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By Larry and Mary Gavin
National notoriety about whether District 65 respects parents, limiting acceleration and eliminating geometry in its math program, challenges in reopening schools, and the persistent problem of a structural deficit – a recent forum for District 65 School Board candidates touched on these and more.
An audience of 175 attended the March 17 virtual forum hosted by Central Street Neighbors Association and attended by all eight candidates: Angela Blaising, Joey Hailpern, Soo La Kim, Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan, Ndona Muboyayi, Donna Wang Su, Katie Voorhees, and Marquise Weatherspoon. Mr. Hailpern is seeking re-election. Ms. Lindsay-Ryan and Ms. Kim, appointed to the Board in 2019 and 2020, respectively, are seeking to retain their seats on the board.
Central Street Neighbors Association President Jeff Smith pressed all eight candidates to give their views on a story in the Atlantic magazine titled “What Happens When a Slogan Becomes the Curriculum” by Conor Friedersdorf. He wrote, “A curriculum inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement is spreading, raising questions about the line between education and indoctrination.”
A link to the article can be found here:
This is the third year the District has used parts of that curriculum during a week in Black History Month. In the prior two years, notice was put on the District’s website and sent to parents, but that was not done this year.
By way of introduction to his question he said, “District 65 made national discussion this week in the Atlantic magazine for its Black Lives Matter curriculum. And I wouldn’t call it a puff piece. Dr. Beardsley is quoted as saying, ‘We’re not in the business of telling kids what to think, and to feel.’ But the author says that the district has crossed the line from education into indoctrination.”
QUESTIONS REGARDING RECENT ARTICLE IN THE ATLANTIC
Question: Has District 65 become too ideological? And is it detracting from learning? And specifically, I’ve received a number of questions from residents asking, is District 65 teaching students that, quote, whiteness, unquote, is a bad thing? And should it be?
Ms. Lindsay-Ryan said, “It’s, I guess, fitting that I started this conversation, since this is what I do every day with every client is to engage in these conversations. And I think it’s critically important for our kids to be raised as global citizens to have an understanding of honest history, to understand all of the contexts of the struggles that are happening in our current times.
“And I think our Black Lives Matter curriculum as well as our LGBT+ curriculum and our Latinx are not those are full enough like we need to a comprehensive curriculum, which is why we’re doing a revamp of the Social Studies program. But as a history major, like I had to be fully out of my history-major college experience to learn one thing that was not a whitewashed history. I don’t want that for my kids; I want them to understand the world that they live in. I want them to understand the experiences of other people.
“And I think that there’s, there’s a way for us to do that, that is honest and allows each of us to understand where I situate us, and how that that impacts our interactions with each other, that doesn’t have to be punitive. It doesn’t have to be a declaration that there’s something wrong with whiteness, but to understand the systemic pieces that dictate and influence all of our relationships, and if Evanston wants to be the place that folks say we are, this is a critical part of that education.”
To Mr. Hailpern, Mr. Smith said, “Have we crossed the line and become too ideological? Or is there an impact on other learning?“
Mr. Hailpern said he would start with a quote he contributed to the article, “because that also partially is my answer. As a white man, I’d be lying if I said there were not parts of the curriculum that made me feel uneasy.
“It is hard to have your child come home and point out to you the privilege you’ve long held, but never noticed.
“I feel so good knowing that my children are learning the value community respect and fairness in a way I was never discreetly taught in school. Equity is a journey for some, a fight for others. And in a distant hope for too many, if this makes the longterm goals in our community more attainable, a bit of unease on my white part is acceptable and necessary to me.
“I gave that piece to the author that he put in the article, because he was asking great questions. And I think a lot of it comes back to trusting our teachers with our kids. We all send our children to school with teachers who have opinions.
“And what I want is for schools to be less apolitical and more political, that doesn’t mean give kids opinions, that doesn’t mean impose upon them. That means get them engaged and inspired on topics that really matter to make this world a better place, because if it’s going to be better, it’s going to be because of our children and the way that teachers nurture them.
“And we shouldn’t be afraid of that. Even if it makes us as adults and me as a white man, a little bit uneasy at times.”
To Ms. Su, Mr. Smith posed the question: Are we in balance or out of balance with regard to indoctrination versus education?“
Ms. Su said she took offense to the article and called it “poor journalism. There was a lot of anonymous quotes, and a bit of a lack of accountability.
