Smile Politely

Questions for candidates: Karie Brown-Tess for Urbana District 116 School Board

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 as they respond. Smile Politely doesn’t generally endorse local candidates, and these interviews are not endorsements. Hopefully, they will provide you readers with some insight into the importance of local races, and help you develop a 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.

There are two contested races for the Urbana District 116 school board, which is divided into sub districts. If you live in sub districts 4 or 6, you will have this race on your ballot. Not sure which district you’re in? You can look up that info here. These are 4 year terms.

Karie Brown-Tess is challenging for the sub district 4 seat, on a shared platform with sub district 6 candidate Felipe Menanteau.

Smile Politely: Why are you seeking a position on the District 116 school board? What do you hope to accomplish?

Karie Brown-Tess: I decided to run because I felt the decisions of our board over the last couple of years did not represent what I know to be true about my community. When I think of Urbana, I think of a community who is proud of our eclectic and diverse cultural community.

When I moved here, I saw a strong union and opportunities to be a part of meaningful committees, like the peace and social justice committee. But over the years I have seen our board make several decisions more akin to the frameworks Betsy Devos is working from. Only some of these efforts are known to the community through local news, such as when The News-Gazette broke that Urbana school board was working on a deal with the Housing Authority to share student attendance data, or when WILL broke that the Urbana school board approved an investigation into the hiring of a list of less than 30 people, where over 90% of those being investigated were black. Other actions have to be relentlessly followed to know anything about, such as the fact that the news coming from the board is sometimes not reported to Spanish- and French-speaking families. This is especially disheartening when we see such racist, classist, sexist, and ableist rhetoric from the current White House administration. Our local boards and elected offices are some of the most important positions for resisting the current administration. While our current board has voiced support for ‘equity,’ the presence of an outspoken advocate is needed to put this principle into practice.

My running mate, Felipe Menanteau, and I have outlined three main purposes intended to guide every decision we make as school board members. These are equity, transparency, and accountability. We want to help lead the district to a new future with a strong operating democracy built on the foundation of care.

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

Brown-Tess: This question gets at the heart of everything Felipe and I are running for. To fully address “disparity in academic achievement” we must understand the education debt.  (You can read the seminal paper “From the Achievement Gap to Education Debt” by Gloria Ladson-Billings).

Understanding the structural components restricting access is an important part of acting for equity. Recent decisions seem to assume that education is a reward rather than a right, creating a toxic environment in our schools. As a school board member, I will guard Title I funding to be used to help support the students in poverty. This means parents from low-income communities will have a voice in how we remove barriers to their children’s education. Not one dollar coming from Title I will be spent on punitive discipline measures or to support tracking or other systems meant to restrict high quality educational opportunities from the poor and disenfranchised in our community. As Felipe stated, “We have a poverty problem in Urbana. Across all ages our residents are poorer than Champaign, Normal, Bloomington, Lafayette and the national average. We need to acknowledge and work to address this reality, rather than ignoring what we don’t see in our own households.”

SP: For our readers that live in Urbana, yet do not have students in the District 116, 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?

Brown-Tess: Our schools are one of the most important aspects of building the community we want. Yes, we all contribute with tax dollars. In our community, we have hundreds of volunteers who give thousands of hours to our schools, yet do not have kids in school. That is our community; people who care and work together and invest in each other. If you are working hard to resist the national agenda of our current administration, you must understand that the frontlines of that resistance is our local boards and committees. I think many of my constituents would be surprised by the school board’s investigation of credentials of our staff of color. Many constituents may not know that poor children were literally at risk of board decisions that could impact their housing security! How do you want your tax dollars spent? Audrey Dumbro wrote a great argument for raising your voice in local elections. You can read it here.

SP: Are you committed to pursuing restorative justice as a way to deal with current disciplinary issues in the Urbana schools? Why or why not?

