Despite Public Protests, Contentious SD 227 School Board Still Bedazzled by Lincoln-Way

Dr. Johnnie Thomas and ABC7's Cate Cauguiran
SD 227 Superintendent Dr. Johnnie Thomas finally permitted Chicago media to enter Tuesday’s board meeting. ABC7 Chicago’s Cate Cauguiran and her cameraman are seen center. Ms. Cauguiran told eNews Park Forest they were blocked from entering, her cameraman telling us, “They were physically blocking us from coming in.” (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Olympia Fields, IL-(ENEWSPF)- From the beginning, Tuesday’s meeting of the Rich Township 227 School Board was contentious. In the end, school board members seemed to hear little of the public outcry against bussing students, bedazzled by Lincoln-Way North. The start of the meeting was repeatedly derailed by former board President Randy Alexander and board Secretary Sharon Newman. The testy delays lasted almost twenty minutes.

It didn’t get much better, lasting, by one report, “more than five chaotic hours.” eNews Park Forest was there for almost three-and-a-half of those “chaotic hours.” This reporter then decided it was past time to let the dogs out at home.

The dogs of war, as Shakespeare might have called them, were poised to do battle at the board meeting, with board President Andrea Bonds laying out the “rules of engagement,” then pivoting to “rules of decorum,” apparently before the board had convened the meeting. When asked to speak louder, she did, asking at one point, “Can everyone hear me now? Raise your hand if you cannot hear me.”

There were a few chuckles at that.

Ms. Bonds attempted to proceed when Secretary Newman asked, “So let me get this straight. You want to go with board policy to stop the public from speaking but you won’t follow board policy and what it says about the president and the vice-president.”

Ms. Bonds was Vice-President a month ago when the board voted 4-3 to remove Randy Alexander as president. Ms. Bonds then became board president.

It’s not common, but boards, from time to time, reorganize their leadership structure.

“My recommendation is that we call for the police,” member Cheryl Coleman said. “There are four members here that say we support you,” Ms. Coleman said to board President Bonds. “We want you to remain as president.” She said a letter was sent to Mr. Alexander informing him that Ms. Bonds was president, “… and I believe that force is necessary,” Ms. Coleman said, an apparent call to have Mr. Alexander removed from the meeting.

So it was like that. For about 20 minutes.

On and off, interrupted by a break.

The above video also shows the first round of public comments. All who spoke were opposed to shuttering Rich East High School. No one spoke in favor of moving the district’s students to the site of the former Lincoln-Way North High School, vacant since June 2016.

Citizen Constance Means told the board, “If you take my high school out of Rich Township and you place it into Lincoln-Way, I’ve lost my high school. My house will not sell for the price that it should sell.”

Ms. Means went a step further, referencing the treatment the district’s overwhelmingly student population composed of people of color, “That township is racially hostile. They don’t want us over there. They don’t want our children over there. They have painted swastikas on the top of their junior high. We have news articles that point to all of that.”

“Why would we place black and brown bodies into a racially hostile situation?” Ms. Means asked. “The Will County Sheriff will be the policing entity and the people over there don’t want them. So, when they’re merely trying to get a hot dog, things could go wrong. And for Black people in America, that means they could be shot dead over a very minor infraction. I’m asking this board as parents, as mothers and fathers, to consider that move as null and void. There is no reason, no reason, why we should move our children to Lincoln-Way. It’s not going to improve our programs!”

The crowd interrupted her at this point and applauded.

Doug Price of Park Forest told the board, “The disagreement you guys are having among yourselves publicly is not very reassuring.”

There was applause again.

Mr. Price also criticized the district’s website, “In order to find this meeting, you have to go through four or five different pages. Then you have to find the board. Then you have to find the agendas. And then when you go to the agendas, the agendas just reference numbers. So then you have to go over to the policy section just to find out what the meeting’s about.”

Mr. Price further argued that the board’s analysis that closing schools was solely a budgetary “plays a game in closing institutions that we’ve seen all across this country, and the losers are always poor people.

“Where’s the excellence analysis?” Mr. Price continued. “Where’s the analysis of student performance, student population? What I’ve seen to date have been financial numbers attached to six or seven different plans with very little speaking at all of student performance.

“If you’re not making a decision based on student performance, if you’re not making a decision driven by student population and what it might take to increase student population — we know that people are making choices to leave this district — then moving buildings around basically puts the community in an us-against-them kind of situation.”

“Don’t play us against each other,” Mr. Price cautioned. “The division you have among yourselves is going to get played out in this community, and we’re all losers in that sense.

The meeting was held in Rich Central’s Media Center, and the room was filled to capacity. A resident told eNews Park Forest that the two “overflow” rooms where people could watch the meeting on closed-circuit television were also filled to capacity.

