In Park Ridge-Niles School District 64, search firm gathers parents’ views for choosing new superintendent

Disagreements emerged at a Tuesday night meeting of Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 parents and community members who had gathered to provide input on what they want to see in the district’s next superintendent.

The meeting with BWP & Associates’ Mark Friedman and Glenn Schlitting was intended as a way for parents to have input in the process of selecting a new superintendent to succeed Eric Olson, who announced his resignation in January and will leave at the end of June. A survey for community members who want to weigh in on the next superintendent is also available until Feb. 28 on the District website.

Olson has drawn both criticism and praise for his work in District 64, where COVID-19 mitigation policies set off arguments, some parents have objected to the district’s move to hire a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultant and others condemned a recent attempt to move the “Holiday Sing” concert to be the “Spring Sing.”

Olson also led the implementation of full-day kindergarten and construction projects to create classroom space for the kindergartners. Teachers and parents have said they are happy with the expansion of kindergarten, but others, including some current members of the district’s board of education, have objected to the financial implications of the program.

Parents who attended the input meeting agreed on several points, the first being that whoever succeeds Olson will be faced with a divided community.

They also agreed that district schools were educating their children for the world beyond Park Ridge and Niles, although they were split over whether or not a diversity consultant was a part of that work.

Friedman, of BWP, said any candidate for the job will “do their homework” and have an idea of the atmosphere in the district. He also told parents that the district is a “high profile, outstanding community” and that if the search does not yield “a candidate that meets our high expectations,” the firm would help select an interim and do another search for a permanent replacement.

That meeting produced keywords of communication, collaboration and transparency among parents who have frequently been at odds with one another and the school district over what direction the district should take in the wake of the pandemic, protests over racial justice and other sea changes in the national climate.

Parent Ralph Schelovitzky said he wanted the district’s next leader to be more communicative with parents, saying he’d often gotten his news from social media as opposed to official district updates.

“I wanted to find out what was going on, I had to go on Facebook because my superintendent wouldn’t communicate,” he said.

How the next superintendent works with parties like the Board of Education, parent groups and other stakeholders was also top of mind for many parents at the meeting.

Joe Lee said he hoped the district’s next leader would be “somebody who is inspiring and dynamic that works well with boards” and “not somebody who is kind of a mediocre ‘yes man’ [who is] appealing to all parties.”

Parent Laura Dini added that she hoped the next superintendent would have “a really strong perspective of principals and teachers.”

Parent Alex Waters said she wanted to see more balance between technology-based education and more analog skills, “because I feel like handwriting has really lost out.” Her point produced nods around the room.

Waters added that she wanted the district’s next leader to be mindful that “they are teaching and guiding our children to grow up in the real world… [to be] able to adapt and learn and grow [as] good citizens.”

“I think we all want that,” parent Joey Ignoffo said. “I think that we just want to make sure that when those things are taught, they’re not politically charged.”