D200 School Board Candidates face off at forum

Funding for Project 2, the proposed renovation of athletic facilities, was among the most hotly contested topics at a forum for District 200 school board candidates held Feb. 16 at Dominican University.

The four candidates, Tim Brandhorst, Graham Brisben, Jonathan Livingston and Brian Souders, will vie for three open seats in the April 4 election. The forum was moderated by Charlie Meyerson, an Oak Park resident and digital newsletter publisher. During the event, each candidate answered the same predetermined questions in succession, followed by questions the live audience had written on notecards.

Souders stood out from the pack as a vehement supporter of a referendum to pay for Project 2. That would have voters–not the school board–decide how to fund the $102-million project.

Souders urged the board to be cautious in their choice to invest in sweeping renovations, arguing that spending too much on the project now could jeopardize future plans. Project 2 is the second phase of Imagine OPRF, a long-term plan for school upgrades.

“There’s been no discussion, zero discussion both with the finance committee and at the board table about our capacity to ever do phases three, four and five in our lifetimes,” he said. “We just keep saying we’re going to get a pool and a gym building. Those other facilities are not just athletic. They are classrooms, they’re labs, special ed, accessibility, music department, and those things are not being discussed in our capacity to ever do those in the future.” The board will vote on the financing strategy for Project 2 “by May 2023,” according to the Feb. 23’s Regular Board Meeting agenda.

The three other candidates disagreed with Souders’ stance. Brandhorst, who was a member of the Imagine OPRF Working Group in 2017 and 2018, argued that the board’s choices on what to renovate and

how are not as hasty as Souders’ portrayal. “I definitely support the process,” he said. “The Imagine team used those two years to investigate the entire school campus to identify all of the needs across the entire school,” he said.

He also pointed out that the south side of the building is mostly 75 to 100 years old, adding, “If you ask the PE teachers that work in those spaces, they will tell you, there’s all kinds of interesting and innovative things they want to do with students that they’re not able to do because of space constraints.”

Brisben agreed and credited the Imagine team for pouring “thousands of hours” into piecing together an effective renovation plan. He went on to describe the current state of the school building as a whole.

“If you walk through the high school, it’s like you’re walking through different periods of time,” he said. “So I’m in 2022 in the center of the building, and I go into 1967 past the band rooms, and then I walk into 1928 [in the gym]. And the building hasn’t changed.”

Brisben argued that the lack of physical changes to the gym facilities does not match the social changes that flourished beyond the area’s original time period, citing gender-separated pools and non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. “I don’t think that reflects our community’s values at all,” he said.

When asked about his stance on Project 2 at the forum, Livingston prefaced his statement by urging any Oak Park or River Forest residents who haven’t seen the current gym facilities to take a tour as soon as possible. Livingston himself had not seen the area prior to the school-led candidate tour weeks prior to the forum.

“I was very disarmed at what I saw…from my vantage point it’s a tremendous risk management liability minefield,” he said. “For one, it almost has a psychological effect on you when you go into these facilities. They’re so old and so depressing.”

He made his support for the current board’s approach clear, describing it as “empathic, thoughtful and certainly charged with integrity.”

To gain more insight, the Trapeze reached out to all candidates for interviews. Brandhorst and Brisben responded by press time, and plans are underway to interview Souders as well. Brandhorst and Brisben supported detracking the freshman curriculum, which began at OPRF this year. “It used to be that some kids were encouraged to take all honors classes, and some kids were encouraged to take no honors classes, and there really wasn’t much intentionality around it for the actual student to be making those choices,” Brandhorst said. “I do support it. I’m really hopeful for the long term that it’s going to work,” he said.

Brisben also supported detracking for its strides towards equity and closing racial disparities in academics. “It’s one of several strategies and tactics that the administration has undertaken in order to address the opportunity gap… and as a lead approach, I support it,” he said. “We need to monitor the data, we need to get continuous feedback from teachers, but in general, I would say I am supportive of that ‘honors for all approach.’”

The Trapeze also asked the candidates about their personal reasons for running. For Brisben, it would be a return of sorts, as he served on the District 97 school board from 2013 to 2017. Brisben explained that he was raised by a single mother after being born in Scotland and moving to the United States at a young age. “My biological father abandoned the family. It was just me and my mother, and she moved me back to Iowa, where she became a third grade teacher in the public schools. I was a latchkey as of the first grade, so it kind of starts there,” he said.

Brandhorst was a Chicago Public Schools administrator from 1996 to 2000, initially working as the director of labor relations for three years before moving onto being director of policy development and compliance for one year. His kids also went through the rings of the Oak Park school system, which piqued his interest in running “out of gratitude. District 200 has been really good to my family. Service to the high school and to the district is the only way I have to repay that debt of gratitude,” he said.