The road ahead for District 113 schools seems clear. Improvements are needed.
This week, I attended the District 113 Board of Education meeting, where the community study groups that have worked on the district's future facility/technology plan . At the same meeting, the Education First group presented their own plan for how to move the schools forward. The only conclusion I could draw walking away from the meeting was that what happens next , and is going to take time to answer.
The community leadership group presented a thorough summary of the analysis work they have done over the last twelve months. I found this presentation, from David Brint and Walter "Tripp" Hainsfurther, to be a solid recap of the evolution from . While the referendum plan required demolition of older buildings at , the leadership group's recommendation is to redevelop these buildings. While the referendum plan focused on athletics, the leadership group focused on physical education. While the referendum plan was full of nice-to-haves, the leadership group focused on must do updates.
The biggest contrast I found between Monday night's presentation and the District 113 messages of a year ago was the acceptance that maybe the referendum plan -- which at the time, District officials insisted was "the" plan -- over-reached, and that it is important to identify the right projects and priorities. While the story going into the 2011 election was that it was urgent for District 113 to act on the then-identified project requirements, today there is strong advice to proceed thoroughly and carefully. I was somewhat surprised by this, since the metaphors used to describe the study group work in the last few months have increasingly sounded like end-of-job; on Monday night, it was clear that even with the hundreds of hours each group invested, we were collectively just getting started.
Thus I was just as surprised as anyone when the referendum opposition group, Education First, stepped up to the microphone and presented their own plan for District 113 capital improvement. The Education First plan had specifics, financial estimates and their own assessment of prioritization, based on their work and their own research. Until Monday, it seems like most everyone outside this group assumed they existed only to try to shoot down any District 113 plans. In addition to being surprised by their presentation of a plan, I was also quite surprised to see the breadth of their recommendations.
Education First and the pro-2011-referendum groups actually seem to agree on many priorities, including replacement of both school pools, repairs to the Highland Park High School "B" building, and repurposing of the HPHS "C" building gyms. Education First seems to have even taken an upper hand in one aspect of the discussion -- price tag. The study groups did not recommend actions nor did they attempt to estimate costs. Education First put a stake in the ground on what some needed projects might cost. Their numbers may or may not be accurate, but there is now a basis for discussion. There is a difference between a plan and a set of identified opportunities. Despite being at different points of evolution, both have relevance to what happens next.
I find the actions of all of these constituent groups to be very heartening. It seems like the opportunity to unite the entire community behind District 113 improvements is right there on the road ahead of us. There are potential roadblocks, though. It appeared that only 75 people attended the District 113 board meeting to discuss the capital plans, and most of those had already been involved in study groups or Education First. Apathy will have to be overcome through education.
That also means that District 113 needs to take a new lesson in community relations. The study groups' complete reversal on several areas of the 2011 referendum that were then deemed critical is a result of broad community participation, but it will take time to educate voters on what the additional time and research discovered. The district needs to stop hiding key details of the process from the public, including , if they expect anyone to participate in future survey efforts. The recommended oversight committee needs to be put in place, and empowered, immediately.
On my way out of the board meeting, I passed the HPHS locker I used sophomore year. I reflected briefly on how the school remained the same in many ways as it was when I graduated in 1987. I seem to have turned out okay. For my children, however, I want the school to offer the best-possible learning environment in the future, and I recognize that the HPHS and DHS of today aren't quite up to that level. I hope the board, staff and community can unite around a plan for the future, starting with the parameters put forward on Monday night.