“And you know, history, real history is not what I learned in the books. It is not how it’s been. What I do appreciate with District 65, what it has been doing with its curriculum, especially Black Lives Matter that was done in collaboration with teachers. And that’s part of what we need to do more of that collaboration piece.
“I appreciate that there was the LGBTQIA+ equity curriculum. You know, it helped bring about conversation in our house, that I don’t know how I would have been able to bring it up. And what my kids are learning this new curriculum I’m unpacking myself.
“I grew up in an age where I was told to assimilate, keep my head down and try to be as American as possible, and my kids are proud to be who they are.
“And I will also say Governor Pritzker just signed into the bill for including African American History into the curriculum is just fantastic. And I’m also in support of the one where we’re going to include, hopefully, Asian-American history.”
To the next candidate, Mr. Smith said, “Ms. Kim, are we teaching the right thing? Or have we become too political?”
Ms. Kim said, “I will echo [Ms. Su’s] assessment of that article. I’ve been reading the Atlantic for a while. And I would just ask all of us to put on our critical thinking hats and take the claims of that article with a huge grain of salt. And I would also echo [Mr. Hailpern’s and Ms. Lindsay-Ryan’s] comments about what we need to do to teach our students real history, not the one that watched Eurocentric version that we’ve gotten throughout our childhoods.
“And I want my children to ask critical questions and to reflect on where they sit as biracial children in our community. And I saw this great meme today: ‘Diversity is a fact; equity is a choice.’
“Inclusion is an action and belonging is the outcome. And I want all of our students however, they identify in the District to feel a sense of belonging. And we can’t do that if we can’t interrogate our racial identities and our racialized history and the inequities that exist because of those systematic institutions that have benefited one group over others.”
To Ms. Blaising, Mr. Smith said, “I don’t know if you had a chance to read the Atlantic article, but one way or the other, how do you feel about where the district is at with its approach?”
Ms. Blaising said, “I Iargely agree with the author. I think he pointed out a lot of the great things about the curriculum. And he pointed out some of the things that I think do cross the line.
“And I think I come at it from a standpoint of, you know, I grew up in a very white, small, Midwestern town. I had an adopted brother who was Asian. No family looked like us two sisters who looked like me. And I learned a lot about racism through that experience from sort of the sibling viewpoint.
“I’m a big believer that you have to experience things. And I worry that if you’re telling kids sort of how to think or what to think you’re going to miss that experience.
“So I also just think you have to look at the fact that schools are there to educate. I think a ton of the curriculum is educational, particularly the social studies curriculum and the historical correct curriculum. But I think there’s a lot of things that don’t really add to education. And I think, especially in the time of COVID, we need to be really careful about the time, the time we have to teach kids and how we’re using it.”
Mr. Smith asked Ms. Muboyayi, “Should we be teaching students, especially kindergarteners or younger grades, that whiteness is a bad thing?“
Ms. Muboyayi said she had read the article, and “I’m going to be very, very, very honest, extremely candid. I was uncomfortable. And the reason why I was uncomfortable is because the way that certain things are being taught in the District is not necessarily from the standpoint point of empathy, even though it’s often talked about. … I don’t think if you’re going to teach a child about racism, and what is taking place in the past, that was negative, you do it no matter where you are going to make the child feel uncomfortable, and feel bad about who they are.
“I think that if you’re going to teach it, you should teach it from the standpoint that you want all children to feel good about themselves, but then still be able to point out what’s wrong and issue with that article is that my own experience with my daughter when she was at Haven was that one of her teachers was going over genocide in the world.
“But the way that this type of education is being taught in this District is that it’s always white people doing it to other people.
“And I brought up Rwandan genocide. My father’s from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where millions of people were slaughtered in the neighboring country, and millions of people in Congo have been killed over the past 20 years.
“And they were not white people doing it.
“But because I introduced that those books and articles to the teacher, and because it was not white supremacy who had done it, he refused to include it in the curriculum. That’s the danger.
“We have people who are ill-equipped to teach fact-based history. And yes, I’m fully aware of the wrongs that white people have done in this world. Believe me, I’m fully aware.
“But when we’re going to teach our children, whether it’s about history, about identity about self-worth, we need to teach it in a manner where the children understand that you can’t label one group as being all bad and one group as being all good. We have to look at the facts in history, even when it comes to children, who are 5 years old.”
