Bunkers were in short supply Saturday morning at the Walter R. Sundling Junior High School in Palatine.
But the questions and comments still came hurtling in like rocket mortars as Palatine Township Elementary School District 15 officials quietly withstood a barrage of emotionally charged criticism and inquiries from parents unhappy about a controversial late start/early release provision in the 2013-14 teachers contract.
"It's an emotional issue for people," Superintendent Scott Thompson observed at the close of the two-and-a-half hour Communication Forum set up by district officials to obtain community feedback. An estimated 175 people showed up for the forum in the school auditorium.
Despite repeated calls for order and courtesy from Thompson, people at the rowdy gathering frequently asked key questions several times over, and interrupted officials and other parents by shouting questions and comments at random.
"We have rules here!" Thompson said. "Don't just shout out comments! ... Please try to keep it dignified, reasonable and calm."
Officials had previously sent an email survey to residents, asking if they would prefer students to start later or be dismissed earlier on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday to allow time for faculty members to attend professional development meetings at their schools.
But several parents charged that the survey should have included a Friday early dismissal option, because that might be the least disruptive to home schedules, a sentiment most of Saturday's crowd shared.
Thompson noted that negotiators for the teachers union downplayed any Friday option because it would be at the end of a workweek and would not be optimal for faculty.
But Thompson said that a Friday option would be forwarded to the six-member committee charged with making recommendations to the school board for a decision within the next few months.
The district received 1,687 responses from the community of an estimated 18,000 parents.
This drew fire from resident Meghan Haddad.
"Forty percent of our kids are underprivileged," she said. "This (survey) is not a true understanding of what parents really want. This neglects a large segment of District 15 parents."
A woman shouted, "The survey is skewed and flawed!"
Thompson flashed portions of the new teachers contract on a screen, showing how the negotiators settled on a preferred early dismissal option, unless it was met with "overwhelming opposition" by the public.
"I would like 'overwhelming opposition' to be defined," said Lisa Szczupaj, who spearheaded a petition drive that secured more than a thousand signatures from residents opposed to the late start/early dismissal options on the survey.
The auditorium broke into applause when she said, "We could get almost 1,200 signatures in the last 14 days. No doubt this constitutes some level of 'overwhelming opposition.'"
Thompson said that everything is still negotiable, but defended the 2013 teachers contract as a model of how district leaders and teachers can work together to ensure financial stability for the community's future.
Before the contract, Thompson said that the district was headed for financial trouble. The new contract, one that Thompson said is being emulated by other school districts, will reverse this trend and achieve a balanced budget within the next couple of years.
"This is a terrific contract," he said. "You may not like this component (the later start/early dismissal option), but you have to look at it in its entirety."
Deputy Superintendent James Garwood, board members Manjula Sriram and Gerard Iannuzzelli and board President Tim Millar also addressed audience concerns at the forum.
By the meeting's end, calm appeared to prevail, allowing some audience members to praise District 15 teachers and administrators.
"This meeting would never have taken place just three or four years ago under the old board," Scott Lindstrom said. "This board is attentive."
"Teachers at my school are awesome!" board critic Szczupaj said. "I think our administration is also awesome."
Sriram injected a note of levity as she closed the meeting.
"Try to come to the next one. It will be really fun!"