Commentary, Local, Opinion, Park Forest, Politics, Schools

What Hope Now That Rich East Is to Close?

The signpost for Rich East High School
The signpost on Sauk Trail for Rich East High School. (Gary Kopycinski)

Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- The reactions were swift and biting to the news that the School District 227 Board of Education voted 4-3 to close Rich East High School late Tuesday night. The sudden, quick vote after hours of presentations took many in attendance by surprise, amounting to a late-night last-minute move that infuriated many. The vote happened at 11:25 p.m., according to online reports from those there.

According to Ted Slowik, reporting for the Chicago Tribune, “The vote followed about six hours of board deliberations in an auditorium at Rich South High School. Consultants presented information about architectural and engineering studies, financing options and other factors.” Mr. Slowik also noted on his Facebook page that he “was shocked by how quickly the board decided to close Rich East after spending months toying with the idea of buying Lincoln-Way North.”

According to other reports, Rich East will close at the end of the current 2019-2020 academic year.

Board President Andrea Bonds, board Vice President Janice Preston, and board members Cheryl Coleman and Delores Wood were the slim majority that voted to close Park Forest’s iconic educational institution. “Board members Randy Alexander, Mia Carter and Sharon Newman dissented,” according to Mr. Slowik’s report.

Entrance to Rich East High School on Sauk Trail
An entrance to Rich East High School on Sauk Trail. (Gary Kopycinski)

Park Forest Mayor Jonathan Vanderbilt said on Facebook, “Rich Township School Board District 227 just voted 4-3 to close Rich East.

“Do we as voters petition to have Park Forest leave RTSD 227 and consolidate to a new K-12 School District?” he asked.

It is unclear how, or if, this consolidation could be accomplished. Consolidating Park Forest’s K-12 school districts has been a topic of discussion for over 20 years, especially given the high taxes assessed by school districts. The Park Forest League of Women Voters has studied the issue at length. Such a move would require the agreement of current school districts in Park Forest: Crete-Monee 201-U, Park Forest-Chicago Heights School District 163, Matteson School District 162, Steger School District 194, and Rich Township High School District 227.

Any motion to reconsider the vote to close of Rich East High School must happen at the next school board meeting and such a motion can only be made by someone who voted on the prevailing side.

How is it fair to close a school claiming high costs to repair a building after years of willful neglect of that same campus?

The vote to close comes after years of School District 227 shamelessly neglecting basic maintenance and repairs at the Rich East campus. The building floods in some parts. Issues like this should have been addressed as soon as they were discovered. The district claims that REHS needs over $100 million in repairs, but supporting documents are scarce.

In March 2012, then-board member Cheryl Coleman told a packed gathering of green-and-gold-wearing Park Forest residents at Rich South High School that Rich East would remain open. Ms. Coleman at that time had sent a letter to her constituents that stoked fears that Rich East would close. At that meeting, she said, that if the district doesn’t study enrollment better and “go with an aggressive recruitment plan, the potential of one of our lowest-enrollment buildings, my fear is that one of them would be closing. That’s what I actually stated. I didn’t say any particular school.”

She also said at that meeting that she was not aware of the actual enrollment at each of the district’s school buildings.

Seven years later, the numbers are smaller, but the need to close Rich East is hardly certain. Neglect of the REHS campus should not be a reason for punishing students.

“Maybe the Lincolnway thing was just to divert attention away from the Board’s true intention,” former Park Forest Mayor John Ostenburg remarked on Facebook.

Mr. Ostenburg had more direct words for the 227 board on his Facebook page:

“The loss of Rich East High School will cause irreparable damage to the Village of Park Forest, the founding entity for the Rich Township High School District,” the former mayor wrote. “The district’s flagship institution will be gone because of the Board of Education’s ill-conceived decision. The elimination of community -based schools inevitably leads to negative impact on the communities where they are sited. As we have learned repeatedly over the years: bigger is NOT always better!

“If enrollments are down, careful planning can lead to effective down-sizing without closing otherwise fine schools completely. During my 20 years as mayor, we heard one suggestion after another about closing REHS, but always were successful in fighting off such action. Park Foresters always have been fighters.

“So maybe some school board members pulled a fast one on us, but that doesn’t mean we give up. Time to explore the course required for recall of board members who fail to honor the needs and wishes of ALL residents of the District!”

Mr. Ostenburg further remarked in another post:

“The loss of neighborhood schools has been a major detriment to local communities across the nation over the years. During my time with the Chicago Teachers Union, I saw it happen in one neighborhood of the City of Chicago after another, nearly always causing increased blight to areas that already were suffering. Always the decisions have been made not by the persons who live in those affected neighborhoods, not by the parents of those children who subsequently needed to travel longer distances to get the education they deserved, but by individuals who would continue to enjoy the satisfaction of schools in their own communities and not be negatively impacted.

“During my time as an elected official in Park Forest, I always supported the needs of our neighboring municipalities because I believe in the value of regionalism. It is disappointing to me that so few voices of elected officials in some of our neighboring communities have been raised in support of the Village of Park Forest in this moment of need.

“Alternatives to closing Rich East High School have been available; the cost of repairs and improvements may be high, but so are they high at the other two buildings in the district that will remain open; enrollments may be decreasing, but so are they decreasing at the two other buildings in the district. A sharing of the burden would have been fair; putting the burden entirely on the back of one community is not.

“All these folks who were involved with this decision will be gone soon — just look at how many superintendents have come and gone in the district over the last several years, and how many persons have been elected and then defeated as board members — but the residents of Park Forest will suffer from this loss for years and years and years.

“Downsizing the three campuses would have been a viable alternative, but it wasn’t even considered with any seriousness whatsoever. In my nearly 30 years as an elected official, I made many mistakes, as do all who hold public office at one time or another. However, my decisions — good and bad — never were made without careful consideration of how they might impact all segments of the community. A guiding principle for me during my entire time in office was the admonition of Justice OIiver Wendell Holmes: ‘My right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.’ (Interestingly, variations of the same sentiment have been attributed to both John Stuart Mill and Abraham Lincoln.)

“I think sadly that the members of the Rich Township School District 227 Board of Education, and the district superintendent, chose to swing their fists indiscriminately, without regard for whose nose they were striking.”

For our part, we have more positive articles to write about those who make up the heart and soul of Rich East High School. And we shall.

A rally was held in front of Rich East on Sauk Trail in September in favor of keeping Rich East open:

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Photos: Gary Kopycinski