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Local Column

Jason Akst: A moment in the sun

As local controversies go, this one was short-lived. So short-lived, in fact, that many didn’t even know it happened.

Pardon my overcondensing the details. Besides a word limit, my point is not to nail who said/did what, to whom, and when.

In May, Sycamore School District 427 and the Sycamore Park District approved an agreement under which the park district would offer adult fitness classes at South Prairie Elementary School beginning next month and lasting until at least 2018. At the time, officials from both boards expressed enthusiasm about the plan.

The problem was that the arrangement called for the classes to occur during the school day. Adult fitness classes, with music and whatnot, in an elementary school, during school hours.

Fast-forward to about two weeks ago, when South Prairie parents began to express concern. Many had no idea this was going to happen. I was one of them.

On Aug. 6, about 35 people gathered for a hastily called parent meeting at Kiwanis Prairie Park, next to the school playground. Besides parents, Sycamore Superintendent Kathy Countryman and South Prairie Principal Kreg Wesley attended. It was tense but cordial. Wesley gave a tour of the affected areas of the school.

It’s fair to say attendees had strong, negative reactions to the plan. I shared that sentiment.

Why? Because over a couple of hours, it became abundantly clear that legitimate concerns about safety, security, logistics, sanitation, communication, and to my mind, the most serious problem of all – educational disruption – had not been resolved. It was not even close.

The parents weren’t a bunch of paranoids, and two things warrant emphasis: First, we didn’t want this plan to happen in any of the schools, not just South Prairie, and second, everyone was fine with early morning, evening or weekend classes at the school. Just not during school hours, when kids are there.

But nobody was going to say “okey-dokey” and roll with it. A petition demanding the plan be scrapped had already received more than 300 signatures. There was discussion of an onslaught of communication to both boards, the news media and area elected officials, beyond what had already occurred. There was discussion of flooding the next school board meeting, distributing fliers, and so on.

Less than 24 hours later, Wesley announced via email to school parents that the plan had been scrapped.

Excellent.

It was a rare moment in which elected governing boards, facing serious criticism from constituents, quickly altered course and rescinded a bad plan.

The reason that’s worthy of praise is that often, people in power (government, corporate, whomever) do exactly the opposite: They become so entrenched in the conviction that their plan is right that they double down on following through, come what may.

So rather than blamestorming, we should take a moment to congratulate all parties on the ability to break gridlock and entrenchment. The school system worked with community parents.

But the park district was trying to build community, too, with the school system, so we have a loop to close. The park district still wants to offer those classes.

And here is where community could further be solidified. The intended room for the classes at South Prairie looked to be about 20 feet by 30 feet, or 600 square feet. That’s just a guess on my part.

The park district needs a nice, clean room, air conditioned, with electrical outlets, access to bathrooms and a water fountain, about 1,000 square feet, where attendees can park nearby, in a place that music and exercise won’t disturb anybody during the day. That’s not a very tall order.

Who can step up?

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as Executive Secretary for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association. Learn more about NINA at ninaonline.org. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @jasonakst.

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