Issues in D86 have divided board members

4-3 votes common since last election; three members of majority not seeking re-election

Series: Decision 2023 | Story 3

The Hinsdalean typically begins its election coverage looking at the various topics that have been discussed at the board table over the past few years, with the goal of giving voters a sense of what new board members will face after the election.

The superintendent and a sitting board member usually are interviewed for the story, and special attention is paid to any topics that have been divisive.

In Hinsdale High School District 86, it would almost be easier to list topics that have not split the board than those that have. Division has been the hallmark at board meetings since four new board members — Peggy James, Debbie Levinthal, Terri Walker and Jeff Waters — were elected in April 2021.

In May of that year, the board spent 2 1/2 hours and 10 votes deciding who would be its next president. Eventually Walker earned the requisite four votes.

Just a month later, the four new board members and their three colleagues — Eric Held, Cynthia Hanson and Kathleen Hirsman — found themselves at odds over a plan to teach integrated math in the district. The four were not convinced the plan would benefit students, even though the previous board had approved it six months before they were elected. Hanson, Held and Hirsman stood by their convictions.

“The board already passed this in October,” Held said at the May 26 meeting. “The board doesn’t need to pass it again.”

The board ultimately rejected the plan in a 4-3 vote in June before tackling another curriculum matter that had been approved by the previous board, the change to a “physics first” science sequence. The new sequence was not overturned, but the new board majority voted to preserve the original biology-chemistry physics sequence as well.

Other issues that have divided the board include changes to the district’s grading policy, efforts to align the program of studies (course offerings) between Hinsdale Central and Hinsdale South, the number of early release Wednesdays for the 2022-23 school year and even how to add items to the agenda for future board meetings.

Tensions were running so high in the fall of 2021 that board members Erik Held and Jeff Waters got into a heated exchange outside Hinsdale South High School that led to Held filing a grievance complaint against Waters. The district’s law firm investigated and determined board policy was not violated, but emphasized board member should “exhibit appropriate behavior, including refraining from using profanity or threatening language at district meetings, on district property or at any district-related event.”

The spring 2022 election of board officers was not quite as bad as the previous year’s, but once again highlighted the division on the board. The board majority by this point had shifted, with Walker typically voting with Hanson, Held and Hirsman. Levinthal criticized the four for “blocking any sort of unification of the board or trust” and Hanson calling for “leaders who can unify this board, and not at the expense of alienating our administration.”

One board meeting in June ended abruptly after James, Levinthal and Waters walked out in protest over the approval of closed session meeting minutes. Their departure left the board without the quorum needed to conduct business.

Next to curriculum issues, the biggest divisions on the board have involved district leadership — specifically Superintendent Tammy Prentiss. She drew the most criticism in January after reading a letter at the Jan. 13 school board meeting from Valda Valbrun, who withdrew her name as a potential diversity, equity and inclusion consultant to work in the district. Later, emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request showed Prentiss added two lines to Valbrun’s withdrawal letter, including one that said “Hinsdale is a dangerous place.”

Prentiss also was criticized at a February meeting for not being better prepared to deal with the outcome of a lawsuit some Illinois families filed objecting to the mask mandate. The district’s interpretation that the temporary restraining order halting mask enforcement applied only to the students whose families were involved in the suit led to student protests and angry residents speaking out at board meetings.

Community members weren’t the only ones criticizing Prentiss. Three of the seven board members voted against a 1.4 percent salary increase for the superintendent in August.

“The measure’s request does not align with my confidence in the superintendent,” Waters said at a July 28 meeting.

Board members were split again in August when they voted 4-3 to approve new performance goals for Prentiss.

“The goals that were presented for approval are as inadequate as they are incomplete,” Levinthal told The Hinsdalean.

Most recently the board split again in approving a 31-day contract extension for Superintendent Tammy Prentiss. Prentiss plans to retire July 31, 2024, and the additional days enable her to do so with a full pension.

The contract also states Prentiss cannot be terminated for her actions during the Valbrun incident, citing an independent external investigation and the board's subsequent conclusion there was no cause for her dismissal.

Former District 86 Board member Keith Chval noted that in the past, board members might have had too much of a “hands off” approach and said school board members must be accountable to residents.

“What happens in the school should reflect the community’s broad expectations and ideas,” said Chval, who served from 2017-21.

Animosity and tension, commonly on display at school board meetings across the country, do not benefit the district, Chval commented.

“Current and the next board members have to figure out that balance between what is their appropriate role and how do you act upon that, how do you execute that,” he said. “It may be in part a situation where there’s an argument that the administration, maybe some educators, need to kind of reassess that balance as well.”

He suggested a similar approach for the public, too.

“We need to educate all of us on what our appropriate, respective roles are and what the boundaries of those are to help set expectations,” he added.

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean