Smile Politely

Let’s hear from school board candidates

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Those who live in Champaign are electing four school board members in the April 4th consolidated election. Whether you have children in the school district or not, it’s critically important to our community to have healthy and functioning schools, with thriving students. We are also living in a time where school boards across the country are being influenced by groups such as Moms for Liberty, and they are targeting historically marginalized students and teachers. We thankfully have not seen this in Champaign, yet. But we need to be paying attention when these elections come up.

There are seven candidates, running for four seats. Amy Armstrong is the current board president and the only incumbent. The other candidates include Jamar Brown, Jeffrey Brownfield, Elizabeth Holder, Mark Holm, Mark Thies, and A.J. Zwettler. I’ve sent questions to each of the candidates. Below are responses from four of the candidates. As others are received, the article will be updated. I also encourage you to check out their responses to Illinois Public Media, The News-Gazette, Fox Illinois, and in the League of Women Voters forum.

Smile Politely: Why did you choose to run for school board (or run for re-election)?

Amy Armstrong: Research shows turnover on a Board of Education negatively impacts student achievement. The community deserves servant leaders who are the best-prepared members to move forward with the strategic plan, implement the Superintendent’s goals, and follow current initiatives. Taxpayers, staff, and, most notably, students deserve and need knowledgeable candidates who have regularly attended board meetings, have intentionally involved themselves in the District’s strategic planning, or have been directly serving on committees in Unit 4. Continuity and stability on the Board of Education are paramount to students’ success and healthy public schools. I am prepared and committed to serving/working for another four years.

Jeffrey Brownfield: The most exciting prospect of being elected is an opportunity to collaborate with a group of amazingly bright, dedicated teachers that pour their heart and soul into the 10,000+ Unit 4 students. They perform these tasks while also navigating a mountain of obstacles. Simultaneously, it is also an opportunity to work with students/parents to expand opportunities for our kids. There is unbelievable, untapped potential in our students, and we all need to work to develop a path for each child, whether it be college, trades, medical fields, military, business startups, etc. Generally, my kids have been blessed with many outstanding teachers that have inspired them and taught them to seek knowledge. I want to develop or enhance policies to assure opportunities and access for all our children. Unit 4 can rebuild our academic excellence. When I was growing up, people moved to Champaign for the school system, now, often people are moving to other communities or placing their children in private schools due to the perceived lack of opportunities in Unit 4. To make a course correction we need our student/families, faculty, administrators, and the Board to focus on an agenda that provides fundamental educational opportunities and growth for each child.

Elizabeth Holder: I am a 6th generation Unit 4 graduate, raising four children in Champaign. I strongly believe schools lay at the foundation of any community. I have been very active and involved in the community, especially during the pandemic through COVID outreach and vaccination efforts. Many of our community’s weaknesses were unveiled during the pandemic, including those within our schools. I know there is a lot of work to do in our community, and I believe I can help. I am passionate about improving our schools and the quality of the education for all of our community members, particularly those who are most vulnerable and who have not found success within the current infrastructure.

A.J. Zwettler: I ran because I felt a calling to help my community. I am a passionate social worker and advocate for the marginalized communities in our district. I have over 10 years of leadership experience in Champaign- Urbana and I’m committed to bringing that with me to the board. In my current role as a program manager, I am responsible for overseeing a community-based program for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. My goal is to ensure people have strong connections to their community through art, volunteering, employment, and advocacy. I am the son, husband, and nephew of hard-working educators and have a deep respect for all who provide our students with the best learning
environments possible.

SP: There are some deeply troubling things happening within school boards around the country, particularly involving the further marginalization of Black and LGBTQ+ students and other historically excluded groups. As a school board member, what will you do to protect and support historically marginalized and excluded students in Unit 4?

Armstrong: I am a parent to a student in one of these groups. I am raising siblings that feel the pain of exclusion and hateful slurs. Hence, it is important to me, our family, and the greater community that we intentionally include, respect, and educate others on why racism, bigotry, hateful practices, and bias harm all of us. If one community member is not doing well, none of us are doing well. We can and must help break down barriers within systems, policies, programs, or any other environment that harms our most marginalized students. 

Brownfield: All children of Unit 4 (anywhere) are precious and deserve boundless opportunities. Each have dreams, goals, and aspirations. No child should be marginalized. As part of my process to run for the Board, I have met with countless teachers, parents/students, etc. to best understand how children learn and develop. I have also conducted extensive research regarding the best approaches for education. Based on this research from various groups, I have found mission statements or goals that promote ways to assure students are valued and nurtured. An aggregate of ideas from those groups is rooted in assuring equal educational opportunities for all students with a declaration that teachers, building administrators, district administrators and the Board accept and adhere to the highest ethical standards while prioritizing the needs of each child. As a side note, I think we also need to build, revise, or enhance mental health services for our students. Some students are coming to school with significant trauma. To assure a safe learning environment for all students while giving each child the support needed, we need to have these services available.

