RESPONSES TO THE OPCTA QUESTIONNAIRE
What motivates you to seek this office? Have you participated in public service in the past? If so, how? If not, why now? What skills, experiences, and perspectives would you bring to the running of the school district?
What motivates me: in short, that I can be a positive addition to the board, and, through that service, to students. My son and daughter (twins) are entering OPRF High School in August, so on a personal level, the timing is right as well.
My public service began four years ago when I was elected to the Oak Park Public Library Board. For the past two years, I have served as board president.
I bring a set of skills and traits that would complement those of current board members, as well as others seeking office. I am a bridge-builder, very approachable, open to new ideas, and respectful of others’ views. I am also a creative thinker and effective communicator, passionate about education and mentorship, as reflected by my years as a guest speaker in classrooms on a variety of topics, as a mentor to children, and as a leader in the community.
For six years, I assisted my wife in home-schooling our children before they enrolled as 7th graders two years ago at Brooks Middle School. Previously, in my former career as a journalist, I did my best to educate readers on a broad spectrum of topics. In scores of classrooms over the last 25 years, as a guest speaker, I have loved seeing the light bulb go on for youngsters as I teach on topics ranging from journalism and mathematics to leadership and team-building.
Would you describe yourself as an agent of social change? Why or why not?
I am leery of ascribing “agent of social change” to my list of credentials—it seems a bit presumptuous.
However, I am deeply committed to building relationships, particularly with those who may not be “likely candidates” to be in a productive, mutually respectful relationship with me. For one thing, I can readily find ample common ground with just about anyone. This stems, in part, from my many years as a journalist who needed to develop rapport quickly with sources in order to gain their trust so that I could do a fair and thorough job.
I am a proactive optimist—I believe the best in a person, in a situation, and in general, and then I go about taking steps to make the best happen.
Positive, productive, respectful relationships are the gateway to so much good—and one of my strengths is developing meaningful relationships, regardless of others’ “status.”
I am passionate about helping foster an environment where excellence prevails and everyone’s value is recognized and drawn out.
One of the most important roles of the school board is connecting with the community, both serving as an advocate for district improvement and reporting back to the community on the district’s performance. Do you believe the board’s communication processes have been successful in recent years? What specifically would you do to improve two-way communication?
The board’s communication has been stronger with its “internal audience” (families of students, in particular) than its external audience (the broader community).
My career (as a journalist for 20 years, and as a strategic communications consultant for the past 12 years) has been built on effective communication. And effective communication starts with active listening—truly “tuning in” to individuals, regardless of their tone or any “baggage” that may be part of the interaction.
For example, in my role as Library Board president, I have been on the receiving end of concerns and criticisms about the library—and have always striven to be open and non-defensive in those situations. I have likewise encouraged fellow trustees to look past the style of someone’s delivery (even when it is combative) and be alert to whatever lessons we can gain from any interaction.
One of my platforms is “authentic engagement.”
Among the ways that I would work to improve OPRF High School’s engagement with the community: providing the communications department with the resources to create a much more active, robust social media presence; engaging students (particularly those who aspire to careers in journalism and other communications fields) and having them create content for the broader community; and continuing to build my own social-media presence in my role as a school board member—in addition to my website (www.MattBaron.com), I have active Twitter and Facebook accounts:
Last year’s referendum for a new pool was voted down in a close vote after polarizing the community. What conclusions have you drawn about the referendum, and how would they inform your approach to the work of the board moving forward?
First, it took a meandering path, to put it kindly. As a last-ditch effort to curry support from other special interests at the school, the board cobbled together a plan that dropped in other elements (about 14% of the referendum “ask”) such as the performing arts. Frankly, the performing arts deserve better than to be brought on as an afterthought.
There is a much better, holistic path to addressing the school’s overall facility / infrastructure needs. That path, I hope, is under way with the formation of the Imagine work group that is in process, at the recommendation of Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams.
My approach to the board’s work would be to view all of our decision-making in a broader context, rather than a one-off, piecemeal approach.
The district should carry out what is outlined in the Strategic Plan adopted three years ago. That was a document that encapsulated thousands of hours of thoughtful discussion from many of our community’s most engaged and intelligent individuals.
It’s a “living, breathing document,” but its skeletal frame is in dire need of meat—to flesh out its sweeping points with actionable steps that are measured to gauge whether the plan is actually being implemented.
Oak Park has a persistent achievement gap between white and black students, despite ongoing conversations and a stated commitment to diversity. How will you support the district in addressing the achievement gap? What initiatives would you advocate?
Hiring more teachers of color—who are eminently qualified, of course—is a “must.”
Also, D200 appears to be on a promising track in its recent initiative to seek disciplinary paths that are more measured, with a focus on restoring, rather than banishing, students. I would work to ensure that progress continues and to push for better results in the recruitment of minority teachers, especially African-Americans.
