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Friday, March 28, 2003 02:20 pm

THE OTHER ELECTION

Springfield’s plans to attract biomedical companies, redevelop the Eastside, and bring the city up a notch don’t stand a chance when a floundering public school system is part of the package.

Springfield District 186 has won awards. But it also has ten schools on the state's Early Warning List--schools with more than half the students failing to meet state standards two years in a row. It routinely wins grants for reading, technology, science, and math.

Yet most of its black students perform below state standards, while most of its white students meet or exceed these measures. (Despite operating under a desegregation order since 1976, the district as a whole never tracked data showing student performance by race until 2002, when the Illinois State Board of Education required the information.) It's a district with several gifted programs and progressive teaching methods. Yet it's laid off librarians from every elementary school, and often students aren't allowed to take library books home.

When the new school board takes over in May, it will inherit long-standing problems that cut to the heart of what's wrong with public schooling in Springfield: community neglect, white flight to other school districts, and racial and economic disparity. Unfortunately the current board's way of conducting business has aggravated these problems. Variously described as insular, testy, and even arrogant, the board at times has seemed intent on creating discord with the public.

School boards are generally not loved. Statewide, between 1983 and 2001, more than 16,000 school board members ran for reelection, but only 51 percent succeeded, according to figures provided by the Illinois Association of School Boards.

Within the last few years Springfield District 186 has grown increasingly unpopular, evidenced most severely by the resounding defeat of the referendum to increase property taxes it brought to voters last March. The board's image wasn't helped by its actions after this loss at the polls: it raised money by issuing bonds without public consent.

Until recently board members have received easy approval in elections. Four of the seven members have held their seats since 1989. Two of the four are retiring this spring, and the other two--Tom Blasko and Rick Heironimus--are once again seeking reelection. Judy Johnson, who was elected in 2001, is the only other member who isn't stepping down this year, and she's the sole incumbent who's running unopposed. Two other members, both of whom were appointed to fill vacancies in 1997, are also retiring.

For the first time in years there's a crowded field for these nonpaying positions. Nineteen candidates--including the three incumbents--are fighting for a spot on what is arguably the most important public body in the city right now. Plans to attract biomedical companies, redevelop the Eastside, and bring the city up a notch don't stand a chance when a floundering public school system is part of the package.

 

*

It all began--or ended, depending on how you look at it--on primary election day, March 19, 2002, when Springfield voters decided whether to support the property-tax increase to benefit District 186 schools. The board's strategy was pure politics-by-numbers: find those most likely to vote for the referendum and sell them on it, never mind making the case to the community as a whole. Then-superintendent Bob Hill had long warned of "drastic cuts" district-wide if revenue didn't increase, but the public's perception was that money had been misspent. Instead of educating the community on where new dollars were needed, a consultant hired by the board determined the referendum could pass by simply rallying the faithful. The referendum failed miserably. Of the 29,706 votes cast on the measure, 18,240 said "no."

Richard Bettes, who supervises a transitional housing program for Washington Street Mission, worked with the board, the local Chamber of Commerce, and the Ministerial Alliance to promote the referendum. "The board didn't promote it based on need, but on how votes would be cast," Bettes says. "They counted everything on paper and didn't see Springfield as a town with certain demographics." They barely considered how race and poverty might play into a campaign, he says. "They insisted these weren't issues [relevant] to the referendum."

People didn't react until the consequences became clear: the $10 million in budget cuts the board had warned the public about if the referendum didn't pass. More than 170 employees were fired. Popular extracurricular activities and academic programs (such as art, music, and foreign language classes) were pared down. The cuts were made during emotional public meetings that sparked renewed community interest in public schooling. Most new candidates running for school board this year say the failed referendum lit a fire.

Board member Tom Blasko interprets the public demand for change differently. "The public is looking for a way out," he says. "They don't want to say they're against education, but they don't want a tax increase." He says that before the referendum only a few members of the public would ever attend board meetings. It was only after they realized they missed their chance to participate that they chose to act. "It's easy to critique us from the outside. It's not so easy from the inside," he says. He's right, but the board has made itself an easy target.

 

****

Throughout most of the 1990s, the school board, the district, and the city benefited from the economic boom that reverberated through most of the country. The board had little regret about deficit spending and, for the most part, acted without public controversy. But at least two things began working against it--the perception of a defensive, narrow-minded attitude among members and the administration, and a growing financial crisis approaching on many fronts.

Some started noticing that the board voted unanimously on measures almost all of the time and with little public debate. An analysis of minutes dating back to the late 1990s shows this appears to be true. Accompanying this observation was a suspicion that most issues were resolved behind closed doors during executive sessions that often lasted much longer than the portion of meetings open to the public. Meeting records show long executive sessions about student discipline, hires and dismissals, real estate matters, litigation, and contract negotiations, and shorter public discussions about consultants, curriculum changes, and decisions on school boundaries, busing, and the district's master plan.

