School board behavior leaves residents in dark

aul Thissen

Usually District 202’s school board is sensible and united. Unlike most other governmental bodies in Evanston, it usually values honest arguments over rhetorical flourishes. There are no bitter rivalries between members. If there are they hide them well.

Then they hired Eric Witherspoon to be their new superintendent on a 4-3 vote after a selection process that could hardly be called transparent.

The board meeting after the decision was so tense that a board member interrupted the board’s student representative to snap at him.

What happened to the board’s calm, measured habits?

The board hired Ray and Associates, a search firm, to find them candidates. The candidates’ names were released on a Sunday at a public forum. The board voted to hire Witherspoon the following Monday. The school put out a press release Tuesday night to announce the news after it had met with Witherspoon.

The quick turnaround prevented the community from getting on their feet to comment about the options. The names had hardly been printed in the newspaper before the decision was made. The only public commentary to the board on the issue, at Monday’s board meeting, came after the decision had already been made in closed session.

Even the one chance the community had to learn about the candidates, the public forum on Sunday, was hopelessly scripted. Citizens were permitted only to submit questions on comment cards. Ray and Associates then picked the questions.

I think they picked softball questions or at least questions that fit their pre-conceived ideas of what should be said.

I might not be concerned about any of this if Witherspoon was a clear winner. He’s not. Opinions of him in his home district in Des Moines are mixed, and he presented no clear plans to help ETHS.

His former school district is almost 10 times as large as District 202, and he did lead the district through tough financial times. Some say he lead well, others didn’t like his approach to school closings and program cuts.

I don’t pretend to know what the consensus opinion in Des Moines is or how well he actually did there. He can’t threaten to close any schools in District 202 – ETHS is the only one – but there are plenty of mistakes he could still make.

I don’t have much against Witherspoon. I don’t know much either, nor do most of Evanston’s residents.

The board could have released the candidates’ names a week earlier, letting discussion of their qualifications start before the public forum. It could also have let residents actually talk to the candidates at the forum rather than just write down questions on a card to be ignored.

Although it’s true that the board didn’t organize the event itself, Ray and Associates did, he who pays the piper calls the tune. If the board had demanded a more transparent process, the consulting firm would have been obliged to comply.

Usually District 202’s school board is right. For the sake of ETHS’s students, I hope they were this time. Unfortunately, I have little reason to reach this conclusion on my own.

City Editor Paul Thissen is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]