I also am pleased with the recent efforts to identify African-American students who have the “grit” and all-around capacity to move up to Honors and Advanced Placement levels. The school should continue to grow this initiative. I would also advocate more training for teachers to help them identify prospective “candidates” (including minorities) who could be encouraged and empowered to move up to more rigorous levels. Another initiative I would back: toughening the standards, and raising expectations, for College Prep courses.
Racial bias is a persistent problem in special education. How can the district address this issue at an institutional level?
Bolstering staff training is a key component.
I know that my service on the library board was dramatically informed by my involvement at staff trainings. For example, my own heightened awareness of my “white privilege”—an outgrowth of a powerful program about 18 months ago—had a direct impact on my recruitment of three African-American men to run for the library board. This was a “blind spot” of the library—in our history spanning more than 100 years, the board has never had an African-American man serve as a trustee.)
Another important step is identifying, attracting and retaining high-quality African-American teachers. As alluded to in the prior question, we’re not talking about “tokenism,” but outstanding teachers who happen to be African-American. Roughly 10 percent of the faculty is African-American, while about one-quarter of the student body is African-American—this is a gap that contributes to the persistence of racial bias in special education.
The board monitors progress toward district goals and compliance with board policies using data as the basis for assessment. What experience do you have with setting and managing to policies? How comfortable are you with data analysis?
Through my service on the library board, I have gained extensive experience in setting and managing policies.
With the school board, the focus should center on fostering an environment that enables students to succeed. That involves holding staff (from the Superintendent on down) accountable for making measurable improvements in this regard.
I am also extremely comfortable with data analysis: one of my foremost strengths is numeracy, or mathematical literacy. On a national level for the past 15 years, I have trained members of the media, among other professionals, in this domain. (For more details, see www.GoFigureMakingNumbersCount.com.)
Viewing data in context is vital—and too often decisions are made with “dirty” data that are not held up to sufficient scrutiny. I would be diligent in ensuring that data points are credibly backed up.
Staff salary and benefits account for roughly 53% of D200 costs, and the current teacher contract ends 2018. What experience and ideas would you bring to the upcoming contract negotiation?
Unless I am misunderstanding your question, let me note a correction: staff salary and benefits account for roughly 75% of D200 costs. The current teacher contract concludes in the middle of 2018, so that would give me a year to gain insights on the many variables at play.
What I know already: among Oak Park and River Forest residents, there is rising upset over the soaring property tax burden—with school districts accounting for the bulk of the bill. At the same time, we need to respect—and reward—the vital role that staff plays in delivering excellent academic results for our children.
OPRF is hardly unique in facing such a tension, so we should diligently explore what other communities / school boards have done to tackle this issue and apply (or adapt) those lessons to our situation. One of the obvious categories to assess: what steps can be taken to control spending on the front and back ends of teachers’ careers?
Eighty seven percent of D200 funding comes from local property taxes. How can taxpayers get the most for their money? What experience would you bring to your role of financial oversight for the district?
Taxpayers can get the most for their money by insisting on responsive, responsible leadership that serves as a true steward of funds—treating it as the precious, finite resource that it is. The school board must responsibly reduce its excessive fund reserve.
The board has already reduced that sum from $130 million four years ago to under $100 million now. That’s a good start, but the work of right-sizing reserves is far from done. The school board must continue to aggressively and persistently lower reserves to the $50 million range—which would still represent more than six months of operating expenditures, a benchmark recommended by the Illinois Association of School Boards.
My experience includes: serving four years on the library board, and being part of a body that passed balanced budgets every year; serving two years on my condominium association board, during which time we reduced spending by 40% through re-negotiation of service contracts and other measures, enabling us to waive assessment dues for one month in both years while still growing our reserves; and leading a debt-free, financially responsible personal lifestyle, where I spend below my means and hold a mature view of “wants” versus “needs.”
Please list the three largest donors to your campaign by dollar amount contributed.
My campaign has been propelled primarily by “sweat equity”—the hundreds of hours that I have devoted to it since November. I am also grateful for the financial support that I have received from more than a dozen sources. Those contributions have enabled me to spend only a modest amount, to date, from my own funds.
District 200 Endorsements (Wednesday Journal)
Why I'm running for the D200 school board (Wednesday Journal)
Candidate Profile (Wednesday Journal)
Oak Park library trustee to run for D200 board (Wednesday Journal)
Baron: Balanced and knowledgeable (Wednesday Journal)
Baron is a bridge-builder (Wednesday Journal)
Matt Baron can effect change in D200 (Wednesday Journal)
Best use of tax dollars, best outcomes for students (Wednesday Journal)
Big names show up in school board races (Wednesday Journal)
These candidates are tuned in to our communities (Wednesday Journal)
Baron: Inclusion, collaboration and creativity (Wednesday Journal)
Meet Matt (OPPL)
Candidate Profile (SUA)
School board candidates riff on equity (Wednesday Journal)