Board hopeful's vision for Champaign district: 'Run it a bit more like a business'

Board hopeful's vision for Champaign district: 'Run it a bit more like a business'

CHAMPAIGN — Everyone has a brand.

That includes retired businessman Lee McDonald, now a Champaign school board hopeful.

"I'm a little bit of the grumpy old man down the street," he said. "Maybe I'll be the grumpy old man on the school board."

In a race with three incumbents banded together and three newcomers also campaigning together, he knows he's "kind of out here by myself. But that's all right."

So far, McDonald's issues have centered on a few recurring themes: running the school board more like a "board of directors," expanding trades education (and possibly pre-kindergarten services); and helping low-income students before they hit third grade.

"Run it a bit more like a business, keeping in mind who your product is — which is hopefully a well-rounded graduate of high school, who maybe goes in the trades, maybe college," he said.

He gave an example, drawn from his business experience: "We had a massive failure in our product overhead that the board of directors in the yearly report — they may not put that in there," he said. "They're trying to tell you all the positives. There are definitely positives.

"But I've seen this in businesses: They tend to not air dirty laundry much. But you can't be afraid of the negative and just ignore it. That's where you can improve."

That "airing-out" concept doesn't just apply to less-than-positive district developments; it also applies to board meetings. McDonald has questioned some board purchases — among them, school buses — since full, public discussions don't accompany every agenda item.

"Again, that goes back to running the board like a board of directors for a business," he said. "Even if the board knew the answers to the question, I felt that they should have had a public airing. It looked, in a couple of cases, as if to the public, they're not asking the right question and taking the time. It gives an appearance, right or wrong, they they're ignoring some things.

"In a confined meeting, it's really easy to say, 'I've already decided and let's move onto the next thing.' I think acting as a board of directors, you owe it to the taxpayers and parents and guardians to dig into a little bit more questions."

He'd like to see more interventions offered to low-income students earlier too, but what that would look like specifically remains unclear. He's posited that the district could start a targeted, low-income pre-K pilot program, but how that would differ from the already-available program for at-risk students is still being fleshed out.

The same holds true for his pledge to expand trades programming in the district, although McDonald has stressed there are students not being served who could be if the offerings were diversified.

"Something a bit more specific — plumbing, electrical, truck driving," he said. "There are nationwide shortages in some of these industries. I've talked to a couple friends who had young kids who dropped out and they said if there was a program like that, they would have migrated into that and graduated.

"It won't be as extensive as a true apprenticeship, but at least give them a taste and something they can expand upon."

McDonald could do anything else with his time as a retiree: He has a wife of 41 years — a former Unit 4 teacher's aide whose bags are packed and ready to travel at any point — and a 15-month-old grandson who keeps them both busy.

"I saw this (decision to run) as being able to touch more people than one individual, perhaps," McDonald said. "I can't save the world, but trying to do a little bit more for more people at one time is the reason behind that."