Seeking the same level as a popular principal departs

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in the July 21, 2016, print edition of the Chronicle. 

I  have one bit of advice for the Homewood-Flossmoor High School Board of Education.

Next time you call a big town hall meeting on a controversial issue, don’t conduct it from the stage of the high school auditorium.

  Tom Houlihan

That space should be reserved for concerts and plays and athletic awards nights. If you ever again are faced with a crowd of several hundred taxpaying residents, many of them furious about a recent board action, hold the meeting in the cafeteria.

There are times that the school board needs to be on the same level as the rest of us taxpaying residents. And the remarkable June 30 special board meeting following the dismissal of Principal Ryan Pitcock was one of those occasions. 

Yes, I know. There are perfectly good reasons to hold a meeting in the auditorium, and to sit on the stage. Perhaps the sound and sight lines are a little better. But you, as elected board members, needed to be with the rest of the community, not separated from it.

We’re talking here about a school board, one of the most basic institutions of American democracy. Being on a school board is an enormous commitment and, if you do it well, a lot of work. It’s a job that pays nothing and for which you get little thanks. I know that and I believe most other H-F residents know it too.

But, at times like this, anything that removes you from your constituency is a mistake.

I also know that hardly anyone ever attends school board meetings. Following Pitcock’s removal — and the community uproar that followed it — that could change very soon and a number of residents could be headed to their first regular board meeting. When that happens, it is important that you, as board members, let residents know that you are accessible. And that you are operating on the same level.

I covered a League of Women Voters candidate forum in the H-F cafeteria in 2015. There was a good-sized crowd there and the candidates sat at a table in the front of the room.

Everything worked out just fine. I’d give it high marks as a democratic experience, too. There were no barriers separating the candidates and the people who’d be voting for them.

It’s been exactly one month since the school board, in a split vote, removed Pitcock from his position and agreed to pay him for the final year of his contract. It’s been some month.
The H-F Chronicle has carried a number of stories about Pitcock’s June 21 dismissal. We have heard from both sides — those residents who are angry about the action and people who say it was the proper decision. We are covering the events of this story as they continue to unfold. We are pretty sure that this is a story that is not going away anytime soon.

We do not know the reason for Pitcock’s removal but we also understand that privacy laws prevent the release of information about why it happened. 

Pitcock clearly made a giant impression on a great many people during his tenure as principal. At the June 30 special meeting, dozens of residents came forward to tell how much they appreciated his years at H-F. Many seemed heartbroken by the decision.  (It should also be pointed out that four teachers told the board that they agreed with the dismissal.)

What will happen next? Following interviews on July 14, the board chose a replacement for David Mayer, who resigned the day after Pitcock’s dismissal. Former board member Andrew Lindstrom will take office at the Aug. 16 meeting.

After that, the story could very well continue until next spring’s school board election. Three seats will be at stake.

I’d encourage anyone who disagrees with the board’s decision to consider running next spring. If you truly believe that H-F’s future is at stake, you should give it serious consideration.

As I said earlier, school boards are one of our most basic democratic institutions. Schools take up the largest portion of local property tax bills and we always need to know our money is being spent wisely. Many of us believe that H-F is the centerpiece of the community. Truly, raising serious issues about the welfare of the school at election time can never be a bad thing.

I’m not calling for chaos here. I think members of the H-F community need to work together to prevent chaos. The more people who are involved, the better we can work together.

Especially if we’re all on the same level. 

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