Kadner: Longo fought for kids and taxpayers
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org May 16, 2013 9:28PM
Updated: June 18, 2013 8:09AM
South Cook County soon will lose one of its greatest advocates when Margaret Longo retires next month as a school superintendent.
Longo, 58, successfully championed the abolition of the South Cook County regional school superintendent’s office after a series of stories about the superintendent’s corruption appeared in the SouthtownStar.
And she spearheaded an effort in Springfield to abolish the obscure Bremen Township School Board after another series of newspaper stories about a board president who tried to award himself hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees.
That effort was undermined by other Southland school districts that opted for appointing future township school board members from their own ranks instead of electing them.
As school chief of Forest Ridge District 142 in Oak Forest, Longo didn’t have to stick her neck out on those issues or many others where she took a political risk.
Her district includes four schools with 1,665 students, one-third of whom are low income.
By almost any measure, Longo successfully met the education challenges at the local level, but where she really stood out, in my opinion, is as an advocate for students, parents and especially taxpayers throughout the Southland.
“Unless this state changes its methods of funding public education, the south suburbs are going to face a major crisis in coming years,” Longo warned as I spoke to her Wednesday. “Property taxes keep going up. The state keeps cutting our resources. It is just inevitable that something is going to have to change.”
Longo also has spoken out against arguments made by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and others that Chicago has somehow been shortchanged by the state’s school funding formula. She has noted that the city has long received more than its fair share of the school funding from the state.
Longo, who grew up in Dolton, has been an educator for 36 years. While students in her district have done better than the statewide average on the ISAT assessment tests in each of the eight years she has headed District 142, the number of low-income students has gone steadily up.
“The population of the district really hasn’t changed that much,” Longo said. “The difference is that people have lost their jobs. The people are the same. Their incomes are not.
“I believe the public school system is much better than it was then when I started out,” Longo said, a view that may startle some. “When I started out, the public schools had sort of a caste system. It was very segregated. We would put girls who became pregnant in a separate school. We would put children with special needs in a separate school.
“Now the system is designed to give every child an opportunity to learn, and that is the way it should be.”
When I suggested that many students may not succeed in school because of poor parenting at home, Longo rejected the idea.
“Parents give us the best children they have,” she said. “We have children for seven hours a day, we had better be able to make them better people. Our job as educators is to prepare children to learn and as administrators to prepare our teachers to help them.
“But parents do play a very important role in the schools. They must be partners in the process instead of treated as outsiders.”
And that’s one of the reasons Longo rejects charter schools as improving public education.
“Neighborhood schools, I believe, are essential to the success of a child’s education,” she said. “People take pride in their neighborhoods, their churches and their schools. That’s why most people move into a community.
“When you move children to schools outside their neighborhoods, I think you lose a very important component of education. You reduce the likelihood that parents will be able to attend PTA meetings, extracurricular activities or come to parent-teacher conferences.
“You want parents to feel that they are part of the schools and the schools are part of their neighborhoods.”
Longo also sees charter schools as a threat to public school financing.
“If they (charters) do not take funding away from the local public schools, fine,” Longo said. “But right now they are taking funds away from the local schools at the same time the state is reducing the amount of money it allocates to schools due to the financial crisis Illinois is facing.”
Yet there are more and more critics of public education. For example, many say teachers are paid too much.
“They’re not paid enough,” Longo said. “I know how people will react to that. But people need to know that education changes lives. Teachers change lives.
“You ask anyone out there if they had a teacher who made an impact on their lives for the better, and the chances are they will say ‘yes’ and tell you a name.
“The opportunities afforded to children in public school are empowering. In our school district, 480 of our 520 kids are in band or chorus. You give them an opportunity to experience the arts that they would never have.
“People do care about their public schools. Just ask them about their property values. If your property values are high, it is probably because you live in a good school district.
“Anyone who has the financial ability to move will move to a community with good schools. That tells you something about their value.”
Yes, Longo will be retiring with a healthy pension. She makes no apologies for that.
“I grew up in a working-class household where my parents couldn’t afford college for their children,” Longo said. “But, you know, we all went to college. They let us know it was expected.
“I believe in education. It is the future of our children. And it is the teachers who deliver the future.”