Brown-Tess: While we are legally obligated to implement restorative practices, I am committed to pursuing restorative justice. How we implement it will determine whether our efforts succeed or fail. For example, recent decisions moved restorative justice training to the elementary schools while slashing the trainer’s contract in half. This seems to demonstrate that our board believes that restorative practices can only be implemented by starting at a young age. This decision seems to fundamentally misunderstand how restorative justice works and the ample amounts of research on using restorative practices with adults. Restorative Justice training focuses on those who mete out discipline, like teachers or police. It offers a way to directly address behaviors while strengthening the community, as opposed to previous punitive models. Additionally, it is important to understand how Restorative Justice works within an RTI (Response to Intervention) program. Restorative Practices are about restoring the person back to the community.

SP: How will you address concerns about lack of communication and transparency with parents and community members?

Brown-Tess: This is a very important part of our plan. First, agendas items need to clearly delineate decisions being made. It could simply be links to the factors contributing to the decision as well as expected results of decisions. This way our community of experts can effectively contribute to the conversation with research and testimony in the public comment. Additionally, the board meetings need to be transcribed (even if it is just Google transcribe) so the community can have a searchable record of what decisions were made and how our board members voted. I have hosted watch parties in my home where concerned citizens sat around to watch school board meetings. We must recognize that this is nearly impossible for most folks, and that creates a breakdown in the democratic process. Additionally, families whose first language is not English will have better access to decisions that impact their experience in the school.

Regarding communication with parents, we have a serious problem. We have heard in board meetings parents testifying to the lack of communication when a student is hurt or in a fight.  We, as a community, did not see the school district take a lead role in providing support and care for the 15-year-old student shot and paralyzed while riding on the handlebars of his friend’s bike in 2018. When a tragedy like this happens, the community is usually informed of the tragedy and resources for support are provided. A critical role of our schools is to call our community together when things like this happen to one of our students. In this same vein, families have regularly asked the board to step into their community and hear their voices. It is clear watching these board meetings that some people don’t matter. These public comments are not plainly addressed, even when you have high school students saying that black students are treated differently.

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?

Brown-Tess: I intend to keep the channels of communication open by clearly communicating the impact and context of decisions that make their way onto the school board agenda. I will also work to ensure that everyone is treated with dignity in our effort to listen to our community. I have been answering 10-20 messages a day through Facebook, email, and phone calls. Having taught in the district for 3 years, I regularly get messages from students. Additionally, I am interested in implementing a similar procedure to what we have at the state level where constituents can submit their concerns and expertise on upcoming decisions. This would allow me to analyze my constituent concerns clearly against research and then I can state clearly my position on every vote in a way that encourages a strong active democracy.

SP: How can Urbana prevent another total collapse of its administration in the future?

Brown-Tess: Everything that has gone wrong is addressed by the components of Felipe’s and my platform. We have a serious problem with equity. As Michael Tessene, high school student from USD, said in a school board meeting, black kids are treated differently in our school. As we see in the WILL report by Lee Gaines, so are teachers of color. I continue to hear stories from parents of color who fear that their child’s participation in the school is hurting the child’s love of learning. We need to boldly address these issues, which leads to accountability. Part of accountability is holding others and ourselves accountable to the work environments we create. The other part is removing barriers which make it hard to hold someone accountable. For example, we cannot hold staff accountable to carry out programs without the proper resources to carry them out, such as support staff and opportunities to learn within their communities of practice. I continue to hear complaints that staff are asking for support but further training in restorative practices at the high school has been halted. If teachers and staff aren’t properly trained then the administration and school board needs to be held accountable. Finally, transparency. While canvassing, this is the thing that has come up most in conversations.

People feel good about our school and feel broadsided by what is being reported in the news. While our school board was asked to approve funds to have more support staff, the board is currently looking at “honorably dismissing full-time” and “part-time educational support staff” (March 26). This is at least three people, one being the family liaison who has been helping students dealing with homelessness and trauma. It is the job of the board to know what is happening with the budgets and understand the climate in the schools, and to make leveled and legal decisions that protect all students. A collapse in the administration cannot be separated from the decisions of its governing board.

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