Elm Place Questions

Question #1:
Please give us a brief bio and describe your qualifications which would make you a valuable school board member and what motivated you to run?

Hi, I’m Art Kessler. First I want to thank Kerri for putting this forum together. I was born and raised in Highland Park and attended Braeside, Edgewood and Highland Park High School. After graduating from Colgate, I earned my MBA from Northwestern. I live near Elm Place with my wife, Wendy Bloom, and two children, a 4th grader at Indian Trail and a 7th grader at Elm Place. Wendy serves on the 112 Foundation and is President of the Indian Trail PTO. Professionally, I am a serial business owner and operator. Last year I sold an ecommerce business that I was running that sold Restaurant supplies. Regarding Board experience, I am the president of one non-profit board and serve on a second one. Last year, I was asked by District 112 to help launch the Reconfiguration 2.0 Community Team. I have served on its Steering, Communications, and Reconfiguration Committees. As a member of 2.0 and in my own businesses I have collaborated with people with different viewpoints to solve complex problems. I feel that listening is more important than speaking, but I am not afraid to voice my opinion. Because of my involvement in 2.0, I have learned a tremendous amount about the District’s educational and financial challenges and feel that I can further serve the community as a member of the School Board. I am running because I care deeply about our district and I am not running with any personal agenda other than what is best for the children and our community.

Question #2:
What would you say the top 3 current issues of the board are? What are your top 3 key issues? How do you see yourself fitting in?

I think our three key issues are
Instability, the need to resolve our budget issues and the quality of education. All three are deeply intertwined around reconfiguration.

My highest priority is to bring stability to the district by fixing our configuration issues in a way that is acceptable to the community. We are losing valuable administrators and teachers because of the controversy. District 112 is not seen as a desirable place to work or live. If elected I will work as quickly as possible to resolve our configuration issues in a measured way that balances educational and financial priorities with community values. We need to remove the distraction of reconfiguration so that we can refocus on curriculum.
Our budget issues have caused us to fall behind virtually all of our surrounding districts in implementing things such as full day kindergarten, facility improvements, and needed classroom renovations. Our student population has declined and is projected to continue declining. We are spending money maintaining more buildings than we need while we fall behind on the things that could impact education.
Educationally, we have cut programs that we once offered like world languages in the elementary schools; and our advanced learning opportunities are not as robust as they once were. Because of our distractions, we have been slow to update our curriculum and it is applied unevenly across the district. Furthermore, outdated boundaries and excess capacity have caused some class sizes to become too small to be educationally and socially practical for our students.
Reconfiguration is a key impediment to all of these issues and I will work hard to make sure we resolve it as quickly as possible.

Question #3:
Did you support the referendum? Did you support delaying BDR3? How important is it to please the community? How would you engage with the community?

I supported the last referendum but the problem was that the school board didn’t listen to the public and the voters didn’t like the plan. The most important thing about this next referendum is that it must give the voters the balance they want of educational and financial priorities and community values. In order to do that we will have to have more dialogue with the community and come up with a plan that they can support. That will mean closing far few buildings and spending much less money. The day after the referendum failed, I pushed the district and board members to conduct a survey to understand what the community would support and worked with Marc Lawrence from CARE to bring no and yes people together to find common ground; and later I was asked to serve on the Launch committee for Reconfiguration 2.0. On Reconfiguration 2.0, I have been leading the community engagement efforts so that we authentically engage the public. The key to passing the next referendum is listening to the community and is less about what we want as candidates as it is about what the community will support. So I would like to ask each of you to attend the community forums that Reconfiguration 2.0 is holding March 22 and 23 here at Elm place. You will also have an opportunity to take part in a survey over the next month. As far as BDR3, I think it went too far without knowing what the long term plan was going to look like. I met with every board member to try get them to stop BDR3. Reconfiguration 2.0 must come up with a long term plan with community input and then the school board can put measures in place to work toward that plan.

Question #4:
How informed are you on the 2.0 reconfiguration options? Do you think 2.0 committee will come up with one that pleases the community? Do you think there are other financially viable options that will work for community/students? Particularly ones that would keep 3 middle schools open?

I do think that 2.0 will find an option that pleases the community because we are involving the community extensively in the process. Regarding 3 middle schools, I will strongly advocate that 2.0 assess this option because I think we should be looking at all options. As an Elm Place parent and a 2.0 member I try to look at this issue objectively. Here are the challenges,
Financially you save the most money from closing your first elementary school and your first middle school.
Demographically, our school age population has been declining for years and is projected to continue to decline. Today we operate inefficiently with excess capacity while we make sacrifices in other areas that affect the quality of education. A key takeaway from the 2.0 focus groups was that before we go out for a referendum, we should make sure we are using our current resources wisely.
If we continue to operate 3 middle schools we will be under financial pressure which could make it difficult to negotiate the teachers’ contract next year. If we want to attract and retain good teachers, we need to pay them competitively compared to our neighboring districts.
Next year’s 6th grade class at Elm Place will have 105 students and an average class size well below our guidelines. Because of small cohorts, we have teachers who are teaching across subjects and across grade levels. This compromises their ability to prepare creative lesson plans.
There have been suggested non-reconfiguration ways that we can save money to fund an additional middle school. I think we should pursue every opportunity to save money, but I wouldn’t apply those savings to one plan over another. If those savings prove to be viable I’d like to see us reduce the size of any referendum to save taxpayers money and increase its chances of passing.

