Rich Olejniczak: 2021 candidate for District 25 school board
Eight candidates are running for four, 4-year terms on the Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 school board.
City: Arlington Heights
Occupation: Technology -- Data Programs
Employer: Wintrust Financial Corp.
Civic involvement: Current School District 25 Board Member, John Hersey High School Athletic Booster, Polish National Alliance, Night Ministry
Q. Why are you running for this office? Is there a particular issue that motivates you, and if so, what is it?
A. I am running for a 3rd term because simply put, I feel that I am in a position to do more. I have experienced my daughter moving through the District over these past 8 years, so I have a good breath of experiences to draw upon to assist the board in discussing the future of the District. This coupled with my professional background focused on business processes, Data Programs, teaching experiences and Change Management puts me in a position to have the critical conversations based on data and metrics, around our programs and what programs need investment or which ones need to be redirected. Over the last year, we have experienced much change in our community as well as how our District must adapt to the new landscape. We need to be in a position to be more nimble and more adaptive to meet the needs of all of our students. We cannot continue to move at a pace that was comfortable as little as two years ago. Thus programs such as Full Day Kindergarten, Special Education, Gifted and Talented Education and Language education all need review to assess are we doing the most to reach the students' potential vs only educate to a standard.
For example, many students already come to the district speaking other languages. How are we utilizing that fact as an opportunity to push the student further? COVID demonstrated that we can teach in a remote setting. Think of the possibilities if we were able to teach more languages by leveraging native speaking teachers in that country. We simply can no longer continue to operate in a manner that made the district successful just a few years ago. If we are to continue to be a "Destination District" than we need to push the boundary and offer new programs and services in unique methods so that students can meet their potential.
Q. How would you grade the current school board on its response to the pandemic? Why?
A. In my opinion we did well, we learned and we adapted. Like in all areas, when you have the ability to reflect on actions, one can ask the critically important question of "what could we have done differently?" And of course the answer is "Yes" there are areas we can have done differently or better. Bill Gates had a quote: "We all need people who will give us feedback. That's how we improve." Over the course of several months, we received much feedback via phone calls, and constituent feedback, which is really great. This feedback I think really helped us realize some points:
1) Community Involvement: I believe as we have had a "smooth" running district, we became somewhat complacent in seeking community feedback, input and guidance. Therefore I feel we didn't fully capture the community's input into the plan. At the end of the day, we sit in trust of the entire community and must ensure that we provide the staff with the appropriate level of end state objectives. However this is an area we need to improve that we increase the type and level of 2-way communication with the community and teachers and that we are more accessible to the community and teachers. This is not just parents. All taxpayers are part of what makes the community strong so we need to engage more with the experiences and wisdom of seniors as well as the expectations of new parents.
2) Board Discussions: Though some may have thought that our discussions where odd. This was actually a wonderful development as a Board and per the Open Meetings Act, the only way to ensure that we have diversity of thought and debate. This level of discussion actually helps to ensure that every idea and opinion is reviewed.
3) Forward planning: Because we continued to focus on our financial oversight, the District had the immediate financial means to secure logistical issues and plan. For example securing masks, temperature devices, additional air filtration or even ensuring our staff was getting vaccinated while other districts are just beginning to plan. A great example is that today, February 12th the Illinois Association of School Boards issued a letter from the Executive Director; Dr. Thomas Bertrand which basically was asking all schools districts to be patient waiting for the vaccines. Our district next week will have their 2d dose.
4) Family choice: Through all our decisions. I feel that we focused on ensuring that families have a choice in how to best educate their children. This simple thought is invaluable and one that we need to continue.
Q. How do you view your role in confronting the pandemic: provide leadership even if unpopular, give a voice to constituents -- even ones with whom you disagree, or defer to state authorities?
A. The SD25 Board Governance documents, communicate the School Board's role. "School Boards establish the standards and philosophies by which the district is run and the criteria used to judge whether they are being run well." Thus our role during all times is to state, what the community wants (the objective), what the community is willing to pay for the objective, and what measures we will use to assess the attainment of the objective. Thus in my opinion, the Board should, based on assessing the guidance from many different sources, provide the expectations of the community as to what we would expect the educational experience to be to the staff. Then allow the superintendent and staff to determine the best way to meet the expectations. Of course the board must also hold the superintendent accountable for the meeting the outcomes. What makes our democracy so strong is the right to communicate and voice one's thoughts and ideas. Because we hold the Public's trust, we must continue to find ways to encourage 2-way conversations with all parts of the community so that we fully have diversity of thought and can meet the needs of all members in the community. I would offer the need for additional sessions where Board Members are available for candid interaction with all members of the community and to both ask and answer questions. We should look beyond solely looking to community feedback during one way interactions during our meetings, or responding to emails. If we wait for the community to come to us, we will not fully appreciate the community's view, rather we would understand the views of those that took the time to come to a meeting or write a note. I would encourage sessions with the Village Trustees and well as the boards of the AH Park District as well as the AH Memorial Library. Jointly we represent what is great in our community. There is a saying "It takes a Village to raise a child" Well we are a Village. So working together we can create programs that allow our children to reach their potential.
Q. Did your district continue to adequately serve students during the disruptions caused by the pandemic? If so, please cite an example of how it successfully adjusted to continue providing services. If not, please cite a specific example of what could have been done better.
