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Six weeks after Josh Seldess thought he would be Assistant Principal of Nichols Middle School, his position with District 65 is still in limbo.
Mr. Seldess began working as assistant principal at Nichols Middle School in early August. His employment contract was subject to Board approval, and had not been approved by the District 65 School Board at that time. In late August the Board voted not to approve the contract.
Since the vote was on a personnel matter, School Board members and administrators asked by the RoundTable for comment have declined to answer, saying this is a personnel matter.
Mr. Seldess served as freshman boys’ counselor at New Trier High Township School and, more recently was chair of the history department at Oak Park River Forest High School (OPRF). He also did equity work at both schools.
At the Sept. 12 School Board meeting, eight former colleagues of Mr. Seldess – both from OPRF and from New Trier – voiced their support for Mr. Seldess and urged the Board to reconsider its vote. They spoke of Mr. Seldess’s work ethic, his passion for children, and his commitment to equity.
More than one speaker referred to a 3-2 vote taken in the executive session at which Mr. Seldess’s employment was considered. Only five Board members attended the Aug. 29 public meeting held after that executive session.
Kathy Pilat, who said she was a colleague of Mr. Seldess at New Trier, said he was “sensitive, open, kind and brave. I think Josh Seldess would be a good employee.”
Mike Sofer, a colleague of Mr. Seldess in the history department of OPRF, said. “It would be such a loss if Josh were not retained and brought back. He pushed me to work harder. He cares more about kids than anything else.”
Saying he had known Mr. Seldess for more than 30 years, Daniel Cohen said, “finding good administrators is incredibly difficult. … I can’t imagine him not working with kids.”
While Mr. Seldess’s former colleagues focused on his abilities, some residents of District 65 focused on issues of equity.
Nichols parent Heather Sweeney said “Whether or not equity played a role in the vote not to hire Mr. Seldess, as has been the topic of much discussion, the decision not to hire him impacts equity. … Only three of seven Board members voted against hiring Mr. Seldess; two voted in favor, and two were not present. … Mr. Seldess told me he was not offered the job because his curriculum experience was at the high school level and not the middle school. This is unconvincing, since we consistently recognize that there are transferable skills that candidates may have that offset a lack of experience in one area. This is why we have principals who are social workers and psychologists, and others who entered their job with a level of curriculum experience different from where they were hired.”
Roger Williams, speaking for the Organization for Positive Leadership and Action (OPAL), challenged the Board’s commitment to equity and closing the achievement gap. He said he believed the Board did not hire Mr. Seldess because of his equity work and said not hiring Mr. Seldess was a “loss for the entire Evanston community. … We would have added an extremely competent educator.”
Mr. Williams is married to Pat Savage-Williams, President of the Evanston Township High School District 202 School Board and the special education coordinator at New Trier. She and Mr. Seldess led a discussion on race at the May 24 meeting of the OPRF School Board.
Nichols parent Dr. Melissa Blount said she had met Mr. Seldess on the second or third day of school and he “recognized me and made me feel welcomed as a part of the community.” She added, “What I have witnessed is that in Evanston people talk more and act less. … I have not noticed that people are ready to do the hard, messy work of equity.”
Martha Burns, a former member of the District 202 Board, questioned the process. She said at the high school it was “not uncommon” for an employee to begin working before the Board had approved the contract. “The Superintendent brings the contract to the Board for approval,” she said, adding that in her 12 years at the high school she “never experienced a Board’s going against a Superintendent’s recommendation.” She said the fact that two School Board members voted to hire Mr. Seldess “warrants consideration.”
Ms. Burns also said she met with Mr. Seldess and he told her that he was not hired because of his lack of middle-school-curriculum experience.
“I talked to both Candance [Chow, Board President] and Tracy [Quattrocki, Board member]. You both said the decision not to hire Josh had nothing to do with his equity work. In fact, you said it was a plus. I have to take your word on that. But I would say it was a missed opportunity to complement the work that is being done in this District.”
The Board met in executive session on Sept. 19, and the word on neighborhood chats was that the Seldess situation would be on topic discussed.
By email, the RoundTable asked Mr. Seldess several questions, including why he believed the Board did not approve his contract and whether he still wished to work at Nichols School. He declined to answer and said, “I have been advised by my attorney not to comment to the media, other than to say that my attorney and I intend to exhaust every avenue before considering litigation, but will do so to protect my interests if it becomes necessary.”