Smile Politely

Let’s get it together, Unit 4

The facade of a rectangular building. It's light brown brick, with an entryway with windows. There is a grassy area and a tree with pink blossoms in front of the building.
Champaign Unit 4 Schools on X

We have written many, many, many, many times about the issues and dramas in both Champaign Unit 4 and Urbana District 116 schools. We’re writing again this week about Unit 4, not to break down the problems and offer a take, but in exasperation, like many others. We could use the space of this editorial to delineate all of the complaints and moments of conflict, but doing that doesn’t add anything meaningful to the conversation. In fact, this editorial might be completely useless, but as an editorial board, we felt compelled to at least acknowledge these ongoing troubles. 

In Champaign, things seem quite dire. Last month, two Unit 4 school board members, Jamar Brown and Mark Thies, resigned from their positions citing similar concerns about a lack of transparency from administration. It’s worth noting that the men are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and were not necessarily approaching their roles from the same worldview. Both were elected last year, and served less than one year of their terms. Shortly after their resignations, on March 25th, a school board meeting was canceled for lack of quorum after two board members walked out of the meeting in protest. They, too, are troubled by the lack of transparency and what Brown noted were “adult” problems. Among those problems are discontent from the Booker T. Washington community about the reassignment of an assistant principal, that assistant principal filing discrimination charges against the district, as well as the Illinois Attorney General’s office investigating an open meetings violation

The Monday, April 8th board meeting was more than seven hours long and ended with what The News Gazette described as “fireworks.” Of the 26 people who applied to replace the two board vacancies, 11 were offered interviews, scheduled to be held on Tuesday, April 9th. Board members Amy Armstrong and Betsy Holder stated they would not be participating in the interviews and instead asked for the regional superintendent to choose the replacements, as they do not think the vetting process was “inclusive” enough and that the board is currently too “toxic” to make those decisions. 

To say that things in Unit 4’s leadership and administration are a mess feels disingenuous. Things are well beyond messy, and moving into harmful. This ultimately takes attention, time, and critical problem-solving energy away from the needs of students and teachers who are most vulnerable.

We don’t believe that the administration and leadership in Unit 4 are deliberately trying to cause harm. These are clearly thankless positions, and we genuinely believe that the people in them want the best for the kids. The problem lies within agreeing on what “best” means, and having the structural support to achieve those goals. To that end, we think transparency (where appropriate) is the only way forward, even if that means offering additional explanation or education to parents, community members, and taxpayers. We also think it’s worth reevaluating the systems and the people — perhaps through a third party — at all levels of administration: the boards, human resources, legal, transportation, and yes, the superintendent. As outside observers, it feels like many of the people who are tasked with making decisions need to get on the same page internally, and need to work out their personal problems in mediation.  

Things are toxic, that is clear to everyone watching. Something has to give. The two people who end up joining the board — regardless of how they are selected — have a lot of work, and likely some headaches to look forward to. 

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Louise Knight-Gibson, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker.

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