Guest Column: Rockford Public Schools: In the land of milk and honey
By Jane Hayes
Thankfully, The Rock River Times (TRRT) has once again included both sides of important issues by requesting that Dr. Ehren Jarrett, superintendent of Rockford Public School District 205, express himself in print in the Feb. 12-18 issue of TRRT. You have been the only newspaper in town that does this regularly. Indeed, expression of different views is fundamental to a free society when the Fourth Estate, or the press, upholds this practice.
According to our superintendent, Dr. Ehren Jarrett, in the February issue, “this is only the beginning. We’re evaluating our facilities, looking at the positives and negatives, and considering our needs and wants.” First, let me address this comment by saying, no, Dr. Jarrett, you do not address the negatives or answer the public’s questions. Too often, you do not answer the hard questions in forums but excuse yourself because of prior commitments.
According to your words: “We don’t have a preset plan. The school board and administration are set on giving our staff the best environments possible to teach and our students the best environments possible to learn. But what that looks like is, in part, up to you. We hope to have a plan in the late spring and work with the Facilities Input Committee — which includes members of the school board and the community — to pitch ideas to the public.”
Really? We do not need a pitchman. No, in my view, we need a forthright academic leader who doesn’t fear controversy or conflict, welcoming the chance to lead ethically and honestly. This comment seems too disingenuous to me, especially when your progressive plans have been implemented by controversial favoritism and cronyism.
Again, I question your words, because of numerous instances of conflict of interest, nepotism and favoritism prevailing throughout your administration. The latest egregious example of this is when the Rockford Orthopedic Association recruited an accomplished orthopedic surgeon to their practice. You already have one ortho surgeon that works in the Human Resource Department of 205. Of course, we need good doctors to join our community. Your father is instrumental in Rockford Orthopedic Association and serves as head administrator. Who could question this? However, did the Rockford School District have to give the latest surgeon a job as assistant superintendent, director of talent development and diversity? What? We never had such a job before.
This, and the fact that Stenstrom Contractors, partly under the leadership of your wife, Christie Stenstrom Jarrett, makes me wonder what is wrong with such judgment that allows any hint of impropriety. Why were so many contracting bids awarded to Stenstrom? Wasn’t it something like $13,000,000? Unfortunately, this smacks of conflict of interest to me. What are your ties to this company? Are you a stockholder? Your wife’s company is too close to this; the whisper of impropriety must be acknowledged and dealt with openly. Also, how many of your buddies or acquaintances have been hired by this district with hefty salaries? Do you and your team need to award your buddies?
Check out the Statement of Economic Interests with the Winnebago County Clerk online, register as a new user, and then be directed to this site: http://sei.winnebagocountyclerk.com/SEI/SubmissionConfirmation.aspx?Filingld=12424.
It is the job of this school board to hold everyone accountable, regardless of power and influence. Let’ be open, honest and accountable to the public, please!
According to your words, Dr. Jarrett: “There will be no shortage of ways to weigh in on the plans to help shape the future of our school buildings. There is more excitement on the way with our field houses at Auburn, Guilford and East high schools. We’ve already celebrated the upgrades at Jefferson High School. …” Wasn’t a construction manager hired for five years and hasn’t millions of dollars already been spent? And what is being done to justify this expense?
Yes, sports are integral to U.S. public education, but not elsewhere in the world. Countries like Finland, which is the most highly regarded nation for its excellence in education, seeks educational results first and respects and pays teachers accordingly. We need to prioritize academics, as other successful nations have done.
Now, look at Rockford! How about the fact that the state report card shows our district quite deficient in academic readiness? That item certainly was not emphasized and was barely mentioned in the press. Doesn’t that suggest how Rockford is failing our students by not preparing them properly academically?
If only the Communications Department, with several former Rockford Register Star reporters currently on the payroll, would publish more of the positives throughout the district such as plays, musicals, concerts and academic accomplishments of our students, I would think more highly of the balance projected by the district. As a former teacher in the district, I know there are many reasons to be proud of our students.
Another of your quotes: “We also are finding out what our teachers and staff need to give students for the best possible learning experience. Think learning labs, places where students build their knowledge and prepare for college, a career and a productive life.”
Really? I beg to differ. How about addressing the abundance of violence and discipline problems in our public schools? How about addressing numerous teachers in 205 who are fearful of teaching and/or losing their jobs if they speak up? Some have allegedly been sent to Chicago for psych evaluations (at district expense). They have reportedly had documents added to their personnel file, which makes them seem unfit to teach. Actually, this is a ploy to make it easier to fire dedicated teachers. How many teachers have been humiliated and bullied by their administrators with the threat of being released from duties? Or, is this just not something worth dealing with?
Just go to Watch the Corruption on Facebook to read more of the many unspoken dilemmas throughout District 205 (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Watchthecorruption/383906948371091).
This site appeals to the school board and administration to know what connections, if any, are related to any Seventh Street administration before any contract is signed for any new hire or bid award. Questions should always be asked! Are they a blood relative or related by marriage? Do any administrator’s spouses or relatives work for the bid company? Is any new hire currently working for your parents/in-laws or close relatives? Does the spouse of a new hire work for your parents or in-law? Did this person go to college with them, share a dorm room, or frat house? The board should demand to know not only why this person was chosen, but specific comparisons to other applicants should be made.
If you can tackle these challenging and controversial problems, then perhaps faith will be restored in your ethical and equitable educational leadership. Only then, will stakeholders start trusting this administration and school board.
In conclusion, the land of milk and honey comes from Exodus in the Bible, and fosters the hope to provide everything for the people once they arrive at the promise land. However, I do not expect perfection. I do not expect baseless promises that do not deliver. Instead, I expect (and solemnly request) TRUTH, integrity, ethics and morality of our leaders at the helm of your administration. The process of providing a good education is not easy, but is essential to the lifeblood of our community. To aspire toward this, you must dialogue honestly with stakeholders and accept the criticism that abounds throughout District 205.
Jane Hayes is a member of Watchdogs for Ethics in Education (WEE).
From the March 12-18, 2014 print edition