The Not-So Raucous District 90 Caucus
The District 90 Community Caucus candidate interviews took place the week of Feb. 10th. The caucus is interesting and I’ll give you a flavor first before sharing some of my answers.
The caucus is a completely independent, volunteer and anonymous citizen group traditionally formed to recruit, interview, endorse and support qualified candidates to run for the Board of Education. It’s voluntary for candidates, no other River Forest government entity does this and historically it engages citizens planning to run before the December ballot deadline. An application is sent in advance that includes personal information and several questions. This gets returned and there is an individual interview in front of roughly 20 people – the caucus. The chairperson builds the caucus on a volunteer basis and its composition is intended to represent the interests of the community and schools.
The caucus has a history of engaging people before the ballot set. Its effect was narrowing the field, usually endorsing a number of candidates equal to the open positions and most often endorsing incumbents. This year the caucus broke tradition and engaged candidates after the ballot was set.
I participated, the questions were great and the interview with friendly faces was quite enjoyable. I appreciate the time and energy of caucus volunteers and the challenge before its chairperson. There was an air of awkwardness evident in both sides of the questions. When you experience it, you realize it’s a secret committee that uses a secret interview to cast an early group ‘vote’ that undeniably can influence the community. Friends, I can attest the people and questions were pleasant and undeniably useful in contrasting candidates, and they were attempting to follow RF tradition. I can’t share my interview however, and caucus participants are secret. What I can say is the caucus, although pleasurable, seems to lack the tenants of representative democracy we tend to enjoy in the USA.
I did get permission to share my application. The application includes personal information and written answers to relevant BOE questions. Some interview questions parallel questions asked on the application. I hope you read it and appreciate permission from the caucus to share my application.
There is still time to join the campaign, plant a sign and volunteer. You’ll find ways to help and connect at www.LefkoForD90.org.
1. Name: Steve Lefko
2. Address: 719 Thatcher Ave
3. Email LefkoForD90@gmail.com
4. Ages of Children: 10 & 13
5. No. of Children in River Forest Schools: 2
6. Year Moved to River Forest: 2010
7. Education Background:
I hold a BS in Environmental Science and Forestry from The State of NY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, a MS in Applied Insect Ecology and a PhD in Host Plant Resistance, both from Iowa State University. My MS work was funded by the Leopold Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture and involved combining computer programming and the ecology of a common pest of US corn. The result was digital maps used to guide farmers in making better pest management decisions. My PhD work was funded by Pioneer Hi-Bred International and involved deciphering a naturally occurring mechanism of insect resistance in alfalfa, a feed crop for animals. I taught laboratory classes throughout graduate school and developed coursework for a new online curriculum. Informally today, I study early childhood development, play and project based learning and the connection between imagination and cognitive development in children.
8. Business and Professional Experience:
I worked for Monsanto straight out of graduate school managing a group people and a facility that contributed to late-stage development of transgenic corn seed grown by large farms. I was recruited to Pioneer Hi-Bred three years later to start a research program responsible for managing the life of products protecting corn fields from insect attack. This is research into how insect pests might adapt to control tactics after years of use by farmers. Think lab experiments with plants and insects, field experiments throughout the US and managing University collaborations globally. This type of information, how to use technology and delay pest adaptation, connects with government environmental policy in most countries. My role evolved into working directly with the US Environmental Protection Agency and similar government agencies in South America, Europe, and South East Asia. I resigned from Pioneer after ten years and began a second career as a stay at home Dad and entrepreneur.
I consulted in my previous field until recently. We started a small residential real estate business soon after moving to RF. The model is rehab, hold and rent and I enjoy the people side of property management very much. More recently we turned a family passion project into a small social impact toy business. Like TOMS shoes, the purchase of a dollhouse sends a second one to a child served by our child and family service agency partners. We connect people and stretch imagination through open-ended play. We have a ways to go, but the whole family is involved learning all aspects of design, manufacturing, sales and marking and our favorite dinner time discussion…customer service.
9. Community Service Experience:
I was able to begin volunteering at Lincoln Elementary immediately after moving here. I’ve chaired one or more committees each year since, including: Science Expo, Bike Safety and the Pancake Breakfast. Each of these committees has seen growth and impact.
Pam Hyde was the former principal of Lincoln Elementary who resigned earlier than expected to provide 24hr care for family at home. With a few other volunteers, I organized the ‘One Day’ campaign in RF to fund a medical trust. Donors were encouraged to fund ‘One Day’ so that Pam could hire care and focus on being wife and mother. There was good help and great support from the community.
I was a community representative on the hiring committee to replace Pam Hyde after her retirement. I’m proud to be associated with hiring the current fine fine Principal of Lincoln Elementary.
Participating in sports was a great way to volunteer and immerse ourselves in our new home. I met many friends and families through years of coaching RF recreational tee ball, soccer and helping out with softball.
I serve on Committee of Young Life, Morton. Young Life is a long standing and global youth ministry. YL Morton serves Morton East and Morton West High Schools and is in its second year. I’m able to leverage the toy business for occasional meeting space and group activities, and there is a really special group of kids I often have breakfast with on Tuesdays.
My oldest daughter began attending Roosevelt three years ago and our walking/biking route to school changed. I became aware of a dangerous intersection at Oak and Franklin where there was no pedestrian safety measures for crossing Oak. Working with the Village and D90, I established a volunteer crossing guard program for six months until permanent guards were installed at intersections on Oak. Just recently, the Village voted to approve a comprehensive upgrade in pedestrian safety measures called Safer Routes to School.
