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District 46 has atmosphere of distrust, outgoing business manager says

PRAIRIE GROVE – The atmosphere at Prairie Grove District 46 is "toxic," its former business manager recently told the school board.

Andy Searle was the district's business manager for three years before leaving the district for a job with Mundelein High School. He is one of three administrators to leave the district this summer.

The school board conducted exit interviews with all three administrators, who submitted their resignations before the new board took office, but because Searle's came after his contract was up, his interview was not conducted behind closed doors like the others.

Searle had been offered the option of conducting the exit interview in open session or talking privately with two school board members who would then report to the full board in open session, School Board President Margaret Ponga said.

Searle raved about District 46, complimenting the teachers, administrators and parents.

His years at Prairie Grove were the best of his career, he said, and despite the fact that his new job pays better and is in Mundelein where he lives and his kids went to school, he probably never would have considered leaving if not for the atmosphere at the district.

"There seems to be a culture of distrust, which is extremely unfortunate because it takes from all those good things I talked about," he said. "It's extremely unfortunate. It makes me sad actually to think how many great resources this place has, but it gets blown to bits because of the some of the culture here."

Searle traced the distrust back to a dispute that predated him and the current superintendent.

Teachers were told the $100-deductible plan they had was the best plan offered, but that wasn't true, Searle said. There was a zero-deductible plan.

There also was a discrepancy between family plans and single plans, he said.

It was this distrust that made negotiations with the 74-member Prairie Grove Teachers' Association so difficult, Searle said.

A contract was eventually worked out in November after a one-day strike and two years of teachers working under an expired contract.

The Northwest Herald had requested an interview with either or both of the union's co-presidents, Paulina Levy and Kathy Krepel, but they declined saying they wanted to both be present, which wasn't possible because of scheduling.

In a joint email, they offered to issue a statement, answering the Herald's questions, but they had not responded to the Herald's Thursday email by Friday afternoon.

The other administrators who left – Assistant Principal Beth Klinsky and curriculum, assessment and learning coordinator Sandy Ozimek – did not respond to requests for interviews.

The resignations are not a cause for concern, said Ponga, who took over as board president after she and three other new board members were voted in this April. All three administrators left to take better jobs with other districts, moving up in their careers.

When asked what she thought about Searle's comments, she said, "I think he's right. I think we have a fantastic district with fantastic teachers and fantastic parents."

As for the assessment of the district's atmosphere as toxic, she replied that she wouldn't use that term.

"I think all districts are always working to improve the communications internally and within the community," she said. "Our board is 100 percent committed to providing open and honest and continual communication with employees and the community."

Communication has improved since the strike last year, said Cynthia Jones, the president of the parent-teacher organization.

"I think parents may grumble with the school board and the teachers may grumble about the administration, but it's not anything more than what other districts have," she said.

She would like to see the district work on communication, possibly through brown-bag lunches were residents, teachers and parents can feel more comfortable talking about their concerns.

"I never feel talking [at school board meetings], and I'm on the PTO," Jones said. "I don't want to take their time. They have a huge agenda to get through."

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