Column: Dist. 227 school board seeks to regain public trust amid tough decisions on facilities

Chicago Tribune Opinions 1 month ago

Three weeks ago, anyone observing the Rich Township High School District 227 Board of Education could have reasonably concluded the board was dysfunctional.

Board members bickered with one another. There was a prolonged stalemate over leadership as the former board president refused to recognize the new board president.

The infighting was on public display as the board faced crucial decisions about consolidating schools to address facility needs and possibly acquiring the former Lincoln-Way North building in Frankfort Township.

What a difference a few weeks make. During a special session Monday night in Matteson, board members civilly discussed a way forward to regain the community’s trust in their decision-making.

Andrea Bonds, the new board president, said she wanted to create a committee to study facility needs. The seven-member advisory panel would have two school board members and community members who might have expertise in construction, engineering or related fields.

“The biggest issue we have right now is facilities,” Bonds said.

Other members were receptive to the notion of forming a committee but shared different views about what the board’s priorities should be.

“My concern is the problem isn’t data, it’s how we rolled it out to the community,” board member Janice Newman said. “I think a major concern is a lack of trust, and we’re not doing anything to address that.”

District 227 officials held a series of community meetings over the summer to seek feedback on six options that included closing one or more of the district’s three high schools: Rich Central in Olympia Fields, Rich East in Park Forest and Rich South in Richton Park.

Community members have overwhelmingly opposed the Lincoln-Way option. However, the school board included it among three remaining options last month when it whittled the field of choices by half.

In addition to the Lincoln-Way option, the board also will further study consolidation to two schools from three. The board also will further explore keeping one of the three schools, closing two others and building a new, second school somewhere within the district.

Board member Cheryl Coleman on Monday asked how community members would be selected to serve on an advisory committee. Bonds said people could apply by submitting resumes and answering questions on a form.

“The community does not trust us,” Coleman said. “How will they trust the committee if we pick them?”

Five board members seemed to be in agreement Monday.

“Trust is not gained back readily,” board member Delores Woods said. “We didn’t lose it overnight, and we are not going to get it back easily, either.”

Board member Sharon Newman was absent Monday. Board member Randy Alexander declined to engage in discussion, even when asked direct questions by other board members. The board voted 5-2 in August to remove Alexander as president.

District 227’s total student enrollment has declined 29% over the past decade to 2,928 this year from 4,167 in 2009.

Board members have said they owe it to taxpayers to study the Lincoln-Way option because experts have described it as the most affordable solution, at about $105 million.

Community members, however, have said closing schools within Rich Township and busing students to Will County would negatively impact local businesses and home values. They also have questioned cost estimates that ran as high as $399 million to repair and upgrade the three school buildings.

Board members on Monday expressed a desire to engage in a more meaningful dialog with community members. Several expressed frustration about the public comment format at board meetings, where speakers have up to four minutes to address the board but board members are advised to not directly respond to concerns raised.

“The public only gets four minutes and we can’t answer them,” board member Mia Carter said. “That’s not the most effective dialog.”

The board majority appeared to support a suggestion that in addition to holding a formal meeting, the advisory committee on facilities could meet informally with community members at events where coffee or other light refreshments could be served.

Superintendent Johnnie Thomas advised that all facility committee meetings be public.

“Any time we’re trying to be transparent, we should be open to the public,” Thomas said.

The board voted 5-1 to form a facilities committee, with Alexander dissenting. Thomas advised the board to consider including a student on the committee.

The board is scheduled to discuss facility options at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 15 at the administrative center, 20550 S. Cicero Ave., Matteson. Last month, consultants advised the board to make a decision on facilities in November.

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