10. Why do you wish to be a member of the School Board?
I believe the schools are the most important taxing body of any village. Great schools produce great students who go on to do great things. I want to be part in their big futures. Further, great schools make a village attractive to young families and this attractiveness helps secure a strong future for the Village and its residents. River Forest schools have a history of excellence and I want my public service on the BOE to be part of continuing the tradition.
11. What do you perceive to be the major purpose of the River Forest schools?
The major purpose of River Forest schools is education; to develop every child to their fullest using the time, talents and resources available to the District.
12. What do you understand to be the major function of the Board of Education?
The BOE sets the priorities of the district, employs the Superintendent, and is liaison to the community it serves. Using a stadium analogy, the Board is in the bleachers cheering on the Superintendent and Administration down on the court during the game. Otherwise, the BOE is in the huddle helping out with the unique skills and experiences found in its members.
13. Do you feel you can represent the varied interests of the River Forest community? Please explain.
I’m absolutely confident in my ability to seek, hear and understand the varied interests of River Forest. We’re a tiny little municipality with great big personality, excellent stories, strong wills, big ideas and resources. I see strength in varied interests and this is one reason why I’m running for the D90 BOE.
14. What do you consider to be the biggest challenge facing public education today?
Nationally, I think tragedy has lead schools to rapidly elevate safety initiatives. The challenge of making public schools safer is something I consider very big.
After safety, a challenge in public education is how best to prepare our children for an information-based society. The pace of change in technology, industry and jobs makes accurate predictions of what to teach and when incredibly difficult. We have to imagine schools, especially middle and high schools, with one foot firmly in the present and one more flexible and pointed toward the future.
15. What do you think the biggest challenges facing District 90 will be over the next several years?
I believe one of the biggest challenges ahead will be identifying what elements of a new instructional philosophy lead to measurable improvements in growth and achievement. There are many different elements to be excited about, and we’ll need good (probably challenging) methods to measure success of each element.
It’s a somewhat boring topic, but I believe very challenging for RF. Financial stability. We’re deficit spending now, drawing down our reserve. Also, all districts see the cost shift coming and this would impact property taxes.
I think we need to better explore any trends in the wellness of our students, work to understand any causal connections between how we’re doing education and adjust as necessary. This is a challenging but very important topic.
16. What skills do you possess that you feel will contribute to the leadership of District 90 schools?
I have a history of creating teams, developing ideas and building consensus. I believe one responsibility of a BOE member is conduit connecting the community to the school administration. I’m very comfortable with the role of being this conduit and building consensus around initiatives.
One skill of an applied scientist is removing emotion from the research process in order to follow the evidence. I’m a data and evidence guy; passionate about the success of River Forest schools, but pragmatic and dispassionate when it comes to solving problems.
My career as an applied scientist will benefit advocacy and implementation of Next Generation Science Standards.
My involvement in the districts at multiple levels and attendance at BOE meetings has fostered relationships and understanding that will serve me and the board well.
I did just start taking Ukulele lesson; however, I don’t think it will soon be categorized as a skill ;-)
17. What do you feel should be the relationship between the Board of Education and the teaching staff?
This is a great question, and I’ll leave students and parents out of my answer. I think the most important relationships for teachers is among themselves (especially by grade) and with their principal. I think the most important relationships for BOE members is with their Superintendent and the community. I think it’s critical that teachers have a voice that is routinely heard by the BOE, but this isn’t the same as relationships mentioned above. Too much relationship between teachers and the BOE could circumvent the intended organizational structure.
18. Should a school board, administration, and teachers be held accountable for student achievement? Please explain.
The BOE, Administration and teachers should function as one team and this team should be held accountable or student achievement.
19. What is your position on the relationship between public and non-public schools? What is your position on the relationship between District 90 elementary schools and OPRF High School?
I’m sorry I don’t understand the questions and I’m unable to offer a response. Perhaps these question could be clarified during the interview.
20. The District 90 Statement of Mission is as follows;
To inspire a love of learning and ensure educational excellence for every child.
Non-Incumbents: Explain ways in which you foresee yourself supporting this mission statement.
On love of learning. One way to establish a love of learning is a child’s (traditional) first experience being an exceptional experience. Kindergarten is the traditional first learning experience. Our K teachers have expressed concern that fidelity to the full day standards in a half-day class falls short of a lovely experience for at least two reasons. The pace of instruction necessary to cover standards is too high, and there is little time for social and emotional learning (SEL). I would support exploring ways to better understand and support the needs of incoming K students.
A love of learning isn’t all tied to academics. The more we make school (the building, teachers, staff and students) a place children enjoy being, the more we stand to increase the love of learning. I think our small size uniquely equips us to be great at this.
Children enjoy learning, and not all children learn the same. I think increasing opportunities for engagement, a UDL principle, will spread the love of learning broader if not increase love in any one child.
On educational excellence. I’m going to assume educational excellence is analogous to helping each child reach their educational potential. I support the use of curricula that has entry points for the full range of learners. The curriculum should have a very high ceiling, so curriculum isn’t a barrier to growth. The range of abilities will inform the breadth of the challenge in delivering excellence to every child, and this is delivered through instruction – teachers and specialists. I believe our small size creates unique opportunities to reach every child.
21. If elected, are you willing to serve your full term (currently, a 2 or 4 year term)? YES