Mr. Smith said to Ms. Voorhees, “Many of us are in Evanston because it is a politically aware place. Have we gone too far in District 65?”
Ms. Voorhees said, “That’s exactly what I was going to say. I chose to live in Evanston because of the diversity. And I know a lot of my friends and neighbors absolutely agree with that.
“A very informative book for me, at a young age, I read Howard Zinn’s ‘People’s History of the United States’ and I got this other perspective of what actually happened in history. And so I’ve always been a huge believer in making sure that real history and values are taught. I read the article, as well.
“I think Intersectionality and Critical Race Theory are great – there are a lot of good points. I guess, what I do worry about is how do you know in Intersectionality, how does the relationship between privilege and oppression maybe get flipped?
“And I do worry that if we use the emotions of guilt and shame and weaponize those feelings, you know, our kids may not be able to process the complicated nature of these feelings. And will these kids end up having lower self-esteem and feel like they are bad?
“I just want to make sure that we’re lifting up all kids and not demonizing anyone.
“I don’t want that cycle of trauma to continue but in the reverse form. I think that’s a real concern.
“We need to model to our kids how we want to talk to each other. I get concerned if kids are hearing their parents using white supremacy and then kids call other kids in their class, white supremacist. I think that’s a very, very loaded word.”
Noting that Ms. Weatherspoon had the last word, Mr. Smith said, “This is an instance on the national radar for this. Where do you weigh in on it?“
Ms. Weatherspoon said, “I agree that Evanston is a very diverse community. We don’t want anyone to feel like they are being ostracized for who they are, or the color of their skin or who they love, or any differences for that matter. I do believe that it is far too late in the game, that we’ve now started teaching that Black lives do matter, because for so many years that the lives of black people have been diminished.
“But I agree with the fact that the District has included so many different curriculums to speak to the times that we are in right now. And our children will be better humans because of the curriculum that they are learning in District 65 at this point.”
QUESTIONS REGARDING MATH ACCELERATION AND ELIMINATING EIGHTH-GRADE GEOMETRY
Question: Accelerated math for decades has been the gateway to the capstone program of the Evanston School of the campus track at Evanston Township High School. It seems the District 65 is planning to cut back on that and eliminate eighth grade geometry. So it’s a relatively simple question: Is the District doing the right thing or going in the wrong direction on that.
For the RoundTable’s story on the District’s new math program, click here:
Ms. Su said, “I struggle with this because there’s one answer that I would give you as a parent and there’s a different that I would give you as a candidate.
“I’m going to start with the parent. I have a child who has been pushing for math acceleration. In fact, he wrote a letter. And he says he sent it to the School Board. I can’t tell, because I don’t have access to the district 65.org, where he wrote about his frustrations about not having accelerated math available to him as a sixth-grader.
“In this letter he talked about ‘Are we being prepared for the high school?’ Is this what it really is? He also asked, ‘If your child is great at sports, do you tell them, “You know what, you can only go so far because you’re not being fair to the other kids?”
“Or is there other ways around it? Or another thing if your kid is great at art or music, you want to encourage that growth. You don’t tell them, ‘Slow down, because you need to let other kids catch up.’
“Or do you try to support them the best way possible? And I think that’s part of where I stand with math acceleration.
“Is the District doing the right thing or going in the wrong direction here?” Mr. Smith asked Ms. Muboyayi.
Ms. Muboyayi said, “My opinion is very similar to that of Donna Wang Su’s, which is I do believe that children who do well in accelerated math should have the opportunity to continue to do so. And for those who are not yet capable of doing the work, if their parents would like and the children would like to take on the challenge, I believe that they should have that right to do so as well.
“I do not think that it’s right that, because all children are not in accelerated math at this time, that it should be something that should be eliminated. “Because I believe that all children should be able to be challenged through education.
“And having challenge is not a bad thing. I think that challenging yourself helps to increase your knowledge year over year. And I am just very concerned about the way that it’s heading at this point.
Mr. Smith similarly asked Ms. Lindsay-Ryan, “Is the District doing the right thing here or going in the wrong direction?
Ms. Lindsay-Ryan said, “I think we’re doing the right thing. … I think when we are looking at both a detracting algebra and math acceleration, I think there’s a lot of confusion about what we’re talking about.
