URBANA - In Urbana, where school board representatives run in wards, not at large, current board President Tina Gunsalus and challenger Cope Cumpston are waging battle right down to the wire.
In a second contested race, incumbent Ruth Ann Fisher is challenged by newcomer Zernial Bogan, a mechanic and minister who has faced information about a felony conviction in his past squarely, saying "it's all about learning."
Because voters decided in 1998 to divide the school board into wards or "subdistricts," all other seats are open in this election too. Incumbents John Dimit, Mark Netter, Steve Summers and Joyce Hudson are running unopposed in their districts. Newcomer Carol George is the only candidate on the ballot for the seat to be vacated by Laura Haber, who did not choose to run for re-election.
But in the wake of questions about George's residency qualifications, Urbana residents Alan Douglas and Jerry Moreland have filed as write-in candidates in that area, District 2.
Gunsalus and Cumpston are running in District 4. Bogan and Fisher and are running in District 3. The election is on Tuesday.
Gunsalus, a University of Illinois attorney and associate dean, said in spite of the fact that the board has been forced to focus on an overload of bad financial news for the past two years, board members can also report good news about district programs, personnel, students and all their accomplishments.
"This is a district with a very child-centered focus," she said. "We're moving together in a bottom-up way toward higher expectations, achievements, standards and better accountability. "
She said stable leadership, including that of 11-year Superintendent Gene Amberg, means change has occurred without "turmoil and turbulence."
Gunsalus, who has served on the board since 1991, is proud of the district's diversity leadership and its quick response to equity problems when they surfaced.
"The Office of Civil Rights came in the late '90s, and representatives had five issues," she said. "Three were resolved right away. We were monitored for two issues, minorities overidentified in special education and underidentified in gifted education and minorities."
Gunsalus said the district quickly retrained employees, adopted a national model for identification, held programs about placement and the OCR endorsed those efforts.
Urbana's effort to help fund the education of qualified minority employees who want to advance has also paid off, Gunsalus said. She said about 13 staff members have received tuition assistance in that district program.
Gunsalus said today about 21.3 percent of the teachers and support staff represents minorities, up from 15.7 percent six years ago. About 34 percent of the schools' support staff members are minorities, about 13 percent of the district's teachers are from minority populations and about 20 percent of the central office administrators represent minorities.
A mentoring program that starts at Urbana Middle School also pairs youngsters with an interest in education with adult staff members who follow them for years, even when they're at college.
"We hope they'll come back to Urbana to teach," Gunsalus said.
Gunsalus said even though money is tight, the district has continued its commitment to keeping full-time librarians in each of the district's schools.
Gunsalus, her husband and her children all attended Urbana schools, and she and her husband have volunteered there since 1985.
"We're trying to make things better for all children," she said. "I know what teachers want and what children face. They've done so much for me, and this is a way to give back."
"When I started on the board, we had false starts," Gunsalus said. "We've made dramatic changes in secondary disciplinary approaches and other practices."
"This is a two-year term, and finances will dominate the issues we face," she said. "Teachers' negotiations start April 2. Experience and knowledge are going to make a difference the next two years."
Other district strengths listed by Gunsalus and other incumbents, strengths developed long term, short term, and in the face of deteriorating finances include:
- An award-winning arts program.
- A summer academy for youngsters with very low test scores who live within the district and outside it that can bring them up to their grade level.
- Facilities kept upgraded with "creative" funding approaches, including Urbana Middle School and Leal School renovations and planned expansion of King School with funds secured by then-state Rep. Tom Berns - funds now stalled by Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
- The new Aquatic Center at Urbana Middle School. "We worked with the Urbana Park District and the English Fund to make it happen," said Joyce Hudson, who represents rural Urbana on the board and is running unopposed. "We were all creative at the table."
Cumpston, Gunsalus' challenger, takes issue with the district's progress. Her daughter attends school in the district, and Cumpston is a UI Press art director.
"Equity's how I got involved," she said. "I don't think it's a high enough priority. Yes, there's a steering committee, but the things they recommend are not high on the list. You build a pool first."
Cumpston was very involved in promoting the successful 1998 referendum proposing to zone Urbana school board elections to encourage greater diversity on the board, and that activity led her to work with Urbana's Human Relations Commission.
"I got involved with the election issue because there was no representative from the African-American community on the board in a district that's one-third African-American," she said. "Now we have two candidates representing that community."
Cumpston said the changes at King School have alienated the community and so have district plans for long-range changes at the middle school, high school and Leal School.
"The issue is communication with the community about campus development," she said. "The community doesn't feel adequately consulted. Some people feel the district is targeting their property."
