Background: Michael Smith has been on the District 113 School Board for four years. He's chairman of the district's Finance Committee and has lived in Deerfield for 19 years. He has two children who are graduates of Deerfield High School, one in 2008 and one in 2010.
Highland Park Patch: Why run for the school board?
Michael Smith: I ran for the District 113 Board of Education four years ago as a small step to repay our community for the benefits my children received from our schools – not only for the excellent education but also for the opportunities for personal growth through extracurricular activities. I still feel this obligation today, even though my children have graduated, but also want to continue much of the tremendous work we have done over the past four years.
HP Patch: What are some of the things you would like to see change if elected?
Smith: Our district is performing exceptionally well, as evidenced by the ranking of both high schools in the top nine in the state and the admission of our students to the top universities in the country. However, the board and the administration have several projects underway to continue and advance these positive trends. These include improving teacher and administrator evaluation procedures, evaluating the value of homework and how the process can be improved, improving the performance of our minority and economically disadvantaged students and addressing substance abuse. We will also continue our efforts to reduce costs, working with our teachers and administrators to identify cost containment opportunities that do not impair our educational mission.
HP Patch: Given the state of the economy, some residents feel that the school districts are wasting too much money on programs, pensions and the cost of each student to the district is too high. How do you feel about the current state of the district’s financials? How do you plan to vote regarding funding distribution in the coming years?
Smith: I am proud of the financial condition of the District. Our financial stewardship has been rewarded with a AAA rating from Moody’s; we are one of only 129 school districts in the country to have this distinction. Our financial strength has been achieved, in spite of increasing cost burdens and low revenue growth, through formal cost containment efforts that began three years ago and have driven $3.4 million in annualized expenses from our structure. Our staff, teachers and administrators have all been part of this solution, including greater contributions to health insurance programs and, for some, a pay freeze. Pensions are not the purview of any local board of education; by state law, all certified teachers belong to Teacher Retirement System (TRS). However, members of our community should be aware that each teacher contributes 10 percent of his/her salary to the pension each year and that these employees will not be eligible to receive social security. While it is premature to establish a position on any funding decisions until such time as we are dealing with specifics, I would expect that the pattern of the past few years will continue – maintain a balanced budget, safeguard the interests of our taxpayers and provide our students with a competitive advantage in education and personal development as they move to the next stage of their lives.
HP Patch: Talk about the future of the high schools — should District 113’s referendum for funding to improve the high schools pass, do you feel the tax payer’s money will be well spent? How will you communicate with residents that are opposed?
Smith: I strongly support the capital plan that has been set forth for our schools and is the subject of the funding referendum. This plan was developed with extensive participation from our community and with the assistance of a highly-qualified and experienced architecture and engineering firm. If we proceed, there will be substantial oversight exercised by the board, the administration and a community-based task force whose members will have specific experience relevant to the project. Moreover, the board has expressed our intent to abate any taxes for this project to the extent we can complete it for less than the current budget. Throughout the planning process and the referendum process, our communication with our community was open in both directions. As a board member, I believe that I listened to all views and will continue to do so, regardless of the outcome of the referendum.
HP Patch: District 113 has Academic Watch Status by the standards of No Child Left Behind. What are some things the school board can do to help the schools meet these standards?
Smith: No Child Left Behind and the standards that these regulations have established are the subject of considerable debate at the federal level and I would expect changes in the near future. The more important question is whether we are preparing our children for their future to the best of our ability and how can we improve our processes and procedures to prepare them better. Equity and Excellence, a key initiative of our district, took a significant step towards addressing some of the inherent biases in our system that contributed to some of the challenges facing our students. At a more concrete level, we learned that some of our students do not have an environment at home that is conducive to studying, whether due to a lack of technology, living conditions or other factors. In response, we have opened our school building and provide supervised study halls and homework assistance after school with full access to computers. We are also working very hard to address a key cause of underperformance, which are unauthorized absences. Highland Park High School administrators have established a rigorous and disciplined program to identify and intercede with students that are most likely to skip school or individual classes. Of course, we are also reaching out to parents for their assistance to improve the performance and we have other programs, such as College Bound Opportunities, to assist our students.
HP Patch: Highland Park High School students have begun the planning process for a teen center. While this planning process is completely independent of the schools, what are some things the school board can do to provide and endorse safe places for students and teens to go after school?
Smith: We know that students who are involved in their school are less likely to get involved in inappropriate, dangerous or illegal activities. One of the great things about our community and our schools is that we support extracurricular activities that have a very broad range of appeal and we work hard to embrace each student into these activities. Of course, we work closely with all of our resources in the community to keep our children safe and out of trouble and we will be pleased to work with the teen center.
HP Patch: District 113 has students that come from low income and non-native English speaking families. How will the school board reach out to these families to involve them in their neighborhood schools and children’s education?
Smith: We recognize the difficulty in reaching out to some parents in our community and, in turn, their discomfort in becoming involved members of our schools due to language or other perceived barriers. We need to continue proactive efforts, including going into their neighborhoods with representatives who speak the language of these families, to provide a more comfortable environment for involvement.
HP Patch: How will the school board promote partnerships between all parents, teachers and the board?
Smith: I think that the District does an excellent job today, at several levels, to promote communication and partnerships within and among all of our stakeholders. The PTO’s in each school are active, as are the parent groups that support athletics, the arts and other activities. The board has made substantial efforts to reach out to the community, including community outreach meetings when issues arise out of the ordinary course and require attention outside of the open board meetings. Of course, all of us see our teachers and administrators (as well as board members) at numerous school events, reinforcing their accessibility to parents.