A crowded field of candidates is squaring off in the Palos Heights School District 128 board of education race, and it’s a race not without controversy.
Voters Tuesday can cast ballots for up to four candidates who will fill seats on the seven-member board. District 128 teachers have been working for a year without a contract and some eyebrows have been raised because teachers (through the Palos Heights Education Association, PHEA) have supported four candidates, leading to concern by some that if all four candidates win, a majority of the board may potentially be too aligned.
“If the majority of the board is elected with a similar agenda, then they can essentially bypass due-process and it eliminates checks and balances,” said Dr. Richard Facko, one of the candidates. “To have people affiliated with each other who represent the majority, I’d be concerned they wouldn’t be willing to work with the other members, that they wouldn’t have to work with other members to come up with solutions. It could be damaging for our kids and our community.”
Not so, said candidate Amy Lyons, one of the four supported by PHEA.
“I understand that people my have questions about PHEA support, and those questions have been addressed by the PHEA. My only promise to the teachers throughout this process is to do my best to maintain a dialogue between teachers and the board to ensure that decisions are made with the best interests of our students in mind.”
Lyons was echoed by Roberta “Kay” Hermanas, another candidate supported by Dist. 128 teachers.
“As a teacher myself (in Dist. 299), any decision I’ve made has always been in the best interests of the students,” she said. “As a school board member, that would never change my focus.”
Lyons, Hermanas, Ann O’Brien and Deanne Callahan have been dubbed The Final Four because of their positions on the ballot. All have received PHEA support and they have marketing their campaigns together on lawn signs seen around town.
For its part, PHEA has addressed the issue on its website, stating in part “The teachers of District 128 chose to support/endorse Deanne Callahan, Roberta K. Hermanas, Amy Lyons and Ann O’Brien based on their positive message of fiscal responsibility, increased collaboration and transparency.”
The statement went on to say “The candidates we support/endorse have been adamant that they will vote in the best interests of the community, taxpayers and children only. No discussions of contract negotiations have ever occurred between the teachers and the candidates we support/endorse.”
The entire PHEA position can be viewed on the organization’s website, www.palosheightsea.com.
Earlier this month, the candidates took part in a public forum hosted by the Palos-Orland League of Women Voters at Independence Junior High School. The program was recorded and is available for viewing throughout each day on Palos Heights TV Channel 4.The forum also included presentations by two of three Ward 1 aldermanic candidates, incumbent Don Bylut and challenger Dan McCarthy.
With Election Day drawing near, The Regional News spoke with all candidates individually this week to ask them to zero-in on their top issues about Dist. 128, which has four schools, approximately 800 students, 56 teachers and a total budget $8 million to $9 million.
The schools in Dist. 128 are Independence Junior High School, Navajo Heights, Chippewa and Indian Hill. Two of the seven current board members are not running for another term and two other members have seats that are up for election. Both members are running. The remaining three of seven board members have terms that are not up for election for another two years.
In random order, the candidates are:
Bill Grady and his wife, Kim, have two sons attending schools in the district. They’ve lived in Palos Heights for 12 years. O’Grady is a Certified Public Accountant who heads an internal audit department.
“The biggest issue we have is the teachers’ contract,” he said. “There are large gaps of information and it’s creating a lot of discord in our community. I don’t think if the contract was in this situation that the teachers would be as involved (in the election) as they are. Just based on history, they haven’t been involved.
“We’ve been incredibly impressed with our teachers,” he said. “I feel that the money and the insurance that have been dedicated to the teachers is solid. It doesn’t represent a board unwilling to reward teachers.”
Grady said that his reading of the best information he could locate is that the total cost of the three-year teachers’ contract from the board’s perspective is $500,000 different from that of the union’s perspective
Communication was identified next by Grady as an area of concern.