“And essentially, we are trusting our educators. This came out of our middle school teachers saying, ‘This doesn’t really make sense, the way we’re doing this, like for algebra, we’re teaching the same book in a high level class, and we’re teaching the same book in a regular class. Why don’t we work on differentiation so that everybody can get as far as they can get?’ … So it’s not like math acceleration is not possible anymore. In the new system, it’s really about making sure that we’re removing barriers so that there isn’t the racial predictability that has been happening with these programs.”
Mr. Smith asked Ms. Blaising, “Do you have a different take on that? Is the District doing the right thing, or going in the wrong direction here?“
Ms. Blaising said, “My concern is really the concern of sort of what [Ms. Su] said, that you do have kids that just may really need that extra math to kind of keep going.
“And so with that, it’s a struggle: How do you balance both? There was a very compelling letter to the Board – I think it was in February – from a mom, who recited that she was a Black woman at Harvard her first year and hadn’t had access to advanced math and was behind and how hard as a Black woman it was for her to catch up.
“And that really resonated, because I think you have to understand that by taking away something, you’re also taking it away from Black and brown students, not just white students. And that’s really concerning to me is if we’re taking away from those students, how are we making it?
“You know, how are we going to get them into colleges, and make their lives better, not harder?”
Mr. Smith asked, Ms. Voorhees, “Are we going in the wrong direction or the right direction with cutbacks and math acceleration and what I understand to be the elimination of eighth-grade geometry?”
Ms. Voorhees said, “I agree with Angela [Blaising], and I don’t think we should cut the Advanced Math. Just as a personal value, I think one should never lower standards.
“Instead, we should raise more people up to meet the very high standards. And I think we need to prepare more Black and brown kids from a very young age to be prepared for more advanced math. We need more tutoring and more services to just make sure everyone’s on the same page early on. I just I never want to take a challenge away from anyone.”
“Ms. Weatherspoon,” Mr. Smith asked, “Are we going in the right direction or the wrong direction with regard to math at District 65?”
Ms. Weatherspoon said, “I believe that District 65 is doing what is necessary for the children that are not benefiting from it and also giving more opportunity to the children that would benefit from it. I would not agree with totally taking it out because we do need to challenge our students; we need to be able to offer them to be able to think beyond where they feel comfortable so that they can stretch their capabilities and be prepared for [District] 202.”
Ms. Weatherspoon added that one of her sons’ favorite subjects is math, and she thought that their peers would help them engage in an accelerated math program. “So I would agree that we should certainly not remove it but keep it and challenge our students.”
Mr. Smith asked, “Ms. Kim, if you’re on the Board in the coming years, is this a policy that you would seek to change in some way or continue the trend that we’re on?”
Ms. Kim said, “I encourage everyone to listen to the discussion of math acceleration at the recent Board meeting that Dr. Beardsley and David Wartowski presented, and I think it’s very compelling and it’s research based. The issue with math six/seven was that it had a segregated outcome. It was a segregated learning space.
“I don’t think tutoring is really addressing that issue. I think tutoring turns the problem back onto the student, instead of looking closely at the system that’s creating these unequal outcomes.
“Also, math acceleration isn’t going away. As Dr. Beardsley explained, we are doing acceleration by instruction, which means, again, differentiating within the classroom. And if a student is so accelerated that they can skip a grade, that is still an option.
“One of the other details that was really telling to me from Mr. Wartowski’s presentation is that only 25% of students who take math six/seven end up taking multivariate calculus at ETHS, so it’s a very narrow, small percentage. “The other students have multiple accesses to pathways to all the different levels of math. So why not open up that math? Why is math six/seven thought of as the only pathway to those advanced classes? It’s not. So I don’t think we should fetishize this one accelerated class as the only way to achieve math acceleration, because it’s not.
“So I would like to see this program, math acceleration by instruction, implemented and track the progress and see if we can then create better access for all of our students.”
Mr. Smith asked the same question of Mr. Hailpern.
Mr. Hailpern said, “For me, this is a question about engagement. Acceleration is something that some students do need. And we need classrooms that can meet students’ needs, and articulate to parents how they’re doing that.
