School watchdog group holds public meeting, cites District 205 leadership flaws
By Jim Hagerty
About 40 people gathered at Rockford’s Unitarian Universalist Church Wednesday, Dec. 15, for a meeting of the Watchdogs for Ethics in Education (WEE).
Composed of a handful of retired teachers, WEE members presented information about its fight to keep Rockford Public School District 205 accountable to the community.
According to WEE leader Jane Hayes, the meeting was largely successful, however, the group is still under fire with accusations that it is spreading rumors. Those accusations, the 11-year District 205 retiree said, are false.
“To some, we were only bashing (Superintendent Dr. LaVonne) Sheffield,” Hayes said. “Towards the end of the meeting, it may have seemed like that. That is why our intention is to present facts through FOIA. We want the truth.”
That truth, Hayes said, centers on school violence, the district’s budget and spending, which the group says has not been accurately communicated to District 205 stakeholders.
“On average, it costs about $8,000 a year per student,” Hayes said. “Here, we are spending four and five times that. So, first, we need fiscal responsibility and open communication as to why.”
As of Dec. 15, WEE has filed more than 20 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the district.
Group refutes claims of racism, questions district leadership
In Superintendent Dr. LaVonne M. Sheffield’s Dec. 9 State of the Schools speech, the district head cited racial segregation as a catalyst for many of the district’s problems. According to Hayes, her group has been accused of following suit.
However, according to WEE members, the race card is not even in the deck it’s holding.
“We don’t want to come across like that,” Hayes added. “We want people to be treated in a civil fashion–fair treatment. But, we believe the district is covering up spending and things they don’t want people to know.”
As for school violence, Hayes’ group is concerned about changes in the district’s discipline code, and how dangerous incidents involving teachers and students are being handled and reported.
“If a fight breaks out involving say six students,” Hayes claims, “only one (disciplinary) referral is given. Instead of giving six referrals, teachers are discouraged from reporting the assaults.”
Violence, combined with code changes, has created an unsafe environment for students and teachers. The result, WEE members say, continues to take form of a lowered morale inside the city’s classrooms.
Hayes’ teaching career spanned 27 years, 11 in District 205. Last year, she was a full-time substitute at Guilford High School.
Without a contract, Hayes was not, technically, a district staff member during the 2009-2010 school year.
However, Hayes said the current district leadership differs drastically from how District 205 was headed in the past.
“Being a superintendent is an overwhelming job,” Hayes said. “You can’t do it alone. You need to have experts under you. When (former Superintendent Dennis) Thompson was in town, he had people under him that were very skilled. What I see now are only ‘yes’ men.
“To have good leadership, you have to have people who are allowed to question and challenge you. What we have now are people who are afraid of losing their jobs. They have to do what they are told; and that is challenging the whole community.”
Last Thursday, Dec. 9, Sheffield addressed about 300 business and community leaders in her first State of the Schools address at Cliffbreakers.
Sheffield said racial and educational segregation are at the fore of many of the district’s woes. Changes are being made, including cuts, to ensure that an efficiently-managed curriculum remain among the administration’s top priorities.
Tuesday, Dec. 14, the Rockford Board of Education voted to restore high school gifted classes for the 2011-2012 school year.
The administration proposed cutting gifted classes, claiming they are the pathway to segregation and do not differ from general education courses.
Although gifted classes will be offered next year, each must have a minimum of 29 or 30 students.
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