Controversial District 59 curriculum leads to crowded school board race
Rancor over the Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 curriculum has led to a crowded field of school board candidates -- at least one of whom suggested it could cost the superintendent his job.
Seven candidates -- including one longtime incumbent and another two candidates running together as a slate -- are seeking three available seats on the board. All have expressed varying degrees of dissatisfaction with Superintendent Art Fessler's curriculum and how it has been rolled out. Some have suggested making tweaks, while others have recommended wholesale changes.
The election comes after a group of residents started coming to board meetings to express frustration about the curriculum and its possible effect on test scores and property values.
Barbara Somogyi, the board's longest-tenured member with 41 years on the elected panel, acknowledged there "might have been some mistakes made" when the district changed from a more traditional curriculum into one that emphasizes students' learning experiences. Going forward, she agrees that teachers who are asking the board and administration for books and other supporting materials should get them.
"It's very important to learn from the past, and take best practices from the future," Somogyi said. "I don't want to go back to the past, but we can learn from it."
Dan Naumowicz, a property manager and District 59 parent critical of the current board and superintendent, suggested in early campaign literature that Fessler, hired in 2013, be fired.
Naumowicz has since said if changes are made and the district improves, he might be in favor of Fessler staying on. Fessler's contract runs through June 2021.
"He's in charge. He's the guy at the top …," Naumowicz said. "If it comes to it, it comes to it -- he has to go. If that's what we decide as a board, that's what will happen."
Patti Petrielli, a substitute teacher in the district who retired last year after 25 years full time, called the curriculum "an experiment" that was forced upon teachers, and she believes it's led to lower student test scores and left them unprepared.
"He's run amok," Petrielli said of Fessler. "There's a reason he's been able to get away with all this stuff, because nobody's kept close enough watch on what's actually happening."
James Goranson, a sales manager and parent, characterized the district's curriculum as no curriculum at all, which he says has left teachers stressed and without proper resources. Goranson suggested a better math program be put in place immediately.
He argued there should be a "reestablishment and recalibration" of what the board's responsibilities are.
Lisa Griffin, a business development consultant and former teacher, said the board should push for changes for a "standards-based" curriculum that she believes will lead to better student test scores. She touted experience writing curriculum for the National Air and Space Museum.
Two district parents running together as a slate, attorney Courtney Lang and senior analyst Randy Reid, agreed there are gaps in the curriculum and its implementation has been poor. They said programming must improve, especially in math and science.
Lang added that she likes Fessler's emphasis on early childhood development and social-emotional learning, but shares concerns of some teachers and parents that he should be a better listener.
"I would bring a balanced perspective to what is good and bad about the district," Lang said. "My eyes are open to the weaknesses."
District administrators, meanwhile, have defended their programming, saying the new curriculum is indeed standards-based. But they also recently established a 75-person curriculum committee -- composed of staff members, residents, administrators and board members -- to identify gaps and strengthen academic areas. The group's second meeting is scheduled for Monday -- the same day the school board will start preparing for its annual evaluation of Fessler.
Lang and Reid were able to stay on the ballot after objections to their nominating petitions by Naumowicz and fellow Elk Grove Village resident Bill Christian were denied in January by a Cook County panel.
While Somogyi is seeking another term, two other board members, Tim Burns and Sunil Bhave, decided not to run again.
The candidates live in Elk Grove Village, except Lang and Griffin, who live in Arlington Heights. District 59 includes portions of those two towns along with parts of Des Plaines and Mount Prospect.