“In terms of the research base behind the programmatic shifts that are happening, Jo Boaler out at Stanford, check out youtube.com, she’s got a lot of resources that show you what a high ceiling/low floor classroom looks like. These are math tests that talk about the same standard, the same skill, but do it in highly developed ways, but also foundational ways so students within the same learning classroom can cascade their way through, and you climb that staircase and develop something earlier in the learning and become more achieved by the end. Something that if you’re in a tracked classroom setting, might be capped or might be restricted.
“And that’s what this is about. To what Soo La [Kim] said, we’re not eliminating opportunities at the high school for courses; only 4% of kids take MV calc. This is about what we call it. And it was predictable by race, which kids were going to be in what class. The teachers came to us at 11 o’clock at night at a June Board meeting on the last day of school and presented to us that we are teaching the same classes under different names with the same textbooks. And this group is white, and that group is Black and Brown. And we’d like to change that. And we responded to that. And if parents want to learn more about what this can look like in policy and action, “What’s Math Got to Do With It” is a great book that I recommend to people. It’s a quick read. But it also talks about what we as adults understood as a tracking model isn’t what’s best for all kids, not just Black and Brown kids.
“But in our elementary setting, we have bands of opportunities for kids to learn foundational math skills, and in the middle school we want to develop the mathematical practices and thinking during those three years and give them the full three years to develop it.”
QUESTIONS ABOUT OPENING SCHOOLS IN LIGHT OF COVID-19
District 65’s schools were closed for in-person learning this school year until Feb. 16. On that date, the District implemented a hybrid model. For more on the model, click here.
On March 15, Superintendent Devon Horton formally announced that the District is actively planning to bring back all students for in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year. For more on this, click here.
Question: Mr. Smith asked candidates how they would like School District 65 to go about addressing COVID-19, including reopening the schools, repairing damage that has been done, and addressing mental health issues.
Ms. Voorhees responded, “COVID has really impacted all of our kids and their families. I was just reading an article in the Harvard Gazette talking about the kids whose parents have been more adversely affected, as being the ones who are going to have more long-term problems with COVID, with the mental health, and psychological issues.
“So we’re talking about parents who have lost their jobs or parents who are more stressed out. I see a lot in my own practice, parents who are over-relying on substance abuse, and kids really have had to fend for themselves. And so when they come back to the schools – now it’s hybrid, in the fall I expect that it will be full time – we’re going to need to have lots of supports for these kids. And we need to have an opportunity to bring in more mental health providers to work with the kids.
“My idea is to maybe make District 65 a training site for graduate psychology programs, and then they can do their internships, working with the kids. That way they get more services for no money, which is, the price is right.
But also we just have to really focus on teaching the kids self-soothing tools. And specifically, we can teach kids to help each other as a community.”
Turning to Ms. Muboyayi, Mr. Smith asked, “Is there a different way you approach COVID than how the District is doing it now?”
Ms. Muboyayi said, “I’ve been following the District from the very beginning. So my children are in the high school at ETHS, but I do have many cousins in District 65. And one of the biggest concerns that I had in the beginning was that I did not want what was suggested, which was for a specific demographic to go back before everyone else. So I was very concerned about that. But, after speaking to a number of parents and also following Dr. Horton’s suggestion which was for the Black and Brown students to return first – and that was because they were being marginalized and because many of them didn’t have access to services – I was on the same page as Dr. Horton.
“But over time, I have been listening to parents and what their needs were. A lot of them were happy that there were pods available for their children to go to study, places where they can go outside of their homes so that they’re not falling behind and becoming depressed. So I do believe that they’re moving in the right direction right now where the children are being able to go back gradually, like my daughter, who’s at ETHS, she’s now back at ETHS doing in-person distance learning. And I look forward to that same thing at District 65 for the other students.”
Mr. Smith asked, “Mr. Halpern, is the District getting it all right or is there something in retrospect you would do differently?”
Mr. Hailpern said, “No. So I’ve been on the Medical Advisory Board as a board member, I was on the Reopening Task Force last summer. I also work in a district that opened our doors at the start of the school year for eight weeks before we shut down. And we’re opening full time on April 5. So I know very well what it takes to open a school and to work with school teams to get it right.
“One of the things that’s a nuance of Board work and obviously having five labor unions, is we have to negotiate certain things. And not everything is acceptable to every group. There’s a lot of questions, it takes a lot of time in relationships. One of the things that I bring to the table is my ability to stay at the table, even in disagreement, and to work through things with people.