“There’s a gap in communication, upwards and downwards,” he said, “from the board up to the superintendent and the parents and teachers down the chain. I think there are a lot more opportunities in social media. Some are not used at all, some sporadically. I’m on the Parent Ambassador Committee and one of the things we talked about was getting more communication blasted out in real time.”
Grady says he has no political agenda and needs people to understand the true business of the school board: To hire the superintendent, to conduct the business of the board and to pass and enforce policy.
Kristin Restivo has a seat on the boardby appointment due to a departing board member and is seeking her first full term. She and her husband, Al have lived in Palos Heights since 20008 and have two children in District 128, in third and fourth grade. She has an undergraduate degree in elementary education and a graduate degree in teaching and leadership. Restivo teaches part-time preschool at the Recreation Center and cites communication as an important issue.
“Definitely communication,” she said. “You can see how big this election has gotten. It proves that something’s been lost in translation. We’re working on ideas and ways to bridge whatever gap is happening so everyone has a voice in these big decisions being made.”
Restivo said town hall meetings, a new committee for parents and bi-weekly newsletters from Supt. Dr. Dawn Green are some of the ways the gap is being closed.
She next mentioned finances and the budget.
“There are so many issues happening now with the state that are so out of our control,” Restivo said, “and we’re going to have to deal with the consequences of that. Our district has outstanding financial responsibility and I hope we can continue that without taking away from our kids.”
Deanne Callahan is returning to school board involvement after two years following her youngest son’s graduation to high school. She and her husband, Matt, have three children and have lived in Palos Heights for 40 years. She is a registered nurse with a bachelor’s degree and a BSN, and works in the pharmaceutical industry managing an overseas team of more than 200 people.
“Communication and collaboration with all stakeholders, that’s what’s lacking,” she said. “It’s not like it used to be and there’s a lot of frustration around.”
When good communication and collaboration happens “Less people are angry and less assumptions are made,” she said. “That’s how the rumor mill starts. Make everyone feel valued, whether they are a parent, a student, a teacher or a taxpayer.”
Following close behind in Callahan’s assessment is transparency.
“It’s important to understand the ‘why’,” she said. “Get information out to people, even an agenda prior to a meeting. When people see the whole picture, they can accept things.”
Joseph Haberkorn and his wife, Nancy, moved to Palos Heights 26 years ago. Joe and Nancy raised five children in Dist. 128. He has served on the board for 12 years and is seeking re-election. He owns Popeye’s Chicken stores and is a member of the company’s franchise board of directors.
“Stay focused on the whole reason we’re here: the education of the children,” he said when asked to identify one of his top priorities. “The school board never decides on curriculum. The worst thing a board can do is get involved with curriculum. Interference would be nothing but a disaster. Our job is to manage the dollars. That’s what you do on a school board.”
Haberkorn quickly elaborates on a second top issue: maintaining a balanced budget.
“In Dist. 128 we have kids with special needs all the way up to honors programs. That’s a lot of kids and it takes a lot of dollars to do that.”
With an annual budget of $8 million to $9 million, only $100,000 comes from the State of Illinois, Haberkorn claimed.
“All the rest comes from the taxpayers of Dist. 128,” he said. “We remain in the black. There’s not many districts in Illinois that are in the black.”
“The taxpayers expect a lot from us,” Haberkorn said. “If our district is in the red, it’s going to affect the home values of everybody in the district.”
Like Dr. Richard Facko, Haberkorn is troubled by the teachers’ endorsement of four candidates.
“It’s really been an ugly situation,” he said. “At the end of the day, the teachers are all going to go back to their communities. They’ve really done damage to Palos Heights.”
The teachers’ contract, Haberkorn says, “is better than any of the surrounding districts have. At the end of it (three years) we’ll be one of the highest paying districts in the south suburbs and if we go the route of what the teachers are asking, in less than two-and-a-half years, our district will be in the red.”
Ann O’Brien has a school board with balance on her mind when asked about top-priority issues.
