At the most recent meeting of the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Board of Education held on Monday, March 14, members unanimously approved a new performance-based contract for Superintendent Devon Horton that extends his current terms of employment through June 30, 2026.
According to documents obtained by the RoundTable through a Freedom of Information Act request, Horton’s original contract with the district was scheduled to last three years, from July 1, 2020 – his first official day on the job as superintendent – through June 30, 2023. The resolution adopted by the school board last week terminated that existing contract for Horton and allowed the new contract to go into effect on March 14.
Illinois state law requires all multi-year superintendent contracts to include specific goals and standards for the superintendent to achieve, and school boards are legally obligated to ensure that each goal is met before entering into any new contract with the same superintendent.
“Performance-based contracts shall be linked to student performance and academic improvement within the schools of the districts,” Illinois law states. “No performance-based contract shall be extended or rolled-over prior to its scheduled expiration unless all the performance and improvement goals contained in the contract have been met.”
Horton’s first contract scheduled to last until June 2023 featured the following five “superintendent goals”:
- Increase student achievement for Black and Latinx students and significantly reduce the achievement gap related to college and career readiness standards for reading and mathematics.
- Ensure access to grade-level, Common Core state standards-aligned instruction and assessments for Tier 1 learning that are cognitively rigorous and culturally responsive to improve learning for all students.
- Implement support of restorative practices to create environments that are intellectually and socially safe for learning.
- Develop relationships and create a culture of collaboration and trust that leads to improved district climate, culture and partnerships, including intentional, consistent, and effective two-way communication with all district stakeholders.
- Create structures and processes to improve organizational systems and engage in long-term financial planning and stewardship to ensure quality programming and improved school facilities.
As part of the March 14 board resolution approving the new contract for Horton, members legally concluded that “Horton has met the goals of his current July 1, 2020 – June 30, 2023 performance-based superintendent’s contract.”
The board determined this list of goals when Horton signed on to become the next superintendent in December 2019, several months before COVID-19 shut down schools and created havoc across the educational world. To address those kinds of unforeseen events, both the original contract and the new contract include a provision acknowledging that “circumstances beyond the control of the board and/or the superintendent may prevent attainment, or require modification, of any of the goals.”
The RoundTable previously reported in the fall of 2021 that District 65 students showed significant declines in achievement on the Illinois Assessment of Readiness (IAR) amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The percentage of students meeting or exceeding state math and language arts standards fell for practically every demographic group from spring 2019 to spring 2021. Students who meet or exceed standards on the IAR are likely to be on track for college and careers, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
Students who returned for in-person learning in February 2021 took the IAR in the spring of 2021, and those who opted to continue with remote learning did not. In 2019, 94% of District 65’s third- through eighth-graders took the IAR, while in 2021, just 46% of those students completed the test. That, combined with students missing an entire year of in-person learning due to the pandemic, significantly impacted both the scores and statistical sample for the 2021 IAR.
In the past, the state’s requirement for any superintendent contract to include student performance and improvement metrics have come under a judicial microscope. A federal district court in Illinois determined in 2011 that a contract that only offers vague references to goals or standards for a superintendent without any specifics does not constitute a valid multi-year agreement.
But a federal court ruling is not binding on Illinois state courts, and although a contract’s list of goals for a superintendent may sometimes appear broad or unspecific, the possibility of legal recourse against a school district has yet to be explored by any state court.
“How school boards evaluate superintendents will vary,” said Kara Kienzler, a spokesperson for the Illinois Association of School Boards. “Many perform an annual evaluation using an evaluation tool that addresses the unique needs of the district. Other more frequent check-ins or reports may also occur.”
Horton did not respond to a request from the RoundTable for comment on how the board evaluated his performance and what the contract negotiation process looked like.
“We engaged in a negotiation process that prioritized outcomes and needs that the board has for the superintendent’s work,” School Board President Anya Tanyavutti said in an email to the RoundTable. “We are pleased to have come to shared terms.”
Under the new contract, Horton’s annual salary will remain $250,000 for the rest of the 2021-22 school year, which is the same compensation he received during his first year working for District 65 in the 2020-21 academic year. His salary will increase to $262,500 starting July 1, 2022, with any raises in subsequent contract years tied to inflation.
On top of the slight bump in pay, Horton will now also receive an annual annuity contribution of $30,000 from the district and a one-time bonus of 50 extra sick days, which public school employees can use to build equity in their pension plans.
The board’s agreement with Horton also features similar performance expectations and goals, covering topics like equity, curriculum, financial stewardship and student support, but it goes slightly beyond the previous contract to include a few more specific numbers and performance metrics.
For example, one of the goals outlined for Horton notes that “at the end of each school year, there will be at least a 3% increase in the number of Black and Latinx students making expected gains in reading and math” on the annual Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) standardized tests. Additionally, the contract states that the district will have a balanced budget during each fiscal year while making progress on a master facilities plan.
And when it comes to student support, “at the end of each school year, there will be at least a 2% decrease in the number of students experiencing bullying.”
According to the stipulations included in the new contract, the board will also review Horton’s performance each year and evaluate the progress made toward achieving each goal. Once the board decides that Horton has reached all of the goals, the district can move forward with another contract extension or renewal for the superintendent.
The ups and downs of Horton’s early District 65 career
Amid a global pandemic and a nationwide reckoning with systemic racism, Horton’s first two years in Evanston have occurred during a time of unprecedented challenges.
But his administration has achieved a number of action items on its agenda, including board approval for the construction of a neighborhood school in the Fifth Ward. Kids growing up in the Fifth Ward have not had access to a local school in their community since 1979, when Foster School closed.
Horton and his team are also in the process of developing a new student assignment plan for the first time in more than 25 years, which should help modernize and update school attendance according to existing Evanston population demographics.
And under Horton’s direction, District 65 reopened schools for in-person learning in February 2021 after less than a full year of pandemic-era remote instruction, while Evanston Township High School mostly kept its doors closed until August 2021 for the start of the current school year.
Horton’s tenure has seen its fair share of controversy, as well, mostly resulting from battles between rank-and-file educators and the central district administration. In October 2021, dozens of teachers gathered at a meeting of the District 65 Personnel, Building and Grounds and Finance committee to protest increased workloads related to curriculum changes, educators feeling micromanaged and an increase in discipline issues at school.
And last December, the RoundTable published a letter written by former Dewey Elementary School Principal Donna Sokolowski explaining the circumstances that led to her retirement from the district.
“When our new leadership team stepped in, it did not take long to realize their direction did not include a great many of the knowledgeable, talented educators and staff we had in the district,” Sokolowski wrote. “Their preconceived notions about the educators in District 65 led to immediate, irresponsible changes to bring in as many people as they knew and to send a message of discontent to many of the most dedicated people in the Evanston community.”
Just days after Sokolowski’s letter, the RoundTable posted a response from the Rev. Michael Nabors, the President of the local chapter of the NAACP, who commented on his support for Horton and his efforts to address systemic racism in Evanston with a comprehensive equity curriculum for District 65 schools.