Calvin Davis | Matt Heffner | Barbara A. Hickey | Carol Allison Jack
Hui Kang | Richard Moore

District 90 school board - 2 YEAR TERM (1 open seats)

Kathleen M. Avalos | Steve Lefko


Matt Heffner

candidate for 2019 District 90 School Board

1. What motivates you to seek this office? What skills, experiences, and perspectives would you bring to the Board of Trustees, and why would those contributions be valuable to District 90? What have been your most useful resources for information about pre-secondary education?

The Board should act as a caretaker and steward of River Forest’s greatest asset: its excellent school system. Its first priority should be, as would be mine if I was elected, to seek out and listen to the opinions of D90’s teachers, parents, and stakeholders. I’m running for the board to provide a voice of common sense and also to shift the board’s insular focus away from marginal issues and back to the basics of education.

As for my skills and experience, I am a lawyer and small-business owner. I’ve negotiated and written countless contracts which will be useful inD90’s upcoming collective bargaining with our teachers’ union, not to mention any other vendor contracts we have. I also have two decades of experience and training in reading and interpreting statutes, regulations, and codes—all of which are obviously important to a school board as it navigates state and federal law. In addition, I currently serve on two non-profit boards and so have a wealth of experience in working together in a fiduciary setting to accomplish a goal. Finally, I know how to communicate effectively.

My most useful resource has been—and will always be—personal, frank, one-on-one discussions with our teachers. I have talked with many and would rely on their knowledge and experience if elected. I also look to national experts at Education Weekly, Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, the National Education Association, and Purdue and Northwestern Universities’ programs in gifted education.

2. What steps will you take to improve and expand community engagement with the District and the School Board? What is your view on how local elected officials should communicate with and respond to constituents?

Elected officials—especially school board members—have a duty to openly and honestly communicate with its constituents. They should answer questions and be accountable to the public. To do that, they must provide the public a chance to understand the issues facing the district by providing clear and meaningful communication about potential changes or issues being contemplated by the board.

To increase transparency and engagement in D90, I would:

  • Live-stream, record, and archive every board meeting and committee meeting so that everyone could have access to our meetings and have the ability to comment or ask questions. Our current board complains that attendance is low at meetings, yet has failed to use technology to increase parental involvement.

  • Revamp our website to make it more useful and in line with other similar districts. Our current website is unmanageable and frustrating for the average user.

  • Push for (and write, if necessary) real, jargon-less communication to our residents as to the stakes of any proposed educational or institutional changes and do so early in the process, not right before a board vote on the matter.

  • Hold town hall style forums with stakeholders—including teachers—seeking feedback and hold subject-specific meetings with parents regarding educational achievement.

3. In what ways have you sought to better know and understand the concerns and needs of residents outside your demographic group (specifically the demographic groups of race, religion, ability, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status)?

For the past five years, I have staffed weekend retreats for men focusing on personal, social, and emotional growth. In so doing, I have connected with and helped people from every walk of life—people of every religion, ethnicity, social status, economic strata, etc.—learn how to deal with their own personal stories, obstacles, and dreams. I also read a lot. The most recent books I found enlightening regarding people with much different experiences than me were Gallileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger, that details a fascinating history of the medical profession’s treatment of intersex children, and Negroland: a Memoir by Margo Jefferson, who writes about her upbringing in an upper-class African-American community on the south side of Chicago in the 1950’s and 60’s.

4. What do you think should be the three main priorities for the District over the next four years?

My first priority for the district, any year, is educational excellence. Over the next four years, we should set a goal to improve or maintain our excellent academic results. My second goal over the next four years would be to ensure D90 is on firm financial footing. We are currently spending more than we are taking in, and so I would like to ensure that is not a recurring issue and that we have a proper policy in place for reserves. A firm financial footing also requires a plan for any large, predicted financial contingencies—such as the State of Illinois shifting more of the pension burden onto local school districts. My third goal would be looking at facilities upgrades at our schools. Each of our schools is cramped and could benefit from more space and updated heating and cooling systems. If financially feasible, I would like to begin upgrading our facilities in the near term.

5. How can the District best assess the extent to which it is providing a quality education to the children of River Forest?

To assess how we are doing educating our children, D90 should rely on a mix of evidence. First, we should listen to our teachers about what they think is working and is not working. Second, we should review standardized testing data intelligently. That is, we need to be cognizant of sample sizes, long term trends, and the problems inherent in any data set based on just a few hours of testing. Third, we should better track D90 students as they move through high school and college to see if we are properly preparing them to succeed. Fourth, we should actively seek feedback from the parents of our students.