And more tried to enter. After the first wave of public participation, during a presentation to the board, Holly Fingerle of Olympia Fields began knocking on the window of the closed door of the media center. There were a number of people, it appeared, who were not being permitted to enter the room, including a large contingent from Park Forest and media outlets from Chicago.

In fact, media outlets from Chicago were blocked from entering the meeting. A cameraman from ABC 7 Chicago told eNews Park Forest, “They were physically blocking us from coming in.” Journalist Cate Cauguiran from ABC 7 Chicago confirmed this. WGN reporter Tom Negovan could be heard in the hallway outside the meeting and then at the door shouting, “First Amendment!” and “Assault!” This was all the more alarming as this meeting was being held in Olympia Fields, Illinois, USA — not in China or Russia.

Ms. Cauguiran could be seen later on channel 7 waving her microphone in the air in victory after gaining entry to the meeting.

eNews Park Forest asked a security officer present why the media were not permitted to enter. The officer made a motion with his hand of zipping his lips and shook his head, “No.” He offered no other response.

Board President Andrea Bonds claimed ignorance of why the media were initially barred from the meeting. “I don’t know. We’re up here,” she told eNews Park Forest. In her reporting on ABC7 Chicago, Cate Cauguiran made it clear that “the board” barred the media from entering.

This video shows the beginning of the meeting with the protests by Randy Alexander and Sharon Newman over who the board president should be.

The board also held a discussion as to whether members should be required to seek board approval before attending conferences. The consensus, if it could be called that, seemed to be that board members should be required to seek such approval and then should be required to report back to the board publicly regarding conferences members attend.

The second round of public comments lasted over an hour. These took place during the second meeting and included a large group from Park Forest that included Mayor Jon Vanderbilt. Mayor Vanderbilt read a resolution opposing the closing of Rich East the Village Board passed the night before:

Whereas, the community of Park Forest was incorporated in 1949 for military service personnel returning from World War II and the founders envisioned a community where families could grow, future leaders could develop and lifelong relationships could blossom; and

Whereas, Rich East High School has been a part of the fabric of the Park Forest community since its construction in 1952 when the school first opened as Rich Township High School. The flagship school with a storied history, the transition from Rich Township High School to Rich East took place upon the opening of the sister schools of Rich Central (1961) and Rich South (1972); and

Whereas, Park Forest residents have long supported their local Rich East High School both in civic spirit and at the referendum ballot box. On many occasions, Park Forest residents – alumni and otherwise – have beamed with Rocket Pride and Rocket Spirit; and

Whereas, Rich East High School is a vital component of the Park Forest community. Its longstanding presence boosts home values in the real estate market because there is a fundamental connection between home values and access to good, local neighborhood schooling options; and

Whereas, while local schools in Park Forest are of paramount importance in helping students learn the necessary concepts and skills to be successful in life, they are also instrumental in protecting the economic vitality of the community. Along these lines, Rich East High School is critically important to the success of the business corridor along Sauk Trail and in Downtown Park Forest; and

Whereas, students across all of Park Forest should have access to solid local, neighborhood schools such as Rich East that are complete with the resources, opportunities, and supports which make academic success possible and that create strong ties among families, students, schools, and the community; and

Whereas, access to a neighborhood high school such as Rich East should be available to Park Forest students without the need for bussing.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the Mayor and Board of Trustees of the Village of Park Forest, Cook and Will Counties, that the Village of Park Forest is strongly opposed to any consideration of closing Rich East High School. BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT School District 227 is hereby compelled to make every concerted effort to direct local taxpayer dollars to the maintenance and infrastructure needs of Rich East so as to keep it open and vibrant, thus mitigating the need for the youth of our community to have to travel outside of Park Forest for a quality high school education.

Many members of the group addressed the board. They appear here just after the 5-minute mark:

The meeting lasted almost two full hours after this reporter left. According to a reporter from another media company, board members were still enamored and bedazzled with the idea of bussing students to Lincoln-Way North, even annexing the property where that shell of a school sits. “Lincoln-Way North seemed to beckon like a beautiful dress someone saw in a store and was determined to buy, even though it didn’t fit,” wrote the Daily Southtown’s Ted Slowik.

Ted Negovan filed this report for WGN, calling the board’s action blocking the media, “A clear violation of the Open Meetings Act”:

ABC7’s Cate Cauguiran said, “When ABC7 Eyewitness News first tried to get through the doors to attend the public meeting, school security said the board did not want media to attend.” Ms. Cauguiran filed the following report:

Photos from the meeting by Gary Kopycinski:

Erratum: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the town where Holly Fingerle lives, a member of the public who is quoted in the story. She is a resident of Olympia Fields. We apologize for the error.