She said one woman asked the district about expansion plans before she bought her house, but when the board presented a long-range campus plan recently, the woman saw her property on the blueprint.
The plan presented by district employees at a board meeting this month described long-range campus proposals for possible actions as far in the future as 30 years.
Like current board members, she supports efforts to find new sources of funding for schools, including raising tax cap ceilings for schools. Like board incumbents, she believes the education funding system needs reform.
"The most pressing problem in our district is to stabilize the budget and lay the groundwork for future school funding that will allow for quality education for all students," Cumpston said.
Ruth Ann Fisher
Incumbent Ruth Ann Fisher is challenged by Zernial Bogan in the district they share. Fisher, a long-time Urbana resident and Urbana High School graduate who's served on the board four years, said board members are taking equity issues seriously and putting people in place in the schools and in the central office to keep a close eye on district progress.
"We're following students and learning there is progress," Fisher said. "With the high mobility rate in the district, it's hard, and it's going to take time to see results."
She has two children still attending school in the district, and her interest in their education extends to the education of all Urbana children.
"They're getting a good education," Fisher said. "We look at it in a positive light."
"Being on the school board is a 24/7 job. It infiltrates your private life and your work life. You never know when a call will come or how long it will take you to get information to answer a question."
She finds it encouraging - and indicative of the spirit in the district - that everyone from board members to administrators to teachers to support staff members has become involved in addressing budget issues.
"This isn't being addressed by just a handful of people," Fisher said. ""Each and every employee is affected, and they're taking the situation seriously. We've asked for suggestions and continue to ask for suggestions. "
Bogan, who's lived in his district for 13 months, said, like Cumpston, he's not impressed with the current board's action on equity issues.
"They haven't handled it well," he said. "On paper, it looks fine, but they filtered on one side and forgot the other. We have to have steps so everything comes out even.
"We want to make sure all our students get the education they need to be worthwhile producers in our community," Bogan said. "If we fail to teach a student, we not only fail the student, we fail ourselves. We're losing those students, and we're losing others who fail to return to our community."
He said districts have to go beyond federal "no child left behind" initiatives.
"If we don't, we're setting ourselves up for failure," Bogan said.
"My focus is no child forgotten. What about the children on the outskirts? What happens when children come out of reformatories? They're going to strike in the community, propagate drug crime and unemployment. We have to ask what else we can do."
Bogan's felony conviction in 1996 for burglary landed him a five-year sentence in 1997 to the Department of Corrections. He had prior convictions for theft, burglary and possession of a controlled substance.
People with drug convictions are not allowed unaccompanied in schools, and schools may not employ them, but the rules do not disqualify candidates with felony records from serving on school boards.
Bogan has made a major change in life direction. He's now an associate minister at Salem Baptist Church and treasurer of the local Ministerial Alliance.
"Since I've been back in Champaign-Urbana, I've been talking about my conviction because I want children to see there is always hope," he said. "There's always a chance to better yourself.
"It's all about learning lessons," Bogan said.
Eligibility issue surfaces in District 2
URBANA - A candidate for the Urbana school board may not be eligible to serve because she doesn't live at the address she listed on her petition, and her former landlady says she hasn't lived there since last July.
But Carol George's name is on the ballot anyway.
George says she lives in Rantoul but is attempting to buy a home in District 2, where she said she lived when she filed her candidate petition in January.
Meanwhile, this week, two write-in candidates have emerged in the city's northwest district where George is running.
They are Alan Douglas of 817 Fairview Ave., a former state trooper who has a student in Urbana schools, and Jerry Moreland of 703 North Mathews Ave., a parent who has been active in King School issues.
Both are members of the city's African-American community.
George's will be the only name on the ballot, however, for a four-year term as the district's board representative. When she filed for the election, she claimed she lived at 925 Linview Ave., a house that now stands vacant, for sale. George, who has a 13-year-old child at Urbana Middle School, initially said she had a 7-year-old second-grader at Martin Luther King School.
However, George said in a recent interview that her second-grader attends school at Rantoul City Schools, where her mother lives, because the child has developmental difficulties and George said she needs her mother's help.
She said she had planned to buy the Linview home but the mortgage wasn't approved because of "structural difficulties" there.
"Now we're trying to buy a house a block away on Busey," she said. "We're working with a Realtor, living temporarily with my mother at Rantoul. We got word about the mortgage not going through last month, and we've been trying to find a home since then."
However, Rosetta Gordon, owner of the Linview property, said George and her family moved out last summer.
"It's been vacant since the end of July," said Gordon, a Champaign resident. "At the beginning of July, I asked them to move."
She said George's family tried to buy the property but didn't pass the credit check.
