New board members to face many issues

COVID-19 pandemic, student achievement, facilities on the docket in schools and library

Voters will find three contested local races when they head to the polls Tuesday, April 6. Two are vying for a two-year term on the Community Consolidated District 181 Board, five are seeking four seats on the Hinsdale Public Library Board and 10 are competing for four spots on the Hinsdale High School District 86 Board.

Those who are elected will have a full agenda, especially as the area continues to contend with the COVID-19 pandemic.

District 181

In District 181, Superintendent Hector Garcia said board members are kept abreast of all facets of the challenges posed by COVID-19, including identifying any positive cases, distributing the vaccine to staff members and implementing safety measures to return to full in-person instruction. The board provides guidance and, on matters like the deployment of surveillance testing, must take formal action.

"We'll continue to report to the board and community on our COVID-19 progress, including any potential shifts in learning models, completion of the vaccine rollout and the possibility of weekly testing for students and staff," he said.

New board members will inherit a strong record of student achievement, even as teachers and families navigate the challenges posed by the pandemic, Garcia said.

"We're in a fantastic place as a district. We're seeing consistent achievement and growth in our students academically, with a recent increase of six of our schools being rated exemplary by the state and two consecutive years of our schools receiving the highly esteemed and coveted National Blue Ribbon School Award, with anticipation of more to come," he said.

On the financial side, Garcia cited a budget surplus has given the district the leeway to both ease the tax burden on district residents and consider new opportunities. Board members will need to consider issues around the establishment of a permanent district administration center as well as the feasibility of pursuing longstanding wish list items, such as expanding foreign language education and implementing full-day kindergarten.

"We're abating money to the taxpayers and setting money aside for future projects," Garcia said. "Our goal is to continue to build upon the positive work that's been done and focus on our ongoing priority to stand out as a lighthouse district."

Hinsdale Public Library

At the Hinsdale Public Library, Executive Director Karen Keefe said instituting pandemic-related mitigations have been the priority.

"The library board has been very involved in directing the library's response to COVID-19. They have scheduled additional meetings over the past year to have timely discussions about the library's role in protecting public health and mitigating the spread of the virus in the community," she said.

Board discussion and action will be required to chart the path for returning to a regular service model.

"First steps towards 'normal' will be re-opening the building for 'grab-and-go' service. After that, we will reintroduce longer visits, eventually providing seating and study rooms," Keefe related. "We are planning outdoor programs for the summer. Public health numbers will determine when larger indoor gatherings at the library will be offered."

Implementing the library's present strategic plan and shaping the vision for the next one will be a significant task for the board, with a goal of setting up the library up for long-range success, she said.

"The library's current strategic plan goes through 2021. With several initiatives paused while the library has responded to COVID-19, the board will determine whether to extend the current plan or to develop a new plan for 2022 and beyond," she said.

On the facilities side, the new board will be responsible of shepherding the construction of family bathroom in the Youth Services Department in 2021 as part of an effort to make the library inviting to all visitors.

"The board approved a capital budget that included adding a gender-neutral bathroom on the lower level that would be accessible to those who need companion help," Keefe said. "The library has taken advantage of low occupancy rates to get several potentially disruptive projects done in 2020. In 2021, the board will be involved in approving final design and contracts for the family bathroom - the largest planned facilities project for the year."

District 86

While most hope the coronavirus pandemic will be a thing of the past when the 2021-22 school year starts, that might not be the case, Hinsdale High School District 86 Superintendent Tammy Prentiss said. And after listening to a recommendation from administrators, it will be up to the board to determine how many students are in the building and their daily and weekly schedules.

What school will look like in the fall depends to a great extent on the guidelines and assistance offered from the state and local health departments and the federal government, Prentiss said.

"All of our staff will be vaccinated. Will that have impact on the capacity of a high school campus?" Prentiss posed, noting that the necessity for pediatric vaccines also remains an open question. "Will they mandate juniors and seniors are vaccinated?"

Board members also will be busy this summer - and next - overseeing Phases 2 and 3 of Future Ready Facilities projects in the district.

"We still have two more very robust summer construction (seasons)," Prentiss said.

Voters in April 2019 approved almost $140 million worth of construction projects for Hinsdale Central and Hinsdale South high schools. The building plan is currently proceeding on time and under budget (by about $700,000), Prentiss said.

Projects related to the district's strategic plan - such as the move to a physics-chemistry-biology sequence and integrated math curriculum - are managed by Prentiss with oversight from the board. She said this board and future boards also will have to stay on top of a new capital improvement plan the district is about to embark on.

"Historically there has been no capital improvement plan in D86," she said. "It was sort of a run to fail model."

The biggest challenge to district finances as a whole could come from the state, if legislators pull funding or decide to shift the cost of teacher pensions to local districts.

"We have to be ready to pivot and still run a school district," she said. "Pension shift costs alone would be absolutely an unbelievable financial burden for the district."

As the new-elected board members' terms come to a close in 2025, they might be looking at refreshing the strategic plan, which extends through 2024-25.

"(It) would have to be a board-approved process to review and obtain more community input," Prentiss said. "That strategic plan was written by the community."