How Dist. 204 candidates would tackle large classes, unbalanced populations
Large classes and crowded buildings are on the minds of candidates for school board in Indian Prairie Unit District 204.
The issues matter to voters as well, because lowering class sizes was the top priority in a community engagement campaign that ended last May.
To decrease the average class from 27 to 24 students would require an annual investment of $16.7 million, according to district estimates -- an amount officials say they can't devote without a property tax increase.
There is no tax increase proposal on the April 2 ballot.
But voters in parts of Naperville, Aurora, Bolingbrook and Plainfield will be asked to choose three candidates among five school board hopefuls who are seeking 4-year terms. Incumbents Mark Rising, Justin Karubas and Natasha Grover are seeking re-election against challengers Gautam "GB" Bhatia and Carole Jones.
Candidates say class sizes also relate to crowding, primarily on the north side of the district, where a 2017 demographic study found student populations over capacity at Brookdale, Brooks and Peterson elementaries and Metea Valley High School.
One candidate suggests adjusting boundaries soon to get ahead of crowding before new housing is built that could worsen the problem. But the rest propose variations on a wait-and-see approach in hopes the district's projected decreasing enrollment will create a partial solution.
Bhatia, a 50-year-old Aurora resident and cybersecurity engineer, said now could be better than later to address crowded schools and large classes with a redistricting process, although he'd need more information before deciding whether he would ask voters for increased funds. He knows parents become attached to their children's schools, but said the district can "soften the blow" with consistent communication.
"We do have to, at some point, get past the emotion and look at the bigger picture of what's going to benefit, or what's going to be in the best interest of the entire school district," Bhatia said. "It's only a matter of time that this (redistricting) is really going to have to happen to reduce class sizes, where class sizes are at the maximum in Metea on the northern side, so why not get ahead of the game a little bit?"
Grover, a 46-year-old attorney who lives in Naperville, may take the strongest opposite stance, saying redistricting with boundary changes should occur only as "the last tool." Grover said she would not support a property tax increase to decrease class sizes, and if boundary changes must occur, they should follow subdivision lines.
A better solution to large learning settings, Grover said, is providing more teaching assistants and making sure teachers are well prepared.
"Instead of looking at class size, it's how much is a teacher engaged? Does the teacher have support systems in place?" she said. "Because that's more important."
Jones, a Naperville resident and national retail sales manager, also proposes a different way of thinking, following research that students benefit from increased diversity of perspectives in courses such as English, but may struggle when not enough one-on-one attention is provided in courses such as science.
"What I would suggest is to take an out-of-the-box approach and take a look at what classes can sustain larger class sizes," Jones said. "I really do believe you need to take a look at the subject and figure out what is the optimal, what's the best class size for that subject."
Jones said she doubts the district will have a choice but to draw new boundaries, especially if the city of Aurora approves major housing projects under consideration near Fox Valley mall. But she would look to find budget efficiencies before asking voters to shell out higher taxes.
Rising, a 50-year-old Aurora resident who works in sales management and consulting, said he's attended many Aurora meetings about proposed housing, and he thinks now is not the time to adjust boundaries or seek a tax increase. When the district gets to that point, which he predicts will be in at least five years, he said communication needs to increase so officials avoid the pitfalls of the last major redistricting conducted in 2008 before Metea opened.
"Metea is at but not over capacity. We're OK. We're stable," Rising said. "It would be far too early to make any type of districtwide boundary change."
Karubas, a 45-year-old Naperville resident and attorney, said 2027 may offer a chance to find more funding to decrease class sizes. That's when, he said, the district will pay off remaining debt, offering the chance for a referendum to keep taxes stable and use money no longer going toward loans to hire more teachers and shrink classes.
He said boundaries will need adjustment in the "near term," or about five years.
"If you look at our map on residential districts, it's a mess. It needs to get cleaned up," he said. "We're doing the little fixes here and there. The little fixes are increasing our transportation costs. But you really need to rip the Band-Aid off and start over."