Although the board is allowed to discuss some things in private, the length of the executive sessions, the little debating done afterward, and a perception of aloofness among board members all led to a perception of secrecy.

"In closed session, there's lots of debate and discussion," says former Southeast High principal Elbert Betts. "With regard to expulsions, there's a whole lot they process and when they come out of the session, they only like to do so after coming to an agreement." Betts, a 30-year veteran in the district now directs an NAACP program for expelled students in Springfield.

But some board members seemed to resent public input. During a board meeting on January 24, 2000, someone in the audience claimed that black students were being excluded from certain specialized schools and gifted programs. The minutes note that board member Gerald Goldblatt responded by saying that "he was upset with [the woman's remarks] and felt she insulted the board."

A few months passed when another woman approached the board about yearbook pictures that didn't reflect minority enrollment in her son's school. She also was concerned about her son's English class, which had gone through five teachers in one year. He was being assigned homework comparable to material he studied two grades ago. Superintendent Hill remarked that the picture issue has been discussed before and said he'd talk with the adult supervisor of the yearbook. Although school board member and board president Nina Giavaras "praised" the woman's politeness, she also added that the woman was allowed to continue speaking even though board policy is to limit members of the public to five minutes. No other board members had any comments or questions.

Later in the year, the board adopted "differentiated diplomas." High school students would be allowed to graduate with one of three types of degrees: a basic degree, an honors degree, and a degree somewhere in the middle. The policy would be implemented by 2004. The board approved the idea, unanimously and with little debate--at least publicly. When it tried to explain the diploma plan, parents understandably had many questions, mostly about why graduates needed to be split into three categories. Some parents requested the formation of a committee to review the idea and make a recommendation about the diplomas. Giavaras suggested that "those who indicated they don't want differentiated diplomas don't understand them" and proclaimed she didn't "want to give the committee the option of rejecting the board's plan." Bob Hill reinforced this notion by advising the board "to implement policy on the basis of a set of recommendations from the professionals in the district rather than what the committee wants." But negativity surrounding the diplomas grew and by December the board dumped the idea.

The board began to be seen as a rubber stamp for the administration. This image grew as it followed a tradition of passing measures and then changing them after negative public reaction.

 

****

By the end of the 1990s, the school district started to suffer financially. The City of Springfield, although still growing economically, did not always share its fruits with the schools. While still claiming Springfield residency, many of the wealthiest taxpayers were served by other, more affluent, less urban school districts, such as Chatham, Pleasant Plains, and Rochester. Tax caps, passed by voters in 1996, essentially limited the increase in tax revenue the district could collect each year to the rate of inflation, even though property taxes collected in Springfield were increasing at annual rates much higher than that. Tax-increment financing (TIF) districts, created to redevelop dilapidated parts of town, generated new revenues that were poured back into neighborhood development rather than being sent to District 186. A District 186 study shows that schools are losing about $1.5 million a year in property-tax revenue to these TIFs. District 186 business manager Agnes Nunn acknowledges the dilemma: "The argument for the TIFs is that the areas would probably not be developed at all without the incentives." Regardless, these factors, combined with a looming state budget crisis, left the district with few options.

"In fairness to the board," says Washington Street Mission's Bettes, "they've done the most they could with the resources they've had."

The board's plan to issue bonds after the referendum defeat was first criticized, but soon after a citizen's committee, which included many of the candidates now running for the board, was assembled to review school structures and make recommendations for necessary repairs. The board accepted the committee's recommendations. It has also loosened its meetings policy, allowing more time for public input and questions. The board and the community appeared to be on the mend.

After Hill retired, the board, with the help of a community panel whose names were kept secret on the advice of the Illinois Association of School Boards, announced a successor, District 186 Deputy Superintendent Diane Rutledge. The school board gave her a three-year contract with two main goals: improve communication between the public and the district and close the achievement gap. Hill, often credited for his vast knowledge of current scholarship and trends, had a management style described as authoritarian, antagonistic, and "elitist." Rutledge's style is described as more open and personable. Betts and many others who have been known to criticize the district and board on many grounds say that Rutledge is putting forth a genuine effort to reach out to the community and that her concern about the achievement gap appears genuine. Others are not so sure. One member of the superintendent search panel lists his reaction to her being named as a candidate: "not a reformer, more of the same, carefully groomed, part of the system, and Bob Hill's hand-picked successor."

Public skepticism still plagues the board. While many cite recent improvements, others, especially the candidates, say it's too little too late. And what about the schools and the children? A principal of one of the most troubled schools in the district remarked recently that she's never seen a board member in her building. That's a fitting lesson for the new board: You can't learn anything if you don't show up for class.

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