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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

Walls have a way of getting political.

Updated: Aug 24, 2018

UPDATE/POSTSCRIPT: The special Friday the 13th meeting resulted in a reversal - the wall has indeed been knocked down. Lots of wasted time and stress that was totally unnecessary, but at least all of the board members appeared to have listened to reason -- probably responding in part to a lot of angry emails from parents who were frustrated about the initial denial of funding.

UPDATE: 7/12: The board will hold a special Friday the 13th meeting at 8 a.m. at the high school conference room #116 to reconsider the funding for the MAC3 Birch classroom renovation. Dr. Shah emailed me a response to an email I sent and said Dr. Muirhead asked to be able to vote. Not sure whether he's returned or will be joining virtually/by phone, but either way, fingers crossed for a reversal of this hastily made decision.


This week's board meeting looked pretty predictable to me at first, but I was blindsided by an unexpected debate and ultimate rejection of a renovation project I thought would get a quick, routine approval. Instead, it was rejected, to the detriment of teachers, families and students who had no opportunity to make the case for the long-planned expansion of a classroom.

Predictable, yes, but I did not expect the meeting to be dull, and it wasn't: before the vote on the renovation work, the board heard several very important reports and recommendations to the board, running the gamut from how the district wants to support empathetic and trusting student-teacher relationships to how it is working to ensure the bathroom soap dispensers are promptly filled.

There were a lot of questions I thought might have been reasonable to ask, with the right people present to answer them. For example:

1) Why is it that just now, district administrators are (at the insistence of pushy parents like myself and then board members) presenting a rolling facilities maintenance manual? The plan covers things like how often roofs will need replacing, how often to paint walls or tuck point brick, and how often to inspect that things like doors and windows function and/or lock. We haven't had a manual like this before. This type of manual should be the bare minimum expectation for a district with spending on maintenance and operations that exceeds most nearby districts by any measure. Our schools haven't reflected that investment for several years, and board members and administrators alike have stopped claiming otherwise.

2) How is it possible that our maintenance work order tracking system has produced such exemplary clearance rates (see page 6, Board Indicator 2) while there are clearly shortfalls across many buildings, and have been for a while? Is anyone running the available reports on this system that tell us about the quality of the data itself? (This is a neat trick our system, called School Dude, can do -- it will run a report on the quality of the orders you enter).

3) Behavioral referrals are down. How is the district ensuring that its efforts to reduce and address behavioral problems don't instead just result in a reduction in written referrals documented and fed back to the board? Is anyone auditing to make sure that teachers don't feel pressured to resolve problems in the classroom at the expense of teaching a lesson, or just try to ignore or muddle through problems that would have in the past sent a kid to the principals office? I've heard from more than a few parents about incidents that happened to their children that the parents were surprised went unreported. Is there any audit process to check that there are missed referrals that should have been made?

To be fair, the board did ask some questions about the items above -- even fairly blunt ones that signaled a commitment to honest public discussion. But then just as the meeting was winding down, things took a strange turn.

Two board members killed a request for funding to tear down a wall separating two rooms on the second floor of Lake Bluff Elementary. The combined room was intended for a multi-age classroom (MAC) of 5th and 6th graders next fall, MAC3 Birch -- full disclosure, my daughter's class. Last year, one of the rooms held my daughter's 5th-grade classroom taught by Sachin Pandya. The other room was the next door computer lab, full of ancient desktop computers that will be replaced by a cart full of laptops that can come to students' classrooms.

My daughter's class is the oldest half of the newest MAC section, meaning that next year her "youngers" -- the 5th graders behind her -- were expecting to join her fellow 6th graders in a big room with two teachers. Last year at the end of the school year, all the kids and their teacher packed up their things with the understanding that over the summer, the wall to the west would be demolished to extend their classroom.

After months of planning this renovation, and in contrast to the board's usual steadfast devotion to the idea that teachers and administrators should decide how the buildings operate, and that he board is only concerned with policy and end results, board members tanked funding for the wall tear-down. Today, Lake Bluff's principal and teachers are stuck trying to figure out what to do now.

How did this happen? As background, four years ago as my daughter was finishing her 1st grade year, Lake Bluff and the district decided to add a second section of multi-age classes. This was controversial at the time, and people asked back then how there would be room for the large classes required for that model. I wasn't as close to school district politics at the time. We added my daughter to the new MAC section primarily so she could have a bonus year with her beloved 1st grade teacher, who was moving over to team teach this new section. We've been happy with MAC, but opted for single grade classes for my son, who, like his sister, has thrived at Lake Bluff.