“And I think it was a fair question in the fall when people were asking for schools to reopen, as to why we were being asked to make a Medical Advisory Board when we have public policy experts and public health officials giving guidance to schools that said different. Why would we ask other people to do different? And those were fair questions that we had to sort through.
“We do need to open our schools. We need to open our schools last week, more so than we have now. I’m a big proponent about reopening, but doing it safely because people that don’t feel safe at work, or feel safe in the classroom, aren’t available to teach or to learn. And that’s the big thing that we need to make sure, that we’re telling that line between the professional responsibility and obligation, but also making sure the workplace is safe and the learning environment is safe for everybody.”
“Ms. Blaising,” Mr. Smith asked, “is the District hitting .300 or .500 or 1.000 on this, or is there something you’d do different?”
Ms. Blaising said, “I’d probably do just about everything different, to be quite honest. I don’t think I’d be sitting here running for the Board, if this had gone the way that I was seeing it go at other districts.
“Just to be clear, the Medical Advisory Committee came about because of parents. It didn’t come about because of Board members. But most of the emails from parents to Board members were not returned. And some of those were returned with actually incorrect, factual, scientific information.
“I just think there’s been a really big disregard for science and an over-regard for fear. I think that we’re on the right track, but there’s hundreds of middle-schoolers that want and need to go back to school, and they can’t even figure out a way to get these kids in the classroom, and that is completely unacceptable.
“I know of no other districts, anywhere, they can’t get kids into middle school at this point. So I think it’s a huge mess. And it’s one of the reasons that I think we have to be really careful in the future goals we tackle. If we can’t get this right, it just seems going the extra step and taking on more could lead to other issues down the road.”
Mr. Smith asked Ms. Kim, “How would you repair the damage that I think everybody agrees kids are going to have to deal with from a disruptive year?”
Ms. Kim said, “I think social emotional learning and academic learning are deeply integrated. So I think we need to pay attention to both and to boost up the social emotional aspects of academics.
“But I just wanted to clarify one thing. Dr. Horton never prioritized by race, by Black and Brown, you know, prioritizing Black and Brown students for return. He explicitly said from the beginning that we were prioritizing free and reduced lunch students, McKinney Vento [homeless], emergent bilinguals, and those who are not making satisfactory academic progress. Those were the priority groups. So I want to be very clear that that was clarified that that was from the beginning the priority groups, and I support that.
“I think we needed to address a crisis that was not having, you know, the same impact on different communities. It was disparately impacting Black and Brown communities in those, in those priority groups. So I think that was a priority, and I support that priority.
“But as we open and return to everyone, those concerns are still there.”
For more on this, click here:
Mr. Smith said, “Ms. Su, COVID and the reopening of schools: What do you think?”
Ms. Su said, “So similar to Joey, I also sat on the Summer Task Force for Reopening Schools. I think that I bring a different perspective as a staff administrator. I’ve worked at Northwestern for the last 15 years, mostly in operations. So I’ve seen leadership, directors make decisions and change policies. But I’ve been at the ground level implementing them, trying to do damage control, all of that.
Ms. Su said she saw a lot of different things happen at the District level, and added, “I think that from school to school, communication has been so different. And I think the schools where there is that lack of communication has built this lack of trust. … I’ve heard complaints from several parents that there wasn’t a simple or smooth way for them to submit their concerns and questions … besides just doing a public statement at a Board meeting. So I think we need to fix some of that communication and rebuild that trust.”
“Ms. Lindsay-Ryan,” Mr. Smith said, “you’ve heard some of the criticisms of what the District has done. Do you agree, are they in hindsight and looking forward? What do you think?”
Ms. Lindsay-Ryan said, “I think, one of the pieces of this discussion is largely about language. I think when we talk about safe reopening of schools, I think all of us want safe reopening of schools, we just have a different definition of what is safe. It’s not that some of us want schools to stay closed, or some of us want whatever.
”So we followed the research that we, and I just want to be candid, this is probably one of the hardest decision-making processes I’ve ever been a part of in my life, because being wrong could lead to death. Right. This was people’s lives were on the line, we were making these decisions. And so, you know, it was critical that we engage all stakeholders in it. As Joey mentioned, we have five unions, you know, and it was probably the hardest, one of the hardest points for all of us to navigate through this decision making together. … And we do want to engage with them, and have full conversations and figure out how to get our schools open, but without cost of life.”
