administration and teachers. We really need to rebuild that. … In order for us to have a negotiation that’s going to be fruitful, we have to have that foundation of trust first. I expect to do my part and I hope that as a District we can foster that.”

Mr. Dortch: “Being a student at District 65,” Mr. Dortch said, “I don’t think teachers get paid enough, especially if you don’t have a strong foundation and they don’t have a lot to work with. I have some ideas that could generate revenues and raise funds for our teachers.”  

In a different interview, Mr. Dortch said “the money is there” to support one of his proposals saying, “Some of our teachers are getting paid more than doctors and lawyers.”

Mr. Brown: “The contract between the teachers and the Board fundamentally shapes where we go as a District. Teachers are crucial. Their voice is important.

“I would say as we look to negotiate the next contract one of the big talking points or issues is the school calendar and safety. … How do we make sure the schedule that we put forth allows our students to perform the best, our teachers to be safe and our students to be safe as well. But also how do we get the most out of it for everyone.

“The other point I would say is when you have contract negotiations, I really feel both sides should come to the table willing to negotiate, to present items that they would like to include or like to cut and then move together to solve the problems that we have. So when we talk about financial troubles. I would hope that the teachers would come with some ideas and that the administrators would come with some ideas and we would meet somewhere in the middle.”