George, contacted Wednesday, said what Gordon says about her date of departure from the Linview home and her credit status is "not necessarily so," but she declined to say when her family moved out or respond to the credit question. She said she must consult with advisers, "people who are aware of the situation."
"I don't know enough about the process, and I don't want to put anything out that's not the best thing for me to do," she said.
She said she should have a contract for a house on Busey by Friday. "We're planning to move into the house, but it's all still in progress," George said. She said that includes the credit check.
But George may not be eligible to serve on the school board because qualification rules specify that the candidate must be a resident of the subdistrict for at least a year to be eligible.
Since the deadline to challenge her candidacy and remove her name from the ballot is long past, that's not an easy question to answer.
Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden said after the election, the district could ask State's Attorney John Piland to file a legal petition that seeks to declare George ineligible.
He said that's never happened during his tenure.
Shelden said the rules are clear.
"In a civil case, to prove residency, you have to have a bed there," he said. "The electoral board could have challenged this back in January. An eligible candidate has to live in the district one year prior to his or her first day in office."
Piland was out of the office this week and couldn't be reached to discuss whether he would take action in the matter.
Urbana school board District 3
Address: Has lived at 127 Scottswood Drive for a year and one month. Has lived in Urbana for five years.
Born in: New York City, came to Champaign-Urbana in 1971.
Occupation: Mechanic and contractor. Associate minister for Salem Baptist Church. Treasurer of the Ministerial Alliance.
Family: Wife, Lorean; one daughter; five stepsons.
1) "The most important issue is the achievement gap. We have to be able to have a cultural workshop for teachers so they understand and accept diversity. If teachers aren't instructed in diversity, they can't connect with children, and that connection is the main thing. Teachers are mentors, parents, friends, disciplinarians. They're there with children five days a week, and they have to make that connection."
2) "The most important improvement we must make is reducing class sizes and increasing teachers. If we don't, we're moving into the black ages. We need a more personal approach in the classroom, but I'm afraid we can't do it with the current taxing structure."
3) "Urbana will say we're taking steps and we have improved achievement; yes, but on what side. You can't show you've taken steps in the minority community. You claim to be making improvements, but we don't see them. We have to make disciplinary action changes. Children on detention aren't getting taught. If they're in the juvenile facility, they're not getting taught. The way we handle these issues when children are in kindergarten will determine how they'll do in fifth and sixth grade."
4) "This is very important. If we want to keep teachers, we have to pay them. Their education wasn't free. We have to negotiate with teachers to pay them an equitable living wage. I think we'll have to find a way. What's most important is the students, but the second most important thing is the teachers. I'd sell property and keep teachers rather than hold onto it and hope the money comes in."
Ruth Ann Fisher
Address: 1214 Lanore Drive
Phone number: 367-9004
Born in: Seattle, moved to Urbana in August 1966.
Occupation: Administrative assistant.
Political experience: Four years on Urbana school board. Trustee for the village of Ellsworth in McLean County.
Family: Gina, 19, EIU sophomore; Robin, 17, Urbana High School senior; Curtis, 14, Urbana High School freshman.
1. How would you represent your district? That is, which issues are most important and what's your position?
Every issue is important in this district and I do not weigh one against the other. I approach each issue with the same interest and dedication.
2. What's the most important improvement Urbana schools can make? How can that be achieved?
I think we've made an honest effort to address issues as they came up and to make improvements as they were needed, and I believe we'll continue to do that. When it comes to educating kids, all improvements are important.
3. What's the most pressing need to achieve racial equity and what would you do to accomplish it?
I will support any and all efforts brought to the board for implementing programs and services which will achieve this.
4. How would you approach upcoming salary negotiations with the Urbana?
With an open mind and the understanding that this district, as it continues to strive to attract and retain the best of the best, is in a current financial crunch and we as a board will make every effort to spend the public's money wisely.
Urbana school board District 4
Address: 402 W. Nevada St.
Phone number: 239-5338
Born in: Pittsfield, Mass., moved to Urbana in 1996.
Occupation: Art director, University of Illinois Press.
Political experience: Chair of Citizens for a Representative School Board, which succeeded in 1998 passage of proposal changing election of Urbana Board of Education from at-large to district system. In second term on Urbana Human Relations Commission (since 1998).
Family: Married to Walter Matherly 20 years. One daughter: Sarah Matherly, age 14, freshman at Urbana High School.
1) How would I represent my district?
First, I would represent my district by opening communication between the board and the community. I would make district business more available to the public and staff, make organized efforts to get community input on issues such as campus development and equity needs, and be more responsive to relations with the city council and the University of Illinois.
