Guest Column: ‘Can you hear me now?’ School board member responds

Editor’s note: The following is in response to the May 8-14, 2013, guest column “Rockford schools: Can you hear me now?” by Jane Hayes.

By Tim Rollins

It must be wonderful to live in Jane Hayes’ world, a world where one can write and say whatever one wishes without being constrained by such unimportant things as facts and reality. Sadly, I do not live in that world. I live in a world where facts actually do matter, in a world of limited resources and competing interests. I would much prefer to live in Ms. Hayes’ world. Life would be so much simpler.

In her last column, Ms. Hayes noted that during a school board meeting I had listed many of the district’s accomplishments over the past two years, but in that same column she claimed that “there has been a reluctance to meet the needs of about 20 percent of the fringe [sic] students near the bottom who are in dire need of interventions.” Yet, among the (many) accomplishments I described were that we brought back the seventh period at the secondary schools, we increased the length of the school day at the elementary schools, we have begun to take the fine arts programs in the schools off life support, we have redesigned the high schools around career-themed academies as a way of engaging students who are at risk, and we greatly expanded our alternative education programs for struggling students. We have also greatly expanded our sports programs, and added additional resources at “empowerment zone” schools that have larger populations of at-risk children. Perhaps I need to connect the dots for Ms. Hayes:

By expanding our alternative education programs, we created approximately 180 additional alternative education seats that did not previously exist, while also adding three social workers and two job coaches, all of which actions are geared toward helping struggling students.

The seventh period, while benefiting all students, provides additional opportunities for tutoring and support services for struggling students.

By extending the length of the elementary school day, we are beginning to provide additional instructional resources to students at the elementary level.

Anyone who is involved in the arts (perhaps Ms. Hayes is not one of them) knows the arts are a wonderful way to reach and engage many students whom we otherwise have trouble engaging through traditional academic programs.

The redesign of the high schools was expressly intended to engage students who are not currently engaged and to begin to address our high school drop-out rate.

Sports is yet another way of engaging some students who would not otherwise be engaged in academics. The expansion of the sports programs was done in connection with providing additional academic support for struggling student athletes. Expansion of sports is not the end goal, but a means to an end.

None of these initiatives is a complete solution. Even taken together they do not offer a complete solution. We do not have unlimited resources, educators are not miracle workers, and people who believe that students and parents bear no responsibility for the quality of a student’s educational outcome are profoundly mistaken. But these are concrete steps that we have taken, with a lot of work on the part of the board and administration, to offer more support and opportunities to struggling students. Ms. Hayes’ claim that there is a “reluctance” to help struggling (a term I much prefer to “fringe”) students has no basis in fact.

Another accomplishment I noted was that the board and administration reduced taxes by $16 million in this levy year, while simultaneously planning and implementing a comprehensive facilities plan that will result in the first district-wide upgrade of our public schools in more than 50 years. So, yes, Ms. Hayes, I do think we are listening to the taxpayers. In two years, we have expanded programs, begun a process to fix our facilities, and actually reduced taxes.

Against this backdrop of accomplishments, we are chided for (gasp!) not performing a formal evaluation of the board’s general counsel. For people who seem so concerned about what we are doing for struggling learners, this focus on the evaluation of our general counsel seems a bit strange. When you look at the things that we have done in the past two years that will benefit the students, staff and taxpayers of this district, and when you know the amount of time and energy that some of us put into getting those actions accomplished, I hope we can be excused for thinking that our time and energy was better spent on those substantive accomplishments than on doing a formal evaluation of the general counsel. I certainly agree we ought to do one, I hope that our plate will not be quite so full with more pressing (and more substantive) matters, and I hope that we can accomplish one that is free from the personal vendettas that seem to mar school board politics in this district (an example of which underlies the real, but unarticulated, reason for Ms. Hayes’ column).

Someday, I hope to join Ms. Hayes in her deliciously fact-free world. For now, I intend to keep plugging along, trying as best I can to balance the interests of all students, staff and taxpayers in the Rockford School District.

Tim Rollins is a member of the Rockford Board of Education, representing Subdistrict B.

From the May 15-21, 2013, issue

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