Public Watchdog.org

ELECTION 2013: Endorsements For Dist. 207 School Board

04.01.13

When it comes to school board candidates, we are admittedly and unapologetically biased against “educators” and incumbents.

Our anti-“educator” bias stems from our view that, just like war being “too important to be left to the generals,” education is too important to be left to the educators.  Our public schools are already dominated by teachers, former-teacher administrators, and teachers unions – all of whose economic interests are usually at odds with those of the taxpayers, despite their masterful public relations slogans: “It’s for the kids” and “Kids first.”

Consequently, putting current or former teachers and school administrators on school boards is like electing hens to guard the hen-designed, hen-oriented, hen-controlled and hen-managed henhouse – when what the taxpayers really need are “foxes” guarding that henhouse: people whose characters, backgrounds and experience are most likely to ensure hard-eyed, practical, taxpayer-oriented, rational cost/benefit attitudes toward our schools and the folks who operate them (the hens).

Our bias against incumbents, on the other hand, is tied to the need to hold elected officials accountable for what they’ve done and not done while in office.  So if we can’t find enough good things – or at least one or two great things – achieved by the school district during a particular incumbent’s term, we presume that the incumbent hasn’t been doing a good job, unless there’s clear evidence that he/she has tried his/her best but was frustrated by an obstructionist board majority.

With those two biases in mind, and after reviewing the candidates’ campaign material and their responses to the Daily Herald’s questionnaire, let’s look at the seven (7) candidates for the four (4) seats on the Maine Twp. High School District 207 board: incumbents Eldon Burk and Margaret McGrath; barely-incumbent Carla Owen; and newcomers Jeff Spero, Mary C. Childers, Jin Lee and Sean Story.  (For what it’s worth, Burk, McGrath, Owen and Spero are running as a slate.)

We’ve heard some folks suggest that the hazing scandal at Maine West, by itself, justifies a vote against all incumbents on this board.  Based on the evidence we’ve heard so far, we don’t see the kind of board-level negligence that would support such a view.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other reasons for sending these incumbents packing.

The first suitcase needs to be handed to incumbent Eldon Burk, a retired Maine West teacher/administrator who, at a candidates’ forum on March 21, insisted that D-207 was “one of the greatest school districts in the country.”  Apparently Burk overlooked: (1) the 691st-place national ranking (and 29th-place Illinois ranking) of Maine South, D-207’s only ranked school in U.S. News & World’s 2012 public high school rankings; and (2) D-207’s slow but continuing decline in the annual rankings of Chicagoland high schools – to 24th, according to the 2012 Chicago Sun-Times analysis of ISAT scores.

Sorry, Eldon, but our anti-educator bias is even greater aainst delusional ex-teachers/administrators.  And your attempt at the forum to blame the entire pension mess on “Springfield” shows that you’re either unwilling or unable to understand how the upwardly-spiraling teacher and administrator salaries regularly handed out by you and the other incumbents have done their part in making this state’s public pension obligations so back-breaking.  Here’s hoping the voters retire you from this position.

Four years ago we endorsed incumbent Margaret McGrath on the basis of “a whole lot of potential”; and we even gave her a “You Go, Girl!” kudo in our 05.07.10 post for being the only D-207 board member to articulate the obvious: that “there’s a negative impact to borrowing a lot of money to spend short-term.”  Unfortunately, in all other respects she has shown herself to be a go-along-to-get-along rubber-stamp for the administration, approving merit-less salary increases with barely a whimper of objection or analysis.  That’s a lot less than we had hoped for in 2009, and it’s a lot less than the taxpayers – and the students – deserve in 2013 and the next four years.

Jeff Spero is a CPA with Grant Thornton who earned an MBA and has a wife who is a Lutheran school principal.   Those credentials suggest he might be that rare combination of a hard-eyed, bottom-line analyst with the added insight into how private and parochial schools do more with less.  That’s why we endorse him, albeit with a twinge of concern that his sharing the same ticket with Burk might mean he will be checking his CPA and MBA at the door before every board meeting and grabbing a rubber stamp.

Although Mary C. Childers occasionally works as a substitute D-63 teacher, her extensive business background – most recently as a real estate broker, and before that as the owner/operator of two Brown’s Chicken franchises – ameliorates that stigma.  And her common-sense positions on school finances (“We are at a crossroads of individual taxpayers and government organizations needing to think the same way about financial limitations.”) and teacher compensation (“[S]alary increases should be based on merit” unrelated to the Consumer Price Index) suggest that she will bring some refreshing fiscal sanity to the D-207 board.  That’s why we endorse her.