Financially, in order to make 3 middle schools work you would have to delay maintenance on your buildings. This is a risk because if you wait too long to fix something it might fail and disrupt school. In addition, it is common for repairs to be more expensive if you wait until something fails and then have to fix it in an expedited fashion. Some of the savings to make three middles schools work would have to come from cutting back on procurement. I am not certain that those savings can be found. We have already cut 8 million from the budget over the last 6 years in teacher and administrative expense. I don’t think there is much room left to cut there. But, assuming that you make these changes and scrape together the money to continue operating 3 middle schools, we will be under constant budget pressures. This will make contract negotiations next year very difficult. We want to attract and retain the best teachers that we can. In order to do that we must pay a reasonable rate compared to our surrounding districts. Finally, we still don’t know what the state is going to do to us. If they go through with plans to shift pension obligations back on the districts or implement the real estate tax freeze that is part of the “Grand Bargain” currently being debated in Springfield, we will not even be having this discussion.

Question #5:
How would you evaluate our district’s curriculum and how does it compare to our neighboring districts? Do you believe that our curriculum is being implemented consistently across the district and how do you determine that? What changes to the curriculum would you like to see?

Our district is making the shift to higher level conceptual based learning and problem solving; away from fact based curriculum that used to be taught out of a text book. This shift is important to prepare kids to succeed in the world that we live in. One of the reasons we don’t do better on the state wide Parcc test is because it tests this higher level conceptual based learning which many surrounding districts implemented many years ago. What I have heard from people across the district and in the 2.0 focus groups is that the new curriculum is being implemented very unevenly. Because more onus is put on the teacher to come up with creative lesson plans, we have a lot of different approaches being implemented. I think that this ties right into consolidation. By having fewer buildings and more classes per grade, the teachers can work together to come up with creative and consistent lesson plans. But I think we also need better teacher mentoring and more teacher training to get this right. We need to give the teachers the resources they need to make this shift.
I would also like to see us reinvigorate Our Advanced Learning Opportunities programs which are not what they once were. At Indian Trail the PTO paid for STEM programming to be delivered on an opt-in basis over lunch. Let’s make this part of the regular curriculum for the whole district. Finally, I would like to bring back World Languages in the elementary schools. These programs have been shown to have cognitive benefits beyond just learning another language. Many of our surrounding districts and most other industrialized countries offer this at an early age. We need to prepare our children to compete in the world economy.

Question #6:
Please describe the role you see yourself in in the search for a new superintendent. What would your top attributes be for a candidate? 

The school board plays a key role in the search for a superintendent. Ultimately the Board is responsible for making that hiring decision. The district needs a strong leader to see it through the next few years. As a business owner I have had to identify and hire many people for top leadership positions. I think there is a real skill to know how to identify the right talent for leading organizations through extensive change and restructuring. A seasoned superintendent who has prior referendum experience is critical. The next superintendent is going to need to be able to communicate clearly and listen to the public. I think it is important that the next superintendent, show more leadership at the Board level. We need to remember that the school board does not run the District. My previous board experience has shown me that things run best when the day to day operations are left up to the professionals and the board only intercedes at the policy level and to make sure the professionals are doing their jobs. The board has a key role in bringing the community’s voice into decisions but that role should be shared with the superintendant and we need someone who will see that as his or her responsibility. Finally, because of the curriculum issues that I have mentioned previously, I would seek a candidate who also has a strong background in implementing curriculum changes.

Question #7
What are your views on the Dual Language program? What is it’s impact on the budget and on reconfiguration? (ie: keeping them all grouped together, scattered) Do you think there will be changes with with the absence of assistant superintendent for teaching and learning (Jennifer Ferrari)? 

For those who may not know what the dual language program is, it is comprised of English language learners as well as native English speakers in roughly a 50/50 split. We are required to educate English language learners through a program that focuses on teaching English. We also offer a one-way emersion program. Research has shown that DL programs are the most cost effective and best way to support English language learners; It also has the added benefit of providing a way for native English speakers to learn another language.
I supported the Dual language academies. The DL program has created impractically small class sizes at Red Oak and Sherwood and have created de facto one section schools within a school so that those teachers have no one to collaborate with on lesson planning. For the students it has caused some students to be trapped with the same 16 kids for 6 years. For social outliers that can be very tough and it doesn’t provide the teacher with a lot of opportunity to differentiate between learning groups. By consolidating the program at two schools we can eliminate about 3 teachers and save money.
I believe that we should have implemented the dual language academies despite the cancellation of BDR3. I think we should move to do that as soon as possible.
But I also want to mention that I think everyone in the district should have the opportunity to learn a foreign language in elementary school even if they are not in the DL program.