Mr. Smith asked, “Ms. Weatherspoon, you get the last word. Has the District done it right, wrong, [or] somewhere in between?”
Ms. Weatherspoon said, “Well, personally, I think that the District was very thoughtful in this process. And as [Ms. Lindsay-Ryan] just said this had to be one of the hardest decisions considering that if any misstep, this could have meant the lives of students and the lives of our teachers.
“So I agree with the way that they evaluated the situation and getting advice from medical professionals and allowing school to reopen safely. And what it looks like: Safety for me is now this hybrid approach that is going very well. My children are back in school. They’re back learning. They’re excited about seeing their friends, and about being engaged with their teachers.”
QUESTIONS ABOUT DISTRICT 65’S PROJECTED DEFICITS
On Feb. 8, School District 65 administrators presented revised projections that forecast an operating deficit of $1.9 million for the 2021-2022 school year (FY’22), growing to $15 million in FY’26 – if action is not taken to increase revenues or reduce expenditures. For more on this, click here.
Question: Mr. Smith said District 202 seems to be able to balance its budget during the pandemic, but District 65 seems to be facing current or future deficits despite a hefty property tax increase. “Is the District’s fiscal house in order and if not, who’s at fault and what needs to be done?”
Ms. Weatherspoon said, “I think that the deficit is certainly a concern, I do believe that they have a good eye on this situation and have plans in place as far as how to get us from under this crisis. They have been hit with a lot, obviously, during this pandemic, just based on where a majority of the funding comes in through.
“So I think that with the new structure that they plan to implement, and also any new ideas that they would get from the recent surveys, I think that it’s going to be looking up. I don’t know that it will happen soon, but I think that they’re committed to the work. And certainly, if I am elected, I will be committed to the work as well.”
Mr. Smith turned to Ms. Kim and asked, “Miss Kim, are we in good fiscal shape, if not what needs to be done?”
Ms. Kim said, “We are facing a structural deficit that has been in place for decades. I believe, Joey [Hailpern] shared recently the historical documents from when the referendum was being passed.
And the referendum in 2017 was never meant to solve the structural deficit, it was meant to buy us time to evaluate and figure out where cuts needed to be made and where we needed to right size, and figure out efficiencies.
“And that’s where we are now. Unfortunately, that timeline has been shortened because of the pandemic. And, the revenues have decreased because of how property taxes are levied and how much we can collect in terms of property taxes. So there are a lot of factors that contribute to the structural deficit. And the issue is that the solutions were not addressed earlier. So the Board, whatever Board is elected, we’ll need to deal with that.
Mr. Smith asked Ms. Blaising, “Do you agree? Or do you have a different take on it?”
Ms. Blaising said, “I think the budget is a direct reflection of fiscal mismanagement, both by the Board and the Superintendent. And I’ll just read from a spreadsheet I had: When the referendum was done in 2017, there was a pledge to use that money to fund certain funds over time, including capital improvements, contributing a million dollars to funds.
“The first two years after the referendum, those pledges were met, meaning the revenue exceeded expenses by more than the amount that was supposed to be saved into those funds. That reversed two years ago, and is continuing to decline – so much so that we didn’t even save the million dollars that we pledged tax holders to save into the funds this year.
“If we continue on the trajectory that we’re on, we will be in dire financial straits. Four to five million dollar budget cuts every year is going to wreak havoc on education. And I think it’s a big problem, and I think it needs to be solved.”
“Ms. Voorhees, what’s your take?” asked Mr. Smith.
Ms. Voorhees, said, “I agree. Despite knowing that the structural deficit exists, the Board has approved for the administration to continue increases in spending by hiring many new positions, 10 new administrative positions that do not impact students in the classroom. That equals $1.5 million.
“By the way, enrollment has gone down at this point by almost 500 kids. Kids are leaving the District, principals are leaving the District – three in the past few weeks. Many people in the District have p-cards [purchasing cards] with a $3,000 limit.
“I just see so much mismanagement, so much so that now a school might need to be closed. And what does that mean? That means that kids are going to have to be moved to a different school, larger classroom sizes, fewer teachers. I think this is unnecessary, and we need to stop spending the money that we don’t have.”
Mr. Smith asked Ms. Muboyayi, “Do you see mismanagement or structural deficit or both?”
