Candidates forum shows sharply different views of H-F High School

Candidates running for the Homewood-Flossmoor High School Board of Education Thursday presented widely opposing views of academics, finances and operations at what is arguably the centerpiece of the H-F community.

Three incumbent board members and two challengers appeared at a candidate forum sponsored by the Homewood-Flossmoor chapter of the League of Women Voters. Three other candidates, one incumbent and two challengers, were no-shows. About 200 persons attended the forum at H-F High School.

Four of seven board seats are at stake in the April 7 election.

“H-F is the crown jewel of the south suburbs,” said incumbent Debbie Berman. She pointed to continued high state and national rankings for the school and other signs that H-F is headed in the right direction – 93 percent of graduating students go to college, and 89 percent of those students stay in college; the high school district’s AAA bond rating; and new academic programs that are aimed at students on all achievement levels.

Challenger Don Popravak said the current board and administration suffers from a lack of transparency and leadership. In his opening statement, Popravak said the high school is heading downward and had his own list that showed decline – the high cost of remodeling the school superintendent’s office, nepotism in hiring, the superintendent’s salary and falling state test scores. According to the state’s School Report Card, Popravak said, only 47 percent of H-F graduates are prepared for college.

“We need to return to transparency, to eliminate waste and get back to basics,” Popravak said.

Berman and the other two incumbents at the forum, John Farrell and Tim Wenckus, largely agreed about the positive direction of the district. The fourth incumbent, Jody Scariano, was out of town.

Popravak’s running mates, Nora K. Beverly and Jennifer Hoekstra, did not attend the forum.

Wayne Holloway is the only candidate not aligned with any slate. Holloway, a retired IT specialist and longtime athletic coach on the high school and collegiate level, said he is running because H-F is no longer one of the top 10 high schools in Illinois. He said H-F needs to establish an academic support program so that all students in the school get the help they need. Holloway also said the high school needs to seek Title I funds, designed to assist low-income students.

Candidates fielded a number of questions from audience members. They were asked why they were running for the school board, how many school board meetings they have attended in recent months, how to lift academic performance, whether they would support a tax increase, whether all contracts should go out to bid, what they would change in the school district, whether a superintendent and principal are needed in a one-school district and whether teachers are overpaid.

There was a consensus on some of the questions. Every candidate agreed that teachers are not overpaid, especially considering their high level of skills and the long hours they put into the job. All five said they are against a property tax hike, with incumbents adding that the district is so financially healthy that a tax increase is not necessary.

Poprovak said that architectural work at the recently-renovated North Building did not go out to bid, and that all contracts approved by the district have not been posted on the H-F website, which he said was a violation of state law.

Farrell responded that architectural work does not have to go out to bid. He said the district’s relationship with its architectural firm resulted in $1.5 million in savings during the North Building project since there was no need to hire a general contractor. He also said that bonds for the project had a 2.2 percent interest rate and were issued when previous debt was being retired, resulting in more savings on a facility “that will serve the district for the next 50 years.”

Candidates were asked what they consider the biggest challenge facing the high school district.

Farrell said the biggest challenge is educating students who are on every achievement level. It’s important that H-F has programs that support all students, including tutoring, reading activities, mentoring and emotional support, he said.

Berman said “every student deserves appropriate challenges” and that H-F needs to continue developing “cutting edge” educational services. She said the high school has some of the state’s best special education programs.

Wenckus said he is most concerned about state funding for education and whether H-F and other schools will get their fair share of money to properly educate students.

Popravak said state cuts are coming; Gov. Bruce Rauner has indicated that state funding will be cut across the board and that the proposed Senate Bill 1 would reduce money at H-F and the two feeder districts by $2 million. Poprovak also said he is concerned about the achievement gap at H-F between “gifted students and the other students.” All students need a solid base in the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – to prepare them for 21st century jobs, he said.

Holloway said the biggest challenge facing H-F is making the transition from the state Prairie State exam to the new PARCC test. The new test takes nine hours and is given on computers rather than the paper and pencil that were used on the Prairie State test.

Toward the end of the forum, Berman took issue with some of the charges that Popravak has made about the school board during the campaign.

“I’ve been an attorney for 25 years,” she said. “I am personally offended to be accused of doing something unethical. If someone is going to make accusations, do you really want them as a role model on the school board?”

Popravak said some of his charges referred to board actions that took place before Berman was on the board. She was appointed to the board last September.

Later, though, Berman took out a letter from Popravak that she said accused the board of “a lack of transparency and honesty.”

“I’m proud to be on this board,” she said.   

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