6. If you could create a brand new elementary public school district from scratch, what would it look like?

I think each public school district should be tailored to its particular student body, resources, and community values. To that extent, there is no such thing as an “ideal” school district that can be created from scratch. Nor should a school board member think in those utopian terms. Instead, a school board member should be grounded in practical realities, realities such as scarcity of resources (both in money and in teacher time and effort), the current state of the actual school district, past history of the district, political feasibility of changes, societal realities, and the opportunity costs involved.

River Forest’s history and social reality includes an implicit social contract between our residents and the Board of Education. Most of our residents with children chose to live here and make an enormous financial investment in their home and ongoing taxes so that their children would receive the best education possible. We expect great teachers, high standardized test scores, top-notch curricula, plenty of enrichment opportunities such as full-year foreign language instruction, and advanced classes for academically talented students. It is these features that attracted our current residents, including my family. And it is these features that will maintain our high property values, and allow our older residents to eventually sell their home to the next wave of parents wanting the best for their children.

7. What is your opinion on Universal Design for Learning?

The issue of Universal Design for Learning in D90 is tricky. To properly talk about it, we really need to know exactly how it will be implemented, how exactly students are going to be allowed to learn at their own pace and be challenged, and how we are going to measure its effects on educational outcomes. According to the administration, they are still working on answering those questions.

But here is what I can opine on. To the extent our teachers will be trained to provide students with alternative methods to learn and express knowledge, UDL is a fine tool. Like any tool, it should be used when needed and should not be used exclusively. Also, many of our best teachers are already using these techniques, so I’m not sure the use of it should even be that controversial. But if UDL will be used to justify the elimination of advanced classes (advanced grouping of high-achieving students), or using advanced learners to help teach slower learners, or the slowing down the curricula leading to teaching less subject matter, it would be very controversial. Put another way, to the extent we use UDL to make our curriculum more rigorous, I’m in favor of it. To the extent UDL might sacrifice one student’s education in favor of another, I’m against it.

8. What is your position on providing a full-day kindergarten option in the district? What do you see as the primary benefits and challenges to providing full-day kindergarten?

I want full-day kindergarten in D90. And I believe that if the board made this a priority, it could be accomplished. Unfortunately, the current board does not view it as a priority. The primary benefits are many: children develop academically and socially, lower socio-economic students have a chance to catch up earlier to their peers, it is more convenient for working parents, and it is a feature coveted by prospective home buyers. The challenges are space, money, and the will of the board. I think the lack of space can be solved with creative ideas. Regarding money, even if we end up with a compromise—D90 pays for half-day, parents pay for the second half—it would be better than our current situation. And as for the will of the board, the electorate needs to decide if this is a priority. If it is, then they need to vote for people willing to do it.

9. Beyond measuring student academic achievement through standardized testing, how should District 90 measure its progress in improving equity and inclusion?

Asking how we should measure abstract notions such as equity and inclusion assumes they can be objectively measured at all. I’m not sure that’s the case. Nor do I think standardized test scores tell you much about the subjective social and emotional experiences of students. Our schools should be welcoming, nondiscriminatory environments, and from everything I’ve seen, River Forest’s schools are just that. To improve, we should continue to provide social and emotional support for those who need it, and as important, effectively communicate that these services exist. We should also fight any stigma that attaches to those who seek out support. To assess how we are doing, we should have our students and parents fill out yearly surveys regarding their perspectives on inclusion and fairness in the district.

10. The Board recently took a position against arming teachers/school staff. Do you agree or disagree with that position? Please explain.

I agree that teachers and current school staff should not be armed. Regarding school safety, if elected, I would work with the River Forest police department to ensure it has the capability of quickly and adequately responding to any threats at our schools, and would seek to review D90’s own threat-preparedness measures for improvement.

11. As of the drafting of this questionnaire, the current Board was poised to adopt a policy for gender inclusivity. What is your understanding of that work? Do you support gender inclusivity? Please explain.

I have read RFPSD90’s policy, 7:10 Equal Educational Opportunities. I am in favor of its stated goal of providing “equal educational and extracurricular opportunities” to all, regardless of gender. More generally, I’m in favor of any policy that eliminates discrimination and does not harm anyone in the process.

12. Please list the three largest donors to your campaign by dollar amount contributed.

Matt Hurst, business partner, $250. Matt Heffner, $250.

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[The above answers were supplied on 2/16/19. It may be possible to find more current financial information at the Illinois Sunshine website. Illinois Sunshine is also a useful resource for identifying past contributions by individuals to political candidates and committees in Illinois.]