Before she was elected, board vice president Hilary DeBlois was a vocal opponent of the idea of a second MAC section, in part because it meant moving pre-schoolers at Bright Beginnings out of the small Early Education building and into the basement of the main building. It happened anyway, and everyone survived. The principal of Lake Bluff retired. Since then, a few walls have come down to make room for the new classes. The long-simmering rift between MAC and single-age teachers ebbed and flowed in intensity as those moves gave some MAC teachers more space and pushed some single grade classes into smaller rooms, and one principal came and left, replaced by the current one, Angela Patterson. Last night, Ms. DeBlois seemed keen to re-litigate the MAC vs. single grade question, particularly whether we should even have two sections of MAC.

"This conversation should have been had when we expanded the MAC program at Lake Bluff, created the space issues then, created the issues we had with Bright Beginnings, with the kindergarten, that’s why we had the issues that we had," Ms. DeBlois said. "There wasn’t a thoughtful conversation, in my estimation, about why we are doing what we are doing, so now we are stuck in this position that we are in."

All the board members wanted to know how that particular room figured into the long-range facilities plan. There is no proposed change to that particular spot, but the plan does call for creation of flexible learning spaces" throughout the schools, and this would be an example of that, Business Manager Patrick Miller said.

Board members asked about other options for the class if the wall did not get removed. Superintendent Bryan Davis said Plan B would likely mean moving the current single grade 6th grade classes, because today they are in rooms separated by an accordion wall. That, he said, would mean those two 6th grade teachers would have to move all of their stuff, and would take away their ability to join classes for projects, as they do fairly often now. He didn't have to say out loud that those two teachers would likely not be very happy to be moved. It was, he said, "not the preferred option." The "Plan C" option would mean MAC3 Birch would use the two classrooms as-is, perhaps remaining in small groups most of the time, just moving between with smaller spaces available. If Dr. Davis was trying to signal that Plan B and C were not great choices, the signal failed.

"I appreciate that there’s sensitivity to the space inequity if we move the two single-age classes. I’m glad we’re thinking about that, because historically that hasn’t been thought of," Ms. DeBlois said. "I have a huge problem with the cost of this. That’s an extremely expensive wall to take down. We have created a monster with the two programs that we have."

Board member Joanne Lipo Zovic took up the cause. "I think we need to have a serious discussion about how we do MAC differently between elementary schools why, and why don’t we have continuity between the two. What’s the better approach? Have we evaluated it? What’s effective? I think those conversations should happen before we do more work related to expanding space programmatically if we change it."

Board President Paru Shah and board member Lance Weinhardt reasoned that the classroom could have a retractable wall installed and be converted back later, and that the money was already budgeted, so it wasn't a matter of a massive overrun that would take away anything else important, as could be argued with the tennis courts at Lake Bluff that came under a similar attack in 2017. (The tennis courts came up, of course, as another example of a decision made in the past that Ms. DeBlois felt should not bind the current board to continue to fund. That case was a bit different because it involved donated money and thousands of dollars in cost overruns).

Ultimately, Ms. Lipo Zovic voted against paying for the wall removal, and without board member Pablo Muirhead present, Drs. Shah and Weinhardt's votes in favor weren't enough to fund it. It was stunning to watch.

So, what now? Of course I am biased because I want my daughter to have the classroom I expected her to have. I know that she will be OK, because she will have great teachers and she's a good student. I think that fellow teachers will probably save the day and help the MAC Birch teachers find and use a room that works well, where they can teach in a single large room as they planned.

Maybe more shocking is that the board made a hugely consequential decision like this without hearing from any of the teachers and families who could be affected, or even the principal of the school, who could have given a sense of how disruptive such a change in plan will be. To be clear, not a single person affected directly was in the room, unless you count me as a proxy for my daughter. I'll be honest, I was not in a frame of mind to politely comment following the vote, so I did not.

At one point board president Paru Shah said she'd like to get more information, but it became clear very quickly that no one had considered that the board would not sign off on the renovation, so there wouldn't be enough time to gather that information, consider it and vote later this summer. Asbestos abatement takes weeks, and scheduled to start today, the day after the board meeting.

In the face of a tight time frame and limited information, rather than deferring to what the administration recommended, as might behoove a group missing one voting member and lacking a full slate of information about the matter at hand, they went the other route -- yanking the rug out from teachers, families and kids. Ironic, then, how this board prides itself on staying at arms-length from any operational matters under its board governance model. Board members will pontificate about limiting its work to policy and results and expectations. Now it feels like that arm is carrying around an ax to grind.

It's also worth mentioning Ms. DeBlois' other stated reasoning -- she didn't want to feel constrained to fund work that had been approved by prior boards. Interesting logic, since the board is contemplating requesting permission to borrow money for the next 25 years, for a series of capital projects that would happen over probably the next decade. If the board is trying to instill trust in its deliberative choices and careful planning, this isn't a great start.

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