The notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” will greet students graduating from Lincoln-Way North High School on Wednesday, but a dirge might be equally appropriate.
“We’re going to celebrate graduation. It’s kind of also a funeral,” said Jenny Nekola, whose middle daughter is expected to receive her diploma at the southwest suburban school. “It’s the last hurrah for North.”
Just eight years after it opened, the Frankfort school — “Home of the Phoenix” — likely will not rise again next year.
The Lincoln-Way School District 210 board voted 5-2 last year to close North. Officials have said a housing market crippled by the recession, low state funding and lower-than-projected enrollment numbers led to a financial crisis in the district, which has three other high schools. Closing one school was seen by the district administration as the quickest way to reduce the deficit, saving about $5.4 million annually.
Angry parents, accusing district officials of mismanaging funds, have filed suit in Will County seeking to keep the school open. According to news reports in May, a federal investigation of the district is underway, with investigators focusing on the financial records of former Supt. Lawrence Wyllie.
“Too many people didn’t do the job that was expected out of them,” school council President Matt Cooke said of district leaders. Students felt powerless as the decision to close North was cemented, said Cooke, who’s headed to the University of Iowa next year. “But it’s been accepted. And at this point our class is more focused on celebrating.”
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But Cooke, as well as valedictorian Hannah Goss, who both have younger siblings coming up through the school system, plan to keep a close eye on how the controversy unfolds in the coming months.
“I’d like to see the downfall and what happens,” Goss said Tuesday. “I’d like to see what comes out of the investigation. . . . Everyone knows that something happened, and I think just getting that closure would be good for everyone.”
“I think my class has taken a positive outlook, we don’t keep the books,” she said, adding that staff at the school have rallied around students to keep their heads raised.
Goss, who’s headed to the University of Chicago, will not mention the closing in her graduation speech Wednesday at the school’s football stadium. She instead will focus on the accomplishments of her class.
“We can’t change what’s happening. We can only change how we react to it. Getting upset won’t help,” she said.
But some parents of those set to graduate are expecting the emotions to match Wednesday’s weather forecast — stormy.
At a board meeting last week, one North parent asked that board members not attend commencement.
“I’m hoping that most people will make [the graduation] about the kids,” the parent, Eileen Maylone, told the Chicago Sun-Times. “But I don’t want anyone doing anything obnoxious because of the board being there. . . .”
“I just didn’t think they had a place in the last significant event in Lincoln-Way North’s [history]” Maylone added.
Nekola, whose youngest daughter will have to move to another high school in the district, says she will do her best to focus on the celebration Wednesday.
“I’m going there with the notion of my daughter graduating and that this is her day,” said Nekola, whose eldest daughter was part of the school’s first graduating class in 2010. “It’s about the kids tomorrow, and only the kids. The rest has to be off to the side.”
Jay Curatolo, who is a part of the lawsuit seeking to keep the school open, had two sons at North last year. They’ll head to Lincoln-Way East for the upcoming school year.
Curatolo said he’s “disgusted” that as a taxpayer he’ll be helping pay for North for years to come — even though his kids will no longer attend.
He’s also concerned about the impact of moving the approximately 1,300 kids from North to East, which will see the latter grow to about 2,900 students.
“I’m not happy about that because . . . student opportunities will be diminished,” Curatolo said. “You have only a certain number of spots on sports teams . . . and now you will have all these many more students competing for those same amount of spots. We feel that is grossly unfair.”
Mark Cohen, North’s principal, insisted Tuesday that kids heading to East will face a campus with plenty of room. And he said East’s increased enrollment puts it on a par with most of the other schools in the athletic conference.
Cohen said he has no plans to talk about the school’s closing Wednesday, preferring, he said, to focus on the accomplishments of his seniors.