Jin Lee, on the other hand, considers deficit spending to be “a sacrifice shared by the taxpayers and the state” – whatever the heck that means.  And while he suggests that teacher salary increases should be based in part on student and teacher performance, he also includes the CPI as a factor – thereby encouraging school districts to raise teacher salaries to preserve teachers’ buying power and to provide them with a hedge against inflation.  That’s fundamentally wrong on several levels, including its being economically foolish and unsustainable.

Carla Owen was appointed to the Board just a few months ago, so she does not deserve any anti-incumbent stigma.  And although we have vigorously disagreed with her anti-Park Ridge Park District battles on behalf of the “us first” crowd that used to control the Park Ridge Senior Center, we’ve always admired her intellect.  Unfortunately, she is another fan of teacher salary increases tied to the CPI, viewing them as “a reasonable way for the District to work within its revenue stream.” That’s a big red flag of fiscal irresponsibility, and more than enough to deny her an endorsement.

If academic credentials and business experience were the only qualifications needed for a school board seat, Sean Story would be a lock with his politics and economics degree from Princeton, an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and his work experience that includes his current positions as CFO and COO of Chicagoland Beverage Co.  But a review of his website discloses an alarming lack of substance and an alarming plethora of hackneyed and vapid phrases like “create a positive culture,” “creating positive environments” and “[t]aking an open, collaborative approach.”

Worse yet, it appears he didn’t even attempt to answer the Daily Herald’s questions: “Would you ever support deficit spending in a District 207 budget?” and “How can the district keep its finances healthy going forward?”  That’s a shame, because in all other respects he would appear to have the makings of a good “fox” for the taxpayers.

It’s no April Fool’s joke that we have endorsed only two candidates for the four available seats.  We take these endorsements seriously will not endorse a candidate merely as the lesser of two or more evils.

C’est la vie.

Coming Next:  Park Ridge/Niles Elementary School District 64

To read or post comments, click on title.

8 comments so far

private and parochial schools do more with less because they have the right and in some cases the obligation to avail themselves of the public school services they lack and get it to the kids without impacting their own bottom lines. Special ed is one glaring example.

EDITOR’S NOTE: That is absolutely correct. Meanwhile, the public schools get their full share of taxes from all the parents of those private and parochial school kids, including the overwhelming majority of kids who don’t require special ed services. We’re betting that’s a big financial “win” for the public schools, but we do not have the data that would prove that one way or the other.

P Dog- Are you going to offer up your thoughts on the District 64 candidates ?

EDITOR’S NOTE: That’s what we meant by: “Coming Next: Park Ridge/Niles Elementary School District 64.”

Two points.

First, you really only endorsed one candidate – Childers.

Your “endorsement” of Spero is a joke!! Vote for him because his wife is a Principal at a Lutheran School?!?! Aside from it not being an apples to apples comparison, as referenced by the first poster, some private schools do not in fact actually do more with less. If this is one of your reasons to vote for him (maybe his wife will give him some ideas) shouldn’t we have some more info on that school and it’s performance? Vote for him because he is an accountant?!?! Talking about making assumptions!! Need I remind you that one of the folks you have hammered multiple times on this blog (CoC related I believe) has a background in the accounting industry that is pretty freakin’ impressive as well as an MBA. I am guessing you would not endorse him for elected office.

Second, you talk about voters getting what they deserve and on that point I completely agree. As I write this, there are only two posts for this piece. One of them clearly indicates that the poster did not even take the time to read your entire piece. But post about the teen center, TOPR etc and you get 30-40-50 posts. Those issues are chump change!!

There are issues on which you and I disagree, but it is obvious to anyone who reads your blog that you far more “educated” on the candidates and their positions then the typical voter. Even you could only come up with one candidate to endorse.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Our endorsement of Spero was based primarily on our research, which included his answers to the Daily Herald questions about deficit spending (“Deficit spending may be necessary, but should only occur when ther is complete transparency on the conditions creating the deficit spending…[and] aggressive timelines for a return to surplus budgets”) and tying teacher salary increases to the CPI (“I am not in favor of tying teacher salaries to arbitrary indices like CPI” because “like any job in today’s marketplace, [they] should be a reflection of their achievement, their value in the market, and the employer’s ability to pay”).

We believe that any insight Mr. Spero may have into the operation of private/parochial schools (in this case, Immanuel Lutheran in Des Plaines) is likely to be a revelation to the lock-step marching sycophants in public education…not that they’d ever admit it.

Finally, as to the unidentified MBA with the “pretty freakin’ impressive” accounting industry background whom we have “hammered multiple times on this blog” that you guess we would not endorse for elective office, you’re probably right – otherwise we wouldn’t be hammering him/her so much. But since you’re being coy with his/her identity, all we can say is “so what?”

