BREAKING NEWS: Board Approves Continuation of Communications Department

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BREAKING NEWS: Board Approves Continuation of Communications Department

The Board of Education at the special board meeting held Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016.

The Board of Education at the special board meeting held Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016.

The Board of Education at the special board meeting held Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016.

The Board of Education at the special board meeting held Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016.

By Katrina Nickell

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The Communications department will continue to exist, resulting from a contentious 3-3-1 vote during a special board meeting last night.

The board’s decision was to motion the approval of continued operation for the Communications department. Board members Ruth Klint, Carlton Evans, and board secretary Brian Novak voted against this agenda item. Board president Mark Sproat, vice president Linda Lampert and member Joseph Nowik voted in favor of the continued operation. Secretary pro tem David Ko abstained. However, in District 219 board policy abstention counts as a yes vote.

The controversy with the department began when the Niles Township Federation of Teachers/Support Staff Union (NTFTSS) filed grievances about the process on Sept. 11, 2015.

“The grievances filed were completely about the process, it was not a grievance against the people involved, such as the directors, and it was not even a grievance necessarily about whether there should or shouldn’t be a communications department,” president of the North Suburban Teachers Union Local 1274 Steve Grossman said. Grossman was also a member of the committee that reviewed the necessity of the communications department.

The department — which includes broadcasting, debate, journalism, news production, public speaking, yearbook production (previously under the Humanities department), as well as clubs/activities related to communication —  was created during the Tuesday, Aug. 4 board meeting, one week before the 2015-2016 school year began. Debate coach and Humanities teacher Eric Oddo was hired as the director for Niles West; North Star News sponsor and Humanities teacher Ivan Silverberg was hired as director for Niles North.

NTFTSS said the teacher’s contract had been violated in two different ways. One way involved the process to hire directors and the overall creation of the department was rushed. The position postings had not been advertised for more than 24 hours. Therefore, it did not allow internal staff enough time to apply and be considered as director, Grossman said.

“What did we not like about the process? It was rushed through right before school started. Normally the creation of a department would go through deliberation by committees. We have a committee called CSSI [Curriculum Standards for School Improvement] that should have investigated it first,” Grossman said. “We have contracts that say the openings must be posted  to allow people who already work in the district to put their names in the hat and be considered.”

The board also voted 7-0 to not renew the contracts of the present directors in order to fulfill the terms of the NTFTSS’ grievance resolution, which means Oddo and Silverberg need to reapply for their positions, if interested.

“We thought [the haste] violated…the spirit of the posting, that didn’t give people a chance,” Grossman said.

The second issue the grievance raised was teachers’ schedules were changed within days of school starting, which is against the contract.

“The contract says teachers need to know what their assignments are at the end of the prior school year, so they have time to prepare their classes,” Grossman said. “By creating this department five days before school started, it lead to teachers’ assignments changed. They had a weekend to work out what they were teaching.”

The union filed the grievance, claiming contract violations; the board proposed a resolution, and the union agreed, according to Grossman.

“The resolution was to allow the communications department to continue for this year because we didn’t want to do more harm than good, going back and changing people’s assignments would cause more harm,” Grossman said. “So the resolution was to let it exist for this year but then spend more time studying it and let the board get feedback and decide if they wanted to continue it for next year.”

According to the review committee, the vast majority of the members of the current communications department said the creation of the department had little effect on students or programs. The majority also said a stand-alone communication department was not necessary, according to the Communication Department Report filed with the Feb. 9 board packet.

Last night’s board’s decision came after a 50-minute public discussion that included five people expressing their feelings of how the communications department benefits the success of the programs that fall under it.  Strong in attendance were parents of students who are members of the Niles West Debate team.

After listening to the comments, board secretary Novak, who voted against the continuation,  said the success of these programs was not a result of the creation of the department.

“What I heard from all of you speaking tonight was that we have a very successful debate team, very successful teachers teaching these programs, but that was not a result of the communications department,” he said.

Novak also said more research and thought should go into creating a department.

“I would appreciate to see data and feedback on how other communications departments [at other schools] work,” Novak said. “It [the process] was a little unfortunate. If we are going to make this the best department it can be it’s going to cost money. Fiscal responsibility is not a destination but a mindset we are trying to work on. I like to think if this is going to be something we fund fully then it should be watched.”

Despite the feedback from teachers and the current directors, which was part of the Communications Department Report, Lampert said she has heard nothing but positive feedback from the parents of students who take classes in the new department and that it is a must. According to Lampert, parents said that when these programs were under Humanities they were not advocated for as much as they are under the Communications department

“I love communications and was very excited about having this department,” she said. “I think there are so many elements that can be added and I absolutely agree this is something that needs to be looked at and nurtured and expanded.”

Oddo said he is very appreciative and looking forward to the continuation of the department.

“I am excited and think it is very important to have this department. I do believe this year was a little stifled due to the process in which it was created and the grievance it resulted in because of the process,” Oddo said. “Now that it is concluded I believe it gives us and the board of education an opportunity to support the department and truly support the programs in the department and continue to elevate those programs based on their success and popularity among the students. This also allows for equal funding and a comprehensive vision, which really takes the department to a new level.”