Racial issues factor in ‘watershed’ school board election

By Jonathan Wroble

In tomorrow’s Champaign Unit 4 school board race, eight candidates will face off for four open four-year terms and one candidate will run unopposed for a two-year term. While outcomes are uncertain, one thing is clear: the amount of key issues almost matches the number of school board hopefuls.

“This is a watershed election for the school board,” said Margie Skirvin, the board’s current president who will not be running for reelection. “There are a lot of important issues.”

Perhaps the most crucial issue is Champaign’s federal consent decree, which all candidates hope to end effectively. The decree, which has extracted significant school board funds to pay legal fees, aims to eliminate academic disparities between the community’s black students and other students. It is due to expire in the 2008-2009 school year.

“One of the reasons I signed the consent decree is because if you’re working for one group of students, then it improves the situation for all students,” Skirvin said. “We are closing the achievement gap.”

While the decree’s end is a common goal among school board candidates, some numbers show progress. Skirvin remembers, for example, a time when less than 15 percent of black children were meeting statewide education standards. A year ago, that number was over 60 percent.

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“Nobody wants the federal government to oversee our (schools),” she said. “But we want excellence in our district.”

Another issue linked to the federal consent decree is the opening of an alternative school, currently scheduled for this fall. The new school will operate on a unique daily schedule and will instruct students more independently.

“All children are different,” Skirvin said. “We have these programs to meet needs of children who aren’t mainstream.”

In addition to moving forward in those areas, the newly-elected school board will work to add 200 student seats in north Champaign – which is contingent on the development of a passable referendum. It will also conduct a climate study to poll racial issues in the community, which Skirvin says must be handled carefully.

Meanwhile, in Urbana district 116, only one seat is open on the school board. Three candidates – Tracy Heilman, Zachary Wilk and incumbent John Dimit – are vying for the spot.

Dimit, who has spent 20 years on the board, stresses his experience as the Urbana educational community undergoes a number of significant changes.

In the near future, the district will work with its first new superintendent in 15 years and will face a number of faculty retirements.

The two new faces in the race, Heilman and Wilk, would bring the roles of child advocate and teacher to the board, respectively.

Wilk has expressed concern over the board’s potential decision to spend almost $800,000 on artificial turf for its high school stadium, and Heilman emphasizes community involvement in order to define a clear mission for the school district.

“I don’t think our district has a clear vision of what it wants to be,” Heilman said. “We are following minimum state requirements.”

As for Champaign, Skirvin recognizes the importance of the community but also looks for responsible and well-trained board members.

“There are people who feel that the district needs to listen more,” she said. “But the answers aren’t all out in the community.”

Champaign candidates

Champaign Community Unit School District 4

Two-Year Term

  • Nathaniel C. Banks

    Banks, the current board secretary, is running unopposed for a two-year term. He aims to appropriately complete the consent decree and to establish alternative education.

Four-Year Terms*

  • Minosca Alcantara

    The only incumbent running for a four-year term, Alcantara wants to make good on the promise of the consent decree. She thinks it has effectively raised awareness in the community.

  • John Bambenek

    Bamabenek, a former DI columnist, will work to rebuild public confidence in the school board, which he believes would facilitate the passing of a bond referendum. He also wants to give a voice to the black community before the consent decree expires.

  • Kristine Chalifoux

    Chalifoux’s architecture education would help construct safe and energy-efficient buildings – a major school board issue. She wants to closely analyze the budget to finance programs desired by the community.

  • Susan Grey

    Grey wants to turn parental frustration with the school board into excitement for its future. She would promote community-board interaction, long term goals, and smart district financing.

  • Chuck Jackson

    Jackson wants to reestablish a strong bond between the board and community members. He believes children should be educated so they react appropriately to a changing world.

  • Scott MacAdam

    MacAdam’s business experience would aid in crafting an acceptable bond referendum in the district. He thinks the consent decree can influence the board’s future beyond 2009.

  • Greg Novak

    Novak wants to reform the schools-of-choice program so that families have diverse programs at different schools. He also wants to construct a definite future for the board.

  • Melodye Rosales

    Rosales advocates public awareness – namely that the community has access to school board decisions. She would also push for grade school literacy programs.

*top four vote getters get the four seats on the board

*the top 4 highest vote-getters get the four available seats

Urbana Candidates

Urbana School District 16

  • John Dimit

    Dimit, the incumbent in this race, has 20 years of school board experience. He believes that his knowledge of the district’s educational system will encourage good decisions.

  • Tracy Heilman

    Running as a child advocate, Heilman would work to improve nutrition, sex education, and the Wellness Policy in Urbana schools. She has served on various PTAs and would be the only board member with a child in grade school.

  • Andrew Wilk

    Wilk has experience as a classroom teacher, which he feels would add an interesting perspective to school board decisions. He stresses year-round academic excellence as opposed to reorganizing the curriculum just to improve standardized test results.

Compiled by Jonathan Wroble

Click to read the Daily Illini’s coverage of the Champaign City Council race.