Below are candidate-submitted answers to a survey Landmark sent out to all candidates running in this year’s elections.
Office sought: Two Year Seat on District 96 Board of Education
Previous political experience: None
Previous community involvement:
- I helped initiate a PTO sponsored science fair at Central and helped organize the last two fairs.
- I served on Olmsted Society Board for two years
- I am currently co-chair of Olmsted Society Lecture Committee.
- A.B., physics University of Chicago (1985)
- Ph.D., theoretical physics, University of California, Santa Barbara (1992)
Occupation: Partner in proprietary trading firm.
As a school board member, how would you approach the board-administrator relationship? What is your view of that relationship as it exists presently?
The relation between the Board and the Superintendent should be basically the same as that between a well run corporate board and a good CEO. The Board represents the interests and values of the shareholders (for a school, this is the community), sets policies and goals, provides oversight, and evaluates District progress in meeting its goals, but should not be involved in the day to day management of the District. That is the job of the Superintendent.
In my experience, the only way to get the best out of employees is to have a good, professional relationship with them that is based on trust, cooperation, and a clear understanding of, and agreement with, the goals that go with the job. My management style – which I have found to be successful – is to hire the best person one can find, set clear goals, provide whatever support is required, and then let the individual do their job in the way they see fit with the understanding that they will be held accountable for meeting the agreed on goals. This approach requires that the Board not stand over the Superintendent’s shoulder or inundate them with requests for reports. Specific, non-standard requests for information that will take the Superintendent’s time and attention should be carefully considered and agreed on by the whole Board. The Board needs to keep in mind the opportunity costs incurred by its requests. Asking an administrator to spend time doing A means that they will not be doing B and this can impose a real, if hidden, cost. On the positive side, the Board should listen carefully to the Superintendent’s proposals, ask the hard and relevant questions making sure that the interests of the community are being served, but generally be open to considering, and if reasonable, taking the actions that the Superintendent believes to be necessary for the betterment of the District. The Board should clearly want the Superintendent to succeed because her or his success is also the District’s; I am unsure if this has been the case in recent years.
What is your view regarding the performance of the current school board? What should change, if anything?
Aside from having a more productive relationship with the Administration, I think the Board needs to do a better job leading the District and setting a vision of educational excellence that people – staff and community – can believe in and work toward. Our District has 1700 kids in its charge. We’ve got one shot to educate them. What should we be doing to make sure that they all get the best possible education that we can provide for them given the community’s means? In my view this is the topic that the Board should be most focused on. I understand that there is a lot of mundane but important stuff the Board needs to deal with (like “do we need to repair the roof this year”?), but the Board should above all be focused on providing our kids with an environment where they can grow to be curious, responsible, academically strong, well rounded human beings and citizens. Some examples of conversations that I think should be happening include having an all day kindergarten and a foreign language offering in the primary schools.
Another area the Board needs to work on is long range strategic planning. The Board, in consultation with the community via surveys and working groups, should be thinking three or five years out about where it wants the District to go and what is necessary to get there. To give one concrete example, our District’s enrollment continues to climb. For over 25 years, we’ve added an average of 33 kids a year to our District. So every four or five years we add enough students to fill a new Hollywood. There have been several detailed studies from previous administrations and citizen committees over the years about how to address our need for additional space, but this planning and these ideas seem to have gone by the wayside. So even though this has become a more and more pressing issue, with the Board having to override its own class size policies, the Board hasn’t made it a priority (as far as I can tell) to address this, aside from recently hiring a demographer to try to predict future enrollment.
What do you think of the district’s 1-to-1 laptop initiative? Should it be changed? If so, how?
Starting around 5th grade, students are required to do a lot of writing. Having a device which allows students to do their research on the internet and to write papers is therefore extremely useful. The device doesn’t have to be a laptop – Google’s Chromebook looks like it might be perfectly serviceable. One needs to have a keyboard to write efficiently, so I’m not convinced of the benefit of using iPads in the higher grades. Students in middle school also use their laptops to check their assignments, communicate with their teachers, watch instructional videos, see their test and homework scores, and create multimedia projects. So for all these reasons I favor of a 1-1 program, with the choice of device largely determined by functionality and cost.
D96 has amassed a large budget surplus since its successful referendum in 2004. Do you think the district should continue to ask for the maximum annual levy it is allowed? Why or why not?