A. I personally feel we served the students in the best way we could, based on the information that we had and have. Could we have done more, or done things differently, absolutely. And to recognize that, is good thing. We should reflect on the decisions and choices and learn and adapt our future decisions based on those reflections. I believe coming from the spring in '20, when we first faced the pandemic, the staff did a great job in adapting quickly to the situation. The pandemic helped demonstrate one of the areas that makes this district great. The commitment of our teachers and staff to the students of the District. A great example and one easily overlooked, is our maintenance personnel that have adapted processes and procedures such as cleaning our areas multiple times a day, moving furniture and ensuring our buildings operate in a safe manner. Or our teachers and staff checking in on students or delivering materials to a student's home so that students can participate effectively while remote. Or balancing the challenges associated with teaching to students both in class as well as those who were remote. That being said, even with the best efforts of the staff, there are areas both from a social/emotional stand point and core educational areas that will need to reinforced. This again is an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the staff in meeting the new challenge and the expectation of the community. Soon we will see the results of the first real achievement testing for the students. Understanding what achievement gaps were created will lay the foundation of how we move forward and catch the students back up.
Q. Do you have a plan on how to safely and effectively conduct classes in the spring? What have you learned from the fall semester that you would change in the spring?
A. A board's role is to set the expectations and let the staff create the plan to meet those expectations. Over the last few months, the staff has adapted based on guidance from the Board and the learnings from the experience. We have seen consistency in the many survey's given to the parents of the District. Between 70% -- 75% of the parents have consistently said they want their children in school. To that end we have offered choices for parents to meet their specific family circumstances while gradually increasing the number of children in the schools. From the Hybrid model in October, to moving those needing additional assistance to 4 days a week in December and then to 4 days a week for all students in mid-January. During this time the staff adapted their teaching methods, adjusted the classrooms. We were one of the first districts to offer on-site COVID testing for our staff and recently one of the first Districts to already have the majority of our staff vaccinated. Al these are examples of preparations to ensure we are providing choices for families for their children. Personally I think one of the key things that we need to review is how we quickly change and adapt. This is a large diverse district and we need to review an adapt our methods of communication not only internally within the District, but externally to the community. In a time of change, communication must increase in multiple ways to ensure that the message is consistently heard. We simply cannot rely on written emails. As an example using videos to help communicate the change would help the community and staff better understand the change. The other learning is that teaching to both students who are remote and those in class is challenging. There are many options to alleviate that challenge all of which have pros and cons. However I have faith in our District Staff to develop options for this challenge yet provides for the overall goal of ensuring that the all have the equal opportunity to reach their potential. In the end decisions being made by the Board and Staff are based on reaching the goals of district while mitigating the risks based on health department guidance. What we have learned is that as Health Department Leadership learns more about COVID and the amount of vaccinations increase, the guidance will change and different mitigation strategies will be needed. As mentioned earlier, in my opinion, a board must also adapt it's expectation based on the changing guidance.
Q. What is your position on allowing high school sports to continue during the pandemic? Be specific.
A. This is a difficult and challenging question as I don't have the information that the IHSA has nor the High School District Leadership. I feel the leaders of all organizations affiliated with that topic have the best intentions of the students, coaches and parents when making that decision. There are many different implications to the question. High School athletics play a role in not only the physical growth of children, but it plays a significant role in terms of student leadership, emotional and social growth. Then there is the aspect that for many, high school sports provide the means to go to college via athletic scholarships. As well as the ancillary programs that are involved, the Yearbook staff, School Newspapers, Cheer squads etc ... all are impacted by the decision. Colleges and pro sports have demonstrated that there are ways to continue athletic events. Balancing all those needs and facts with methods to mitigate the risks associated with COVID is a challenge that I have faith that the IHSA and District Staff will find ways to meet.
The recent announcements that some IHSA sports will play in the spring is an example of the balance that not only they have made, but all districts must make. The IHSA and local districts have placed mitigation strategies such as limiting crowd sizes to meet the needs of the students.
Q. What other issues need to be addressed?
A. To truly be a forward looking District, rather than looking at issues, we need to look at opportunities that are aligned to our goals. The District is blessed with a strong PTA. Now how do we leverage that with increase community awareness and input developed over the last few months into sustained participation in the educational process? The majority of School Districts in Illinois offer some type of Full Day Kindergarten for students. In a recent School Information Fair held by the Arlington Heights Memorial Library which showcased local public and private schools, District 25 was the only elementary school program that did not offer a full day kindergarten option for students. This is an opportunity that we need to review and understand the community's thoughts on this topic. Studies demonstrate that earlier we can engage our children in educational services, the better the children perform. Additionally, I feel there is an opportunity to review and assess how we not only meet all levels of student. We can no longer simply use models that were successful yesterday. Technology continues to evolve. Reflect on what was the "norm" 5 years ago, that is no longer than norm today. That evolution enables opportunities for partnerships with corporations or even other school districts to pool resources to help all levels of the student. COVID demonstrated that we can teach effectively in a remote setting. Therefore, think of the possibilities if Spanish could be taught by an instructor that resides in Spain! Or partnering with D214 so that the device the get in the our District follows them into high school with all their information and work. As an educational institution our focus should be to ensure we afford the means for the student to reach their potential vs simply educating them.