Old and new controversies on curriculum and equity surface in District 59 race
Controversies over a past superintendent's curriculum changes and the current superintendent's equity plan has brought out a crowded field of school board candidates in Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59.
Candidate filing last December came on the heels of the board's rejection of Superintendent Terri Bresnahan's proposal that would have reconfigured elementary schools into grade level centers, redistricted some areas, and repurposed the year-round Ridge Family Center into a preschool.
All six candidates in the race for three, 4-year terms say they opposed the plans to varying degrees. That includes incumbent board Secretary Patti Petrielli, former longtime board member Barbara Somogyi, recently-retired District 59 school office manager Rose Kelly, Elk Grove Village library board member TR Johnson, and parents Sarah Dzak and Lucas Szczesny.
The last three are running on the Save Our Schools slate backed by Johnson's father, Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson. The District 59 Education Association union endorsed Dzak, Szczesny, Petrielli and Kelly.
Two current board members -- President Randy Reid, who voted for Bresnahan's equity plan, and Vice President Courtney Lang, who voted against it -- decided not to seek reelection.
Petrielli, a former District 59 teacher who is finishing her first term on the board, said the new curriculum needs to be rolled out quicker. She called former Superintendent Art Fessler's curriculum -- that emphasized students' learning experiences over more traditional textbook approaches -- a "next big idea in education" that was lacking.
"I think if we want to bring teachers into this district, we need to show them we are the district that we were 7 or 8 years ago before we got the superintendent in that started to take away everything," Petrielli said during a League of Women Voters candidates forum. "We need to put everything back the way it was."
Somogyi, who served on the board from 1975 to 1978 and from 1981 to 2019, said the recent equity plan debate caused "division and unrest and lack of trust," and led her to run again. She said new board members are important -- a total of 14 have rotated on and off the panel since her electoral defeat in 2019 -- but it's also important to have "history and stability."
"Any major decisions, and even small ones, should be made with early notice, open dialogue and debate before an administrative recommendation comes," she said.
Kelly, who helped negotiate four labor contracts for education support professionals, said she would listen to all sides during contentious debates, and bring the district back to the "golden district everyone wanted to work for."
"I need to find the purpose for our staff and students to be safe and feel secure once again in their learning and everything that they do," Kelly said. "We need to get our communication between the admin. and the staff back together and find respect for our staff. Respect went out the door, and I don't know why."
Johnson, an eight-year library trustee who is associate vice president of ticket sales and strategy for the Chicago Fire, said the district has plenty of resources, but they need to be put to better use to "get everything back on track." He cited curriculum, safety and stability as top issues.
"I know the potential of the district and I'm here to get us back to the district that I attended when I was growing up," he said.
Dzak, a stay-at-home mom and former high school English teacher, said the district needs a new metric to know when and where students need extra support, and the proper staffing of academic interventionists and tutors.
"We've got to right the ship, and we've got to right it fast," she said.
Szczesny, a senior manager at tech firm Relativity, said Bresnahan's equity proposal was "to basically equalize everything and potentially ruin our district and ruin our community schools." Instead, he argued, there are better ways to invest in equity, such as by expediting the curriculum rollout.
District 59 has 11 elementary schools, three junior high schools and an early learning center covering an area that includes portions of Arlington Heights, Des Plaines, Elk Grove Village and Mount Prospect.