Smile Politely

Champaign school board election: Who are these people?

Last night I received emails from friends interested in my opinion regarding the seven candidates for school board. Champaign voters will have the opportunity tomorrow to pick three of these candidates, and many voters, my friends included, have no clue who these people are. And although I try to follow educational issues in the area, I too am scratching my head a bit on this one, and may have to take my ouji board to the polls.

That’s not to say there isn’t information and hearsay out there. But I have learned the hard way in this small town to remain somewhat neutral about such things, especially in public, because I know people who know the people involved and because said people have a uncanny way of invariably surprising me. I think I’ve got them pegged, and they turn around and do something, well, kinda nice. Or, the opposite of course, which always fuels my latent desire to live alone in a grass hut in western Nebraska. Which is to say, I can only guess about people’s motivations or politics. But evidently, based on the number of people asking me, this is more than most people have to go by when they will enter the polling place on Tuesday.

I do know that a qualified candidate is more than simply a business leader, advanced degree holder or promising or successful lawyer. Certainly, corporate or business experience is important to financial oversight of a school district. There is no disputing that. But actual experience in the field of education would be, I think, at least equally important. (At this point, there is now only one sitting school board member who has ever spent time in the classroom: Greg Novak). In the end, however, the most important attribute a candidate can possess is the invisible and highly difficult-to-measure ability to take multiple points of view into account at the same time, or, in other words, the ability to walk in other people’s shoes.

And how can the average voter know which of the candidates is up to this challenge while considering all the other factors which propel people into the public eye? One thing is sure: commerce interests in this town, most notably real estate folks and the University of Illinois School of Business, are now more than ever acutely interested in influencing school policy, and are active in encouraging their people to run for office or invest in other ways in the local schools.

Why? Nothing like ten years of negative PR surrounding the school district (mostly resulting from an expensive consent decree, or legal agreement, which forced the district to focus an inordinate amount of attention on African-American achievement) to thwart economic development and growth, they might, if pressed, say. Countering that, critics of business model approaches to education might point out that often, business proponents are mostly interested in promoting policy that benefits the middle and upper-classes in hopes of attracting and retaining such people and their money. All the while giving lip service to equity issues. But I’m thinking that the truth, as usual, lies somewhere in-between, and although we have some very talented and committed chamber of commerce-type leaders in our community, the school board should be as diverse as possible in representing community interests, and thus shouldn’t be stacked too heavily with business suits.

Why? Because it takes more than business sense to run a school district so that everyone, especially the children, benefit. Leaders in a community are not only those who own businesses or have advanced degrees. There are also church elders, grassroots organizers, PTA officers, scout leaders, neighborhood watch organizers, petition bearers, cultural organization directors, union representatives, heads of departments and workplaces, etc whose voices are sorely needed.

It takes imagination, and the willingness to lay aside stereotypes, to bring these people into focus, but we all know who they are. They are the folks in the middle of the crowd on the playground at pick-up time, the people in the “know” at the lunch table or around the coffee maker. Usually it is the person who is successful at bringing people together, not dividing them. The person with initiative and vision, who withholds judgment and sees the gifts that people have to offer, and not just their weaknesses. It is the person who wishes to collaborate and sees their mission as facilitating, not dictating.

And so, among the seven candidates, who is most likely to be a unifier, collaborator and visionary, as well as having a track record of familiarity with fiscal and educational policy? Well, that would be almost impossible, especially considering that serving on a board of education in our town is a volunteer position. That’s right. For all their work reviewing policy, attending meetings and district events that takes them from their homes on almost a nightly basis, making informed decisions for the benefit of our kids, responding to parent and staff concerns, meeting with district administration and union official as well as the media, PTA, and other organizations, attending conferences and keeping up with state and federal funding and legislative issues, and so on, our school board members receive zero. Sometimes, someone thinks to thank them for their service, but mostly they get grief. So in this context, it is amazing that anyone at all presents themselves as a candidate.

Of the seven candidates, there are five that would have the most talent to offer (and unfortunately they are very similar in many ways): Jeff Kohmstedt, Stig Lanesskog, Tommy Lockman, Victor Mullins and David Tomlinson. To discern between them is the challenge.

Jeff Kohmstedt has experience in the classroom and is tuned into teachers’ issues via his job with a University of Illinois teacher mentoring program.

Stig Lanesskog facilitated the “Great Schools Together” project that attempted to elicit community feedback for a long-range plan in the district. He is associate provost at the University of Illinois (and is tied to the business school).

Tommy Lockman is a very young lawyer with local ties and a bright, ambitious disposition.

Vic Mullins is a colleague of Stig Lanesskog’s at the school of business and is a volunteer in the district. He is also the only African-American candidate, and would, if elected, but the sole person of color on the board.

David Tomlinson is a straight-talking incumbent and would be up-to-speed on the complex issues facing the district.

Perhaps I will narrow down my choices tonight, or as I step into the voting booth. But for now, I lament the lack of diversity in the choices offered and hope that whoever does win a school board seat does so for all the right reasons. Because they care about kids, not economic development. Because they care about public education, not starting a political career. Because they want to serve the community, not empower themselves at the community’s expense. Because they want to listen, not talk. Because they enjoy the challenge, not feel pressure from vested interests. But mostly because they want to bring people together, not divide them.

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