Ms. Muboyayi said, “I actually do see a bit of both. And I absolutely agree with both Katie [Voorhees], Angela [Blaising] as well as Soo La [Kim].
“I believe that there is some management. But I also do believe that whoever’s going to be on the new Board must address these issues immediately. And in order to do so we do have to take a look at the spending that has taken place over the past two years, look at the hiring, as well as positions that have been terminated as a result of not being able to cover the salaries of some necessary employees, such as reading specialists.
“I do believe that as a result of the much needed work of equity, inclusion, and diversity that’s been taking place with the District, some things are extremely necessary.
“But at the same time, based on the fact that we are in a deficit, certain things need to be moved around, in my opinion, not necessarily getting rid of, but actually looking at what’s working and what’s not working, and move the funding to where it needs to be placed the most.”
Mr. Smith said, “Mr. Hailpern, You’re there right now. Would you use the word ‘crisis?’”
Mr. Hailpern said, “Yeah. We have a fiscal sustainability problem. And that’s been a part of my work the past two years as Finance Chair. A couple of points. Katie [Voorhees] knows about p-cards, because I dug that up and brought them up in a public meeting. Ndona [Muboyayi] wants to move money between funds, but there’s actually laws that restrict the way money can be moved between funds. And Angela [Blaising] is referencing spreadsheets about the difference between revenues and expenditures in the first four years, there was an excess.
“And if you look below on that spreadsheet, there’s a line below that says how much money from the reserves is to be put to future deficits. So we were compiling money early in the referendum years to be spent in the out years, which is what we’re in now. So we expected the deficit to be there so that we can use the referendum reserves in the out years.
“We need to figure this out. We need to straighten up. We need to go lean in the administration. But this has been here for decades. When 20 years ago, or whenever JEH [the Joseph E. Hill early childhood and administration center] was built, the District was asked to fund that, this problem was there then.
“When we did the referendum, six years ago, the projection at the time was a $112 million deficit 10 years out, which is why the referendum was asked for, and we still have that problem. It needs to be straightened up. And we need a team of seven to do due diligence and work together to get it right.
Mr. Smith asked, “Ms. Su, what’s your perspective?
Ms. Su said, “I do see it both ways.
“I do see that this has been a deficit that has continued over the years.” She contrasted District 65 with District 202, saying District 65 has 18 schools compared to one in 202. “Additionally,” she said, “there’s been the burden that the State has put on our Districts with funding teacher pensions, but I also see a lack of transparency.
“When I was looking also at numbers and spreadsheets, I saw that in February 2020, we were supposed to have a projected $43 million left in our fund reserves. But then in February 2021, our reserves in the projections dropped down to $28.5 million. That’s $15 million lost. And so, I’m kind of curious what happened there.
“And I think that from what I’m hearing and what I’m reading, there’s been quite a bit of spending on consulting.”
Mr. Smith asked Ms. Lindsay-Ryan, “What needs to be done?”
Ms. Lindsay-Ryan said, “Well, I want to say that I think it’s a great disservice to have this conversation in one minute, because it’s a very complex problem. And I really encourage folks to check out finance meetings. We had a five hour plus meeting on March 8, where we were talking about all these things, trying to get more information.”
She said a comparison of District 65 to District 202 is “an apples-to-oranges comparison, with 18 schools versus one school and all of the structural things there.
“I do support what Soo La [Kim] talked about in terms of the structural deficit. And I think Joey highlighted that this is a long problem, and the folks on the Board now feel like we cannot keep kicking the can and are trying to solve that problem.
“There’s a lot of inaccurate information out there. This conversation keeps happening about 11 new positions. We’ve put a lot of information out there, and I’d recommend again, watching finance meetings and looking at campaign pages, talking about that a lot of this was rebranding of positions. A lot of this was changing what this person was paid, and moving that money over to pay this person. So the vast majority was budget- neutral.
“And the idea that we can’t ever consider, like nobody wants to close a school, but schools have to do their job in serving our community. And if we get to the point where the enrollment is 10 kids in the school, we have to think about enrollment and have things tied to those things. So we can’t have any decisions that are off the table. No matter how emotional they are or how tied we are to them. We have to consider all of the different pieces to make the best sustainable decisions for our District as a whole.”
Mr. Smith concluded the two-hour forum saying, “I believe that we’re having what many in Evanston claim we ought to have more difficult conversations. That’s why we’re having this forum.”
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