What issues are most important? No. 1: funding for the schools. We need to expand a comprehensive evaluation of all sources of funding, and pursue additional ways to make up lost tax revenue, from Urbana and Champaign, and the University of Illinois. We should work more extensively with the University of Illinois and Parkland for all possible sharing of resources, including opportunities for professional development for support staff, and application of current research and utilization of faculty/staff in educational programs. We may need to consider a referendum to raise the ceiling of tax caps for school funding. We need to work with state legislators to work toward reform of school funding across the state. Other important issues: racial equity in the schools (see below), teacher recruitment and retention, school campus expansion.
2 & 3) What's the most important improvement Urbana schools can make? How can that be achieved? What's the most pressing need to achieve racial equity and what would you do to accomplish it?
We need to understand and close the difference in experience of groups of students (including white, African-American, Hispanic, low-income) in the issues of achievement, discipline and family involvement. We need to address the needs of all students in both the climate of our schools for students and parents, analyzing ways to bring up to grade level those who are not achieving, and offering sufficient challenge to those who are achieving at high levels. I would focus on several areas simultaneously: school climate for all students; active outreach and support for families of low-achieving students; training of teachers and staff in current research on dealing with students of varying needs; and seeking ways to individualize attention to different students in classrooms even when class size is larger than optimum.
4) How would you approach upcoming salary negotiations with the Urbana Education Association, especially in light of the district's budget troubles?
The quality of our teachers is the single most important element in the schools. We must be able to attract and keep good teachers, and must find ways to do this through competitive salaries and comprehensive benefit programs, including professional development. I would enter the negotiations recognizing what a difficult time this is for teachers and be prepared to consider deficit spending to ensure adequate raises in the short term, as other districts in Illinois are already doing. Long-term, this is of primary importance and will require local and state reform in school funding, and creative negotiations with both the union and other bodies that can contribute to teachers' welfare (including increased professional development opportunities with release time from the district, through Parkland and the UI).
Address: 511 W. High St.
Phone number: 344-7000
Born in: Urbana.
Occupation: Attorney, University of Illinois, adjunct professor, special counsel, Office of the University Counsel.
Political experience: Urbana school board since 1991; board president eight of those years. Nine-plus years on the Urbana Plan Commission. Served on boards of various community and civic organizations, including Lincoln School Neighbors Association, High and Dry Neighborhood Association, Champaign County Alliance Board of Directors (and several committees, including service as chair of the task force on human resources policies); U.S. Commission on Research Integrity.
Family: Husband Michael W. Walker; daughters Kearney (18), attended Urbana schools; Anna Shea (11) sixth-grader.
Overall: The term of office for subdistrict 4 in this election is two years. Over that period, financial issues are going to be among the most challenging facing Urbana. These include the state funding situation, Urbana's general budget outlook and the upcoming contract negotiations with the Urbana Education Association (teachers and support staff), scheduled to start April 2. I bring extensive experience and knowledge of Urbana's teachers, schools, students, facilities, budget from my 12 years of board service (eight as board president), and almost 20 years of volunteering weekly in the schools.
1. How would you represent your district?
I will best represent my district by continuing to put before all else the interests of the children of Urbana and the quality of public education in this community. Public education is the foundation of democracy: we cannot differentiate among our children in making decisions about how to deploy public resources to improve how we help children grow up to become productive citizens. This means asking about every issue how it affects children.
2. What's the most important improvement Urbana schools can make? How can that be achieved?
Increased parental and family involvement in education is the single most important improvement we can make. We must find and use every successful idea we can, and we must innovate and collaborate to achieve the highest possible level of parental involvement in our schools. We must also continue to attract our community's adults beyond parents to invest in and to work with our children. We have a large and successful mentoring program and we should look for other ways to support and expand it. We must continue to provide the most attractive professional environment we can, so the best teachers and staff want to be in Urbana, working with our children.
3. What's the most pressing need to achieve racial equity and what would you do to accomplish it?
Throughout our school system and our community, we must have the highest possible level of expectation for each and every one of our children, and provide them the tools for achieving at their highest possible level.
4. How would you approach upcoming salary negotiations with the Urbana Education Association, especially in light of the district's budget troubles?
As I have every negotiation since 1991: with respect and knowing that we are partners in education. Our teachers and staff members are professionals who are the ones in the classrooms and schools with our children. They bring important insights and information about how to improve the quality of education in Urbana. We have always used interest-based (win-win) bargaining since I have been on the board; it serves us well. At the same time, the board has a duty to be fiscally responsible and to assure that we as a district live within our means. This will require patience, good communication, trust, experience and mutual respect. The process we have developed over the years where we first agree upon the resources available and then work within that framework has been very constructive and I am pleased that we are continuing it.