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?
My involvement in the schools over the years has been driven by a belief that what we have at Oak Park River Forest is special, but it comes with a commitment required by talented community members to sustain it. I have a history of community service including serving on the District 97 Board in 2015 and five years on the Financial Oversight and Review Committee before that. My colleagues would call me a quiet and effective leader who seeks common ground. I co-founded the company I now lead, I have filled executive level management roles at large corporations, and I have been a member of a corporate board. I understand the scope of the leadership challenge at the board level and how to make a difference.
Would you describe yourself as an agent of social change? Why or why not?
I have committed a significant portion of my career to making change happen in both big and small organizations and would consider myself experienced in leading change. While leading change is an important element of my skill set I would not describe myself as an agent of social change but more an individual who knows how to get results by working closely with people and process to make change sustainable. Over the last year I have worked with District 97 on their vision (equity, inclusion and focusing on the whole child), I understand that these changes are complex and take courage and commitment from leaders. When I have led them, these kinds of cultural changes don’t happen overnight so we need to measure our progress and hold people accountable to the outcomes we want to achieve.
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?
I feel the board and the high school have a lot of quality day-to-day outward communications to parents. I also believe more recently efforts are being made to improve the communication from the Superintendent to the community. I feel that going forward the board needs to improve its focus on 2-way communication about the big issues. I would make a number of specific recommendations. First, board meetings should handle public comment differently, issues and follow-up when possible should be handled directly, and follow-up should be assigned at the meeting with public members understanding how the school will respond to concerns. Second the board should do more outreach in partnership with the administration and consider having Board meetings in other locations combining this with town hall type community conversations. Finally, rather that leveraging large ad hoc committees on the biggest issues, the board should build a set of standing advisory boards who support the board, these boards would be made up of community members and can distill some of the information prior to board meetings. Committee meetings should also be public meetings giving more access for public comment and interaction. I believe other issues will be necessary but these will make a good start.
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?
I think there are some key lessons from the referendum last November. First, that dealing with facilities issues as single-issue referendum items fails in part because it becomes a referendum on special interests and is not helpful to the school community. Second, the community is very split on this investment and the resources put into a big committee approach did not work to align the community around a solution. While, I am supportive of the current approach of assembling a launch team with different views across the community to help craft a process, I remain skeptical about the formation of a large planning group. Going forward my approach generally would leverage two principles, first, issues that involve prioritizing resources or major investment require a larger context (not a single issue, and must be long-term), second, that a small community standing committee of experts (architects who volunteer their time for the school in the case of facilities) who are advisory to the board and work across the full scope of the issue (in this case facilities, not the pool) are best. This approach is deployed very effectively in District 97 to help maintain a much larger physical asset.
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?
OPRF has a history of approaching this challenge on a program-by-program basis and has made only limited improvement. A significant part of my professional career has been about leading improvement efforts where change in work culture was required. My experience with OPRF as a candidate and as a parent suggests the school lacks the rigors of an overall approach like the one I have outlined below. I suggest OPRF develop a strategy which aligns the current programs and reports out at least twice per year on progress.
- Strong leadership that keeps this as top priority
- A clear common understanding of the achievement gap, and key outcomes we agree to achieve.
- Ongoing investigation and inquiry into what works and why, not just locally but by looking at best practices in other districts.
- Continuous communication about the changes to everyone
- Clearly defined outcomes or objectives for all our programs with measurements that allow us to evaluate progress and hold people accountable while making adjustments to programs as needed (for example SMART goals).
- Specific training and coaching to support key programs.
- Celebrations that support and reinforce changes until they take hold
As a board member I want to leave the specific programs to our educators and be sure we manage our efforts with a model that drives success.
Racial bias is a persistent problem in special education. How can the district address this issue at an institutional level?
I am not familiar with the specifics of racial bias issues in special education, but I believe that racial bias issues are a persistent problem more broadly. The first step in addressing these are to create awareness in both the student and faculty populations by creating safe ways for these discussions to occur. The second step is to provide appropriate professional development to faculty both in the form of workshops. I like the concept of coaches but need to see more data. In addition, we need to review our policies which are at times not sufficient. Updating policy requires a review a discussion that should include faculty, staff and students and inquiry into best practices including training to follow-up. Finally, we need to address and hold faculty and staff accountable that policy is implemented as intended and we limit interpretations that can often be subjective and have unintended bias imbedded.
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?
I believe that the ultimate goal of the Board is to improve achievement for all students. I have been on previous school and corporate boards. I have also worked as an executive vice-president for a large company. In these roles, policy and holding management (the administration for a school) accountable for achieve goals are two of the key tools for influencing change and achieving results.
Changing policy takes time and is complex because it involves changing behavior. Changing behavior involves clear steps to define the need for change, communications, and when needed, supporting the change with training. From my experience, the Board must make sure that there exists a two-way dialogue with those most impacted by policy changes. I believe that policy developed without the input of those who are asked to implement it is likely to fail.
My professional training as an engineer and my M.B.A in Finance and Policy makes analysis a core part of my skill set. However, I feel that most of the data analysis should be managed by the administration. I feel your primary role on the board is asking questions to understand the information and data provided. The board should also make sure we have good metrics, reporting and accountability to achieve the goals we have established.
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?
Linking our collective bargaining contracts to our revenues (specifically tax caps) in creative and manageable ways is a critical element of developing a more sustainable approach for the community. In preparing for this conversation a complete benchmarking of other contracts for comparable districts should be done to explore different alternatives to many of the legacy structures in the current contract. Areas of focus might include the steps and lanes structure, starting salaries, how retirement issues are managed, and how faculty is incented and rewarded for performance and certifications. I have been indirectly involved with other union environments in my professional career and have a good understanding of these dynamics. As part of the District 97 Financial Review and Oversight committee I was involved indirectly in these issues as well and understand the challenges and how these contracts link to the District’s overall cost picture.
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?
This is a place where I can apply the professional skills I have developed in owning and running my own business and from extensive public school financial experience I gained over six years of service on different district financial advisory committees. During that time, among other things, my committee helped benchmark the cost of our schools versus comparable districts and I deeply understand the levers we can pull to align our costs with the revenue from our residents and how to bring this into the negotiation of collective bargaining contracts which drive a large percentage of the Districts costs. The finance committee I chaired also drafted and reviewed policies that now support District 97. Other local districts have used this as a best practice. We must make the model for supporting our schools sustainable and be more conscious of affordability.
Please list the three largest donors to your campaign by dollar amount contributed.
The majority of my campaign funding is self-funding. I have accepted a few donations from interested supporters through my campaign committee. I have also been supported through events paid for by supporters and received a donation with my endorsement by the Faculty Senate.
District 200 Endorsement (Wednesday Journal)
What I want to accomplish in D200 (Wednesday Journal)
Candidate Profile (Wednesday Journal)
Two announce bids for D97, D200 boards (Wednesday Journal)
Phelan: Clear choices for D200 and D97 school boards (Wednesday Journal)
Iseli will add strong leadership, experience to D200 (Wednesday Journal)
Candidate Profile (SUA)
School board candidates riff on equity (Wednesday Journal)