“The board needs some people with backgrounds in education to truly engage and make the best decisions for our kids and the community,” she said. “The board needs to be more balanced with business minds in addition to educational minds.”
“I stress that our school district needs to be fiscally responsible in addition to making sure our students are getting the education, skills and tools that they need to be successful, not only in high school but in life,” O’Brien said.
A Palos Heights resident for 23 years, O’Brien and her husband, Mike have four children. The family has lived in Dist. 128 for 14 years.
She has an undergraduate degree from Marquette University and a master’s from DePaul. O’Brien taught for a little over a decade at Lincoln Way High School and she currently is a tutor in High School Dist. 218 (Eisenhower, Shepard and Richards), working specifically at Eisenhower with students freshmen through seniors in English and social studies.
O’Brien wants the school board “to become a little more accessible, more involved in things going on in the school. We need to all work better together. There’s a disconnect between the board, the administration, the community and our teachers. There should be open lines of communication.
“We have ridiculously talented and kind teachers. There’s no line of communication between our board of education and our teachers,” she said.
Regarding the PHEA endorsement, O’Brien said “The teachers have never asked for anything other than open minds and an open, honest way to communicate. I stand by everything they (PHEA) wrote on their website–I am a strong, critical, and individual thinker.”
Richard Facko has lived in Palos Heights since he was two years of age. He and his wife, Cassie, have three children in Dist. 128 and he operates his own pediatric dentistry practice near city hall. Dr. Facko, whose concern about multiple candidates being endorsed by teachers is documented near the beginning of this article.
Facko said “Another thing that concerns me is the apparent disconnect between some of the teachers and the administration. You can hear 50 different sides of the story but it’s pretty clear some of the teachers are not on the same page as the administration.”
Regarding the ongoing contract negotiations with the teachers, Facko said “I think our teachers deserve to be compensated for what they do and I think they by-and-large do an excellent job caring for our kids and providing them the education they need.
“It’s a little unsettling that the teachers’ union and their summary of the negotiations had suggested that if they received their version of the contract that the money would not come out of educational opportunities for our students, because they’ve proposed using our district’s reserve fund to offset the difference—basically to run a deficit—and I don’t think it’s a responsible use of the reserve fund and the money taxpayers have set aside over the years.”
Amy Lyons grew up in Palos Heights and with her husband, Tom, they have five daughters in district schools. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, teaching English.
Communication is key to running a successful school board, in her opinion.
“Where we stand right now, different parts of our school community are feeling left out in the cold,” she said. “I’d like to see the board do its part as much as it can to include all of the stakeholders in our district.
“We could improve the board’s communication to the community and invite more dialog. If I were on the school board I would really like to hear more directly from the teachers about how they feel about the changes we make,” she said.
Lyons also wants to see the member of the board make a commitment to truly understand how their decisions impact the daily running of the schools and classrooms.
“Hopefully having some more board members with children attending the district currently would help the board to ask those questions,” she said.
An example Lyons cited is the recent decision to greatly reduce the amount of homework for the junior high students.
“That’s a concern to a lot of people,” she said. “Parents wonder if their kids are going to be prepared as they go to high school.”
Roberta “Kay” Hermanas wants to focus on collaboration and fiscal responsibility if she were to be elected to the board.
“We have a great district but it could be better,” said the mother of two children who calls Dist. 128 “the foundation of their education.”
Hermanas and her husband, Al have lived in the district for 25 years. She has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s in curriculum and instruction. She teaches in District 299 and is the teacher rep of her school council.
“The voices are being heard,” she said, but there’s not enough feedback to the people. Someone could ask a question (of the board) but it doesn’t mean that the question is always answered to the satisfaction of the person who is asking.”
Hermanas says she “Wants to make sure all the needs of all the students are considered in decisions, whether the student is a gifted child or a diverse lerner or just your average student.
“Any decision that’s made in the district is made with the consideration of all children. I’m not saying it isn’t happening now but it’s one of those things that I I want to make sure,” she said.