In the course of fulfilling its obligation to preserve the fiscal strength of the District, the Board should keep an open mind about the proper level of taxation. To answer this question properly however, one must have a good handle on three things: expected future expenses, possible changes in state funding, and an understanding of the constraints imposed by the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law (PTELL) which governs property taxes in Cook County.
In terms of future expenses, the Board needs to sit down with the Administration and draw up a multiyear plan outlining what it wants to accomplish. It then needs to conservatively estimate the resources required. In addition to standard operating expenses and money set aside for necessary capital improvements and technology infrastructure, the Board also needs to weigh the potential costs of things like dealing with the District’s space constraints as well as the costs for desirable new programs such as all day kindergarten and a foreign language in the lower grades (both of which would require additional space and staff).
On the revenue side, most of our revenue is from local property taxes but about 10% comes from the State. If it passes, Senate Bill 1 (last year’s SB 16) is very likely to substantially cut the amount of money that our District gets from the State. In addition, Springfield has a strong desire to offload some of its enormous pension obligations onto local districts. If this were to happen, it could impose a significant expense on the District.
The PTELL sets a limit on the maximum amount District taxes can increase in a given year. The PTELL basically says that the maximum amount of money the District can get in taxes in any given year is the same as it got in the previous year adjusted for inflation, plus taxes from any new construction in the year (like Costco last year). It is important to note that because the starting point of each year’s levy calculation is the previous year’s tax amount, if in a given year the Board levies less than the maximum (inflation plus new construction), the District’s tax raising authority is permanently lowered – tax receipts in all future years are reduced relative to what they would have been had the Board levied the full amount.
To come back to the question, it is only after taking into consideration a conservative estimate of expected future expenses, possible changes in state funding and sharing of pension costs, and the constraints of the PTELL, that we can have an informed discussion about the size of the budget surplus and the advisability of reducing our property tax funding.
How could the district’s gifted and special education programs be improved or changed, or are changes even necessary?
The District is moving toward a model of inclusion in which kids with special needs are placed with their peers in regular class rooms rather than being sent to schools outside the District. The parents I have spoken to who have children with special needs seem generally supportive of this approach, with several important caveats. One is that teachers will require extra training and support. Perhaps more importantly, teachers and teaching assistants need to learn as much as they can about the kids with special needs who will be in their class before the new school year starts. This means having detailed conversations with the child’s previous year teachers and aides to learn what specific learning techniques work best for the child, as well as any other things that they should know about the child which will help him or her succeed in the classroom. The goal is to have strong continuity in the child’s program from one year to the next so that their educational progress can build on itself rather than having to start from scratch each year.
I don’t particularly like the term “gifted program” because it may send the wrong message to the kids in the program, that innate talent is what matters in life, rather than hard work and good character. Also, most kids aren’t truly gifted; they are just stronger in some areas than their age peer group. That said, we absolutely need to be able to provide a challenging curriculum to all students, including those who are able to move ahead at a faster rate. I would like to see a complete review of our current “gifted” program and an analysis of how other Districts meet the needs of kids who learn at a faster rate than their peers. I’d like to see a well thought out, well integrated program designed for these children.
What other issues do you believe will be important for the next school board to address?
The current contract negotiation needs to be brought to a successful conclusion.
We need to address our continued enrollment growth and space constraints.
We need to make sure that our teachers receive high quality professional development and mentoring (ideally without reducing instructional time).
To improve communication with residents, especially those who do not currently have children in the schools, the District should, I believe, prepare and mail out annual reports including detailed letters from the Superintendent, the Board president, and other administrators about the state of the District. Teachers and student initiatives should also be profiled. The goal would be to give all residents the information they need to understand what is happening in our schools.
I’d like to see a greater movement toward differentiated learning. We are doing some of that now, but ideally all children would be challenged at an appropriate level.
Finally, we need to be sure that as we develop a Common Core curriculum (noting that the Common Core is narrowly focused on math and English), we also continue to provide our students with a well rounded education that develops the whole child.
One of the requirements of the Common Core is that, starting in 2016, principals and teachers must be evaluated in part based on quantitative measures of student growth. This will presumably involve using standardized tests like the PARCC. Leaving aside whether the PARCC and similar tests are accurate measures of our students’ knowledge and thinking abilities, and leaving aside whether it is possible to make statistically reliable evaluations based on the test results of the relatively small number of students in a given classroom, the Board needs to be aware of, and take steps to address, any unintended consequences of this initiative such as a possible tendency to shift instructional focus toward “teaching to the test”.