We stand by our endorsement of both Childers and Spero – and to our comments about the rest.

It does amaze me that there is so little attention paid to the 207 board. It was very difficult to find newspaper articles, and your readership seems to lose interest, while the cost to the voter (roughly 35% of property tax as compared to just over 10% for the city and just over 4% for the park district) and the impact on the voter in terms of developing their children and affecting the property values is so much higher.

EDITOR’S NOTE: D-207 doesn’t get the kind of attention it deserves because (a) its territory is too large, thereby diluting both understanding and interest; (b) its issues are too complex and boring for most media simpletons; and (c) administrators are adept at manipulating timid board members into going-along-to-get-along rather than entertaining controversy that might attract the public’s attention. Heck, without the Maine West hazing incident to throw a little sex and violence into the mix, this D-207 election might have received no attention at all.

The decline of MS in rankings scares me. I feel like I need to do more research because on the surface things look pretty good. I can’t speak for his business acumen but the superintendent, Ken Wallace, clearly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to education. The district is very unique in that each school serves a distinctly different population, culturally and socioeconomically. That in itself has got to present a greater challenge than some of the schools MS competes with that are situated in largely more affluent districts.

As for the board, I agree that it would have been nice to have more info about the candidates. I spent some time scouring the internet before I went to vote early a couple days ago and all I could find was the same stuff PWD found. I noticed The Patch has recently put up a couple bios of 207 candidates, I wish they’d done it sooner.

EDITOR’S NOTE: No offense intended, but your comment that Ken Wallace “clearly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to education” reminds us of an anecdote Michelle Rhee tells about the D.C. school system, where only 8% of the 8th graders were performing at grade level in math, yet 95% of the teachers in the system were being rated as doing a good job!

You can talk all you want about the DISTRICT being “very unique in that each school serves a distinctly different population, culturally and socioeconomically,” but we’re talking Maine South here…the flagship of the fleet…the former rival of New Trier for the title of best public high school in Illinois.

Frankly, that dog don’t hunt.

@6:40. Yes, we’re talking about Maine South, but how can we separate it from the two other schools? The board is responsible for all three.

Seems that the only person responsible for that MS only is the principal. Do we need to take a closer look at that person/position? Seems like the board election won’t have much influence in that regard.

EDITOR’S NOTE: “Seems like the board election won’t have much influence in that regard.” WHAT?!?!

The Board is the ONLY influence the taxpayers can have, starting with their ability to fire the superintendent if he doesn’t start getting the kind of results the taxpayers are paying for, and the students deserve, from every school – but especially Maine South, because it draws its students from the most affluent part of the District.

8:36, I simply meant that from what I can gather from the board candidates, there isn’t one who stands out as someone willing to scrutinize that position at this point.

In any case, it’s clear you think D207 isn’t doing things right. Which district, in your opinion, can we learn from or should we be trying to emulate? New Trier is clearly a top district but home prices are much higher there as well as taxes. Is it a fair comparison?

EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s not the job of the School Board to “scrutinize that position” at this or any other point. It’s up to the School Board to scrutinize the superintendent to make sure he’s got the District working at maximum efficiency and production.

Before we try to “emulate” other districts (which is difficult because of the uniqueness of each community) we should be looking to improve what we’re doing. We are paying TOP DOLLAR for teachers AND administrators, the “professional” educators whose jobs are to do this stuff and do it right. If they can’t, then it’s time to replace them with people who can rather than waste years, and millions of dollars, enabling them.

I think you have to take the high school rankings with a grain of salt. One major change in recent years is the proliferation of elite, selective enrollment schools in Chicago that skew the rankings. They take up the top 3 of the 2012 spots, and two others, Jones and Lane, rank ahead of Maine South. With their stringent admission requirements, those schools get to skim the cream of the crop so of course they’re going to rank ahead of suburban schools, who take everyone in their enrollment boundaries. It’s not a fair comparison.

The thing that alarms me a bit more is the increasing number of MS grads choosing Oakton for college. I think next to U of I it might be the top college choice, or maybe even ahead of U of I. I’m sure the growing costs of 4-year universities is a factor but still you’d think a good counselor wouldn’t discourage students from applying to top universities and help steer them toward scholarships and financial aid.

EDITOR’S NOTE: So strike off the 5 spots that the elite Chicago schools hold and Maine South still checks in at 19th, which is down from the 12/13th spots it held back in 2009. That alarms us a lot more than Oakton’s rise as the college of choice for more MS students, especially given the high cost of even state schools like UofI and the danger of graduating with a boatload of debt and no job.



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