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May 19, 2019

5/1/2019 3:43:00 PM
Lessons Learned From School Board Service
A Guest Essay By Jonathan Baum


When I told my friend and fellow former District 65 Board member Hecky Powell that I wasn’t running for another term this year, he responded: 

“So, you finally got yourself a decent psychiatrist?”

Actually, I have had many sources of satisfaction over the last eight years. I’m proud to have played a leadership role in bringing greater transparency to the work of the Board; in ensuring more accountability for district programs through periodic evaluations;  in eliminating from our student disciplinary code some of the most subjective offenses, making that code fairer and less susceptible to discriminatory applications, particularly as to students of color; in protecting our undocumented immigrant students; in guaranteeing equality of access for our transgender students; in strengthening our prohibition on sexual harassment; in eliminating class rank; in preserving District 202’s commitment to Park School; in standing up for our student journalists’ freedom of the press; in broadening our student achievement equity goal to include elimination of the predictability of achievement based not just on race but on disability, income level and English language learner status; and in establishing the first-ever joint Board goal for Districts 65 and 202 and annual Joint Superintendent Reports on Student Achievement.

Despite this last point, I have to admit that my biggest disappointment has been the failure to end the disjunction and blame-casting that has characterized the relationship between the two school districts for as long as I can remember.  I really believe, as I have often said, that we have a duty to provide the students of both districts, who are all our students, with a seamless K-12 educational experience. Maybe that’s just not possible in our current configuration.  Perhaps, at some point down the line, I will re-enter the fray and launch a drive to consolidate the two school districts.

I want to thank my colleagues on this board for their kind words and, more important, for their service to this community. And I want to thank Eric, Pete, Marcus, Mary, the other administrators, our outstanding faculty and all the staff of ETHS for their steadfast devotion to our students.

To the incoming board members:  Congratulations and welcome to this important work.  I’d like to offer a few words of unsolicited advice. These are things you won’t learn in your formal board training.

When it’s a great day to be a Wildkit, celebrate that. When it’s not so great, be brave enough to acknowledge that, and challenge yourself and your colleagues to work on making it greater.

Be mindful of the fact that those you are here to serve – our students, parents and taxpayers – are seldom in this room. But it is they whose esteem you should most prize.  It’s easy to lose sight of that. Put another way, nobody at this table is your boss.  With that comes freedom, but also responsibility.

As our legendary Evanston educator Barb Hiller taught me, when a program or initiative is being touted, always ask two questions:  “Is it working?” and “How do we know?”

 Seek out all the information that you can, from as wide a range of sources as possible, and apply that in your work here.  Drill deep into the information provided in your Board packet.  Listen to students and parents, teachers and taxpayers.  As a longtime member of this Board, our former Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, taught me:  You learn things at the kitchen table that you don’t necessarily learn at the Board table.

And, finally, always confront the difficult issues, but never engage in personal attacks.

In closing, I want to thank my family for putting up with my many Monday night absences and for putting up with the moods I returned from some of those absences with. 

Most of all, I want to thank the members of this community, who have repeatedly invested their trust in me to do this important work for them. While I have attended a number of different schools in my life, my “alma mater” – the mother of my soul – will always be Evanston Township High School. It has been a great privilege to serve this school that played such a big part in shaping the person that I am.  

Editors’ Note: On April 29, Jonathan Baum concluded 12 years of service on Evanston boards of education: four years on the District 65 Board, followed by eight years on the District 202 Board. At his final Board meeting, he delivered the following remarks.







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