About 60 people gave up about six hours last week to help develop a strategic plan for Riverside Elementary School District 96. 

The civic-minded participants who met Thursday and Friday evening in the library at L.J. Hauser Junior High School included school board members, former school board members Jennifer Leimberer and Juliet Boyd, former school board candidates Rob McCormack and Dan Hunt, other parents and other community members who volunteered to participate, district administrators, including the principals of the district’s five schools, and a couple of teachers.

The result of their work is a list of 10 priorities that the group would like the district to focus on over the next five years. The administration will now develop an action plan to meet these goals and present it to the school board next month. The board will vote to formally adopt the strategic plan, which then will be published.

“I look at this as a first step in starting a dialogue between the community and the staff and the administration and the board to sort of define our priorities,” said District 96 school board President Jeff Miller.

The participants were divided up into five focus groups: Curriculum and Instruction, Facilities, Finance, Culture and Climate and Human Relations. Each group contained at least one school board members.

Each group developed four or five top priorities, and then the other groups weighed in and ranked their priorities. Eventually, a consensus emerged about what should be the top priorities. 

While most of the priorities are rather general — such as maintaining the district’s strong fiscal condition — the discussion revealed some differences in tone and approach that would not surprise close observers of the district.

The Human Relations group, which included school board members Mary Rose Mangia and Rachel Marrello initially ranked “Establish and enforce processes, procedures, and a code of conduct to ensure accountability of all staff and certainty of outcomes” third on their list. 

But that wording disturbed many others in the other focus groups who thought it was “harsh”.

“We would like a more positive spin on that,” Miller said during the discussion representing the finance group.

Board member Shari Klyber, representing the Curriculum and Instruction group, also did not like that language.

“We just felt the wording was a little bit aggressive,” Klyber said.

Mangia said that while she was fine with wordsmithing the language, she and the Human Relations group felt that accountability was important.

“I don’t know why people are so afraid of the word accountability,” Mangia said in an interview on Monday.  “It’s clarity around expectations and making sure it is communicated as part of your culture to everybody.”

An idea that was ultimately dropped was the fifth initial priority of the Finance group, which was to accomplish strategic collective bargaining. That goal was the idea of David Sellers, the district’s interim director of finance and operations. 

While it was never spelled out to the other groups exactly what strategic collective bargaining meant, the consensus in the room was that the wording and topic was just too controversial and would send the wrong message to district employees.

School board members Rich Regan and Klyber, who were part of the school board’s recent contract negotiating team, thought that the language was too confrontational and risked damaging hard won gains with the teachers’ union.

“The only reason [the negotiation] was successful is that it wasn’t one-sided,” said Regan.

McCormack said that collective bargaining shouldn’t be part of a public strategic plan.

“It’s so sensitive that it shouldn’t be written down,” McCormack said.

Issues that the district has explored for years, such as full-day kindergarten and foreign language education at the elementary level, had strong support judging by results of an online survey of the community.

“The result from the survey was overwhelming interest in foreign language,” said board member Lynda Murphy.

In order to offer full-day kindergarten, the district would need more classroom space, which would cost money.

“We need some soul searching on the board and the community,” Leimberer said. “Foreign language and full-day are not new topics in the community.”

Former Komarek District 94 Superintendent Bob Madonia, the consultant hired to put together the strategic plan and manage the planning process, was impressed by the work of the focus groups.

“I thought the District 96 focus groups were excellent and actually did a great job not just collecting input from everybody, but collaborating and coming to consensus,” Madonia said.

Miller agreed. 

“I thought it was important for the board and for the community and for the staff to start talking together so that we know what we want, what are our priorities, because ultimately this is for the community,” Miller said. “What does the community want for our schools?”