Holder: I will do everything in my power to protect all of our marginalized students, and I will work to keep political agendas out of the classroom. I am strongly against the censoring of any sort of books or curriculum, and I believe the history of our country needs to be taught honestly, and through the perspective and lens of all different groups. I will support our teachers and administrators, who ultimately determine the curriculum, and will support policies protecting their ability to do so without politically driven interference. I will also support funding and programming to help address the achievement gap which is a serious and growing issue, locally and nationally. Our schools need to be a place where ALL of our children feel safe, motivated, and capable.

Zwettler: I am deeply concerned with what is happening in states like Florida and Texas. Our students deserve the best, and that means they need to be celebrated for who they are. I am committed to ensuring that the rights of students of color and LGBTQ+ students are never threatened. Champaign-Urbana is a beautiful and diverse place and I will do everything I can to show my support for our community.

SP: Are there any situations or decisions during your most recent term on the school board that you would have handled differently? Or, are there any situations or decisions during the tenure of the current board that you would have handled differently?

Armstrong:  I stand by all of my decisions. Experience comes from learning the lesson after a process or discussion takes an unexpected turn or outcome. There are opportunities for growth in how we engage the community. Some of the most challenging conversations the District and board have faced recently during the pandemic and beyond galvanized folks to pay attention to our meetings and agenda items. The board works in public to ensure transparency, and the community would benefit from more local news coverage consistently, not just as big events come up. I would like to have dedicated reporters at our meetings again, where relationships can be formed and maintained. 

Brownfield: The recent decision regarding School of Choice ended up causing me concern. I do realize the editorial board of Smile Politely was generally in favor of the outcome. There are certainly elements of the revised process that are exceptionally good, expansion of IPA and Garden Hills educational missions, for example are great ideas. However, I have on-going concerns. The beginning of the process, gathering survey data, holding zoom meetings, etc., was rather good. There maybe could have been a few more avenues for input for families that have limited technology access, but overall, the initial process obtained a significant amount of data and comments. I began to have concern when the original plans could have required the vast majority of elementary students to move to new schools, and there was no phase in provisions. Thankfully, those ideas were set aside, However, my concern, and as I have campaigned, most of people that I’ve had conversations with, indicated that any plan to relocate students was (is) met with skepticism and further exacerbated by a lack of well-defined strategies that the movement of any students would improve overall academic performance, or close the achievement gap. Any revision to the current School of Choice should have been coupled with how these changes will improve academic scores, again, without that information or plan, the parents I’ve talked with had no interest in any of the proposed changes for their children. As the process continued, and Scenario 4 was the direction the Board and Admin wanted to pursue, I thought the best approach would have been to go back to the community to get input. Scenario 4 was just the least disliked proposal. Maybe taking some time to explain the pros/cons of Scenario 4, show data on the moves, etc., and work to get general community support would have been a better approach. Many students are now reassigned to middle schools with limited warning and virtually no input. Further, the year-round school option was eliminated not based on poor academic outcomes but other administrative concerns, again, there was limited input in the couple of weeks before a final vote was taken. So, ultimately, we answered a question that wasn’t asked. The result has positive aspects, but there are very few who believe that their voice was heard or respected. I think as a community we missed a golden opportunity for collaboration, and when things got messy, a plan was pushed through so that something was done.

Holder: It is easy to look back on the decisions made by others with a critical eye, especially those decisions made during the pandemic, but this is not productive as the entire world was operating with limited knowledge and experience. I might have done things differently, but I believe the decisions being made were made with the best available information. Regarding post-pandemic decisions, there are two situations I might have handled differently, given the facts available to me. I am somewhat concerned with the recent reassignment of students across the district. I am not overly confident it will help minimize the achievement gap, nor do I think it will benefit our most marginalized families, as there will be disruptions to in-place support systems as well as transportation issues, none of which is ideal for any of our Unit 4 families. Currently, I am generally opposed to the extended school day. We have much to improve within the day to day operations of our school environment, and adding minutes to the school day at this time is only going to stretch our resources and risk overburdening our teachers. I am not opposed to an increased school day in the future, but to draw an analogy…if a bucket has a hole in it, you don’t keep adding water, you first repair the hole. We need to strengthen our K-5 educational experience before adding additional time to the school day. It is also important to note the recent Four Points consulting firm evaluations did not suggest an increased school day as a mechanism for improving educational outcomes.

Zwettler: Out of respect for our current board, I cannot say that I would have done something differently. I was not involved in the many details that lead to some of those tough decisions. What I can tell you is that I am highly motivated to listen and respond to our community. Looking to the future, should I win your vote, I would lead with my heart and put the interest of our students, families, and faculty first.

Managing Editor

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