Municipal elections are happening April 2nd, and there are a variety of local positions up for grabs. We came up with some questions for candidates in several of these races, and will be publishing their answers over the course of the next couple of weeks. Smile Politely doesn’t generally endorse local candidates, we’d just like to do our part to provide voters with some insight into the importance of these local races and have some sense of which candidates share your values. We’ve reached out to those running for Champaign and Urbana school boards and park districts, Champaign City Council, Mayor of Champaign, and Parkland Board of Trustees.

Champaign residents will be electing four school board members this time around. There are nine candidates, three of which are current school board members, and you will be selecting them for a four year term.

Elizabeth Sotiropoulos, owner of Illini Tutoring, is challenging for one of those seats.

Smile Politely: Why did you decide to run for school board? What do you hope to accomplish and why are you a better choice than the other candidates/incumbents?

Elizabeth Sotiropoulos: I've been working with students from Unit 4 and other public school districts and private schools for the past nine years. I've known that I've wanted to run for school board for several years because of these experiences. However, I decided to run this year after the teacher contract negotiations last fall, which I believe our school board did not handle well. When I started encouraging my politically-engaged friends to start following what was happening during the negotiations, I was told to mind my own business — it was at this point that I knew I needed to run for school board.

If elected, I want to bring transparency to our school board. As I've been knocking on doors and talking with Champaign residents, the complaint I've heard over and over again is how we only hear about school board decisions after a vote has taken place. People want to understand how their tax dollars are being spent.

I also want to make our schools work better for all of our students, especially our low-income students and our students of color. Our report cards show that only 6% of our African American students are at or above grade level in math. Our district has programs and initiatives to address the disparities in education and discipline that our students experience, but some of these programs don't truly serve the populations they were designed to. We need to set clear goals and expectations, and then we need to hold our school board members, administrators, and teachers accountable for reaching these goals.

SP: In terms of addressing racial disparity in academic achievement, what thoughts/proposals do you have to continue to work towards more equal outcomes?

Sotiropoulos: We have many programs and initiatives in our district to help fix the racial disparity in academic achievement. We have multiple administrators whose job description includes addressing this problem. In talking with teachers, former administrators, former board members, and residents from all over Champaign, it's clear that we need to make equity a specific goal for our superintendent.

In addition, all of our teachers need to go through additional cultural responsiveness training, perhaps as part of professional development. Some of our teachers really know what they're doing - my colleague, Jennifer Enoch, has shared stories about how some of our elementary school teachers have been able to help students of color and low-income students go from being a year behind grade-level to being a year above grade-level in just one school year. We can change the culture in our schools by supporting our excellent teachers and helping them share these powerful teaching strategies with all of our teachers.

SP: How do you plan to address suspension and expulsion rates for African American students that are out of proportion with the percentage of African American students in the schools? 

Sotiropoulos: This is a difficult issue. African American students are typically penalized more harshly for breaking the same rules that white students have broken. To combat this, cultural sensitivity training for teachers, support staff, and administrators will help. We also need to hold each other accountable to understand the biases every one of us brings to our jobs. Our school district should be monitoring which schools and faculty members are referring a disproportionate number of African American students and students of color for expulsion hearings so that we can investigate and fix specific discipline disparities. This change will be slow, but when we call a problem by its name and acknowledge that the problem is serious, we can start moving in the right direction to fix it.

I've learned that part of this problem is due to some students bringing in their home and neighborhood traumas to school. If you're a child growing up in a home and a neighborhood where there's poverty and violence, you may have learned to solve disagreements and deal with pain in a way that hurts others. Our city government and community organizations are working to reduce violence, especially gun violence, and poverty. What the schools can do is provide training and support for staff members who are involved in the discipline process, so that we can separate true safety concerns from other behavioral issues that would be better addressed through, say, counseling and providing basic resources for our students.

SP: For our readers that live in Champaign yet do not have students in the Unit 4 School District, beyond tax dollars, why are these school board elections something that they should care about? Why should they do the work of researching the candidates and choosing wisely in this election?

Sotiropoulos: We should be informed about issues in our community, especially in our schools — just because these issues don't seem to impact you directly and personally, doesn't mean your neighbors, friends, and family members aren't impacted. We should care because this is our community, and these are our children.

School board members make decisions about property purchases and construction. If you live or work near a Unit 4 school, you probably care about how property values are impacted by our schools.

Unit 4 is undergoing huge changes right now. The next school board will work with the district to develop a new, updated strategic plan. The time will come when Dr. Zola will retire, and I have no idea when that will be, but the school board will hire a new superintendent that will lead our district. Change is inevitable, and I think many of the current changes are amazing steps in the right direction. But if you only decide to pay attention when you notice changes and you don't like these changes (say, if new athletic fields and field lighting go up in your quiet, close-knit neighborhood), there probably won't be much you can do to impact major decisions at that point. That's why we need to stay informed regularly, not just at election season. We need to elect people who prioritize the needs of our students, especially our marginalized students, and we need to elect people that we truly feel will make the best decisions possible when it comes to our tax dollars, our land, our teachers' working environments, and our students' education.

SP: As an board member, how would you approach the next round of contract negotiations? What do you think the previous board did well, and what would you like to improve upon?

Sotiropoulos: I plan to maintain a close relationship and open dialogue with Unit 4 teachers. There should be few surprises at the negotiating table. We can do much better as a district to address Unfair Labor Practices so that our teachers feel safe, respected, and valued at work. We can bargain in good faith, which means not hiring an anti-union law firm from Chicago. And we need to remember that our teachers' working conditions are our students' learning conditions. Doing the work between contract negotiations will result in a smoother negotiating process, one in which teachers don't feel the need to strike.

While I don't agree with every decision the incumbents made, I do respect the hard work that they've poured into being school board members. The big decisions they've made are often complex — since transparency and communication between the district and the community has been weak, many of us don't know the little decisions made over the course of four years that set the stage for the big decisions that we often hear about.

SP: How will you stay connected to staff and students who do the day to day work and live with the policy decisions you enact?

Sotiropoulos: The bare minimum that board members can do is make themselves readily available by email, so I will certainly do this. I will establish regular hours that I'll be at my designated schools, if I'm elected. I want teachers to see me in the schools and I want them to feel comfortable approaching me with questions, comments, and concerns.

I want to make sure that the policies I would help enact as a board member would be in the best interests of our students and teachers. I will be maintaining, and continuing to establish and grow, the relationships that I've formed with community groups and organizations. These are made up of students and their families, many of whom belong to marginalized communities. In maintaining these connections, I'll not only stay connected to these students and families, but our policies will better serve everyone who belongs to our district.

Photo from the candidate's website.