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URBANA — Cross the word "assistant" out of Jennifer Ivory-Tatum’s title.

After a Sunday evening school board vote, the current assistant superintendent of Champaign’s Unit 4 is now poised to assume Urbana’s top leadership role as members unanimously confirmed Ivory-Tatum as the district’s next superintendent.

The decision left the nearly-full boardroom cheering and applauding, making it feel less like an announcement and more like a homecoming for Ivory-Tatum, who spent 12 years in the district prior to joining Unit 4 administration.

"It means a lot that you believe I can do this work, that you believe in me and have faith in me that I can lead this great district — I’m so excited about that," she told the gathering. "I’m honored to have been chosen through this national search process. ... I’m here. I’m invested. I love Urbana and I’m looking forward to getting started quickly repairing relationships, strategic planning with input and collaboration with all of you."

Ivory-Tatum joined the Urbana school district long-term in 2005, when she assumed the principalship of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary after years as classroom teacher and instructional coach. She oversaw the school for eight years before becoming the district’s deputy superintendent in 2013.

And it was Ivory-Tatum who originally introduced the district to the rollout of restorative practice initiatives for the 6-12 grades, among other accomplishments noted by the board.

"The board’s interest is to restore relationships, to strengthen our ethos of collaboration, to regain leadership in good academics, and to bring best ideas and practices, not just from our system or our state, but from across the nation," board President John Dimit said before Sunday’s vote. "No one can restore relationships or regain academic leadership faster than Jennifer."

Dimit went on to name restorative justice, school safety and improvement, academics, student voice and "student greatness" as priorities for the district, adding that "we have the confidence that Jennifer indeed shares that vision."

With the exception of newcomer Tori Exum-Johnson, the board members who voted Ivory-Tatum to be the district’s next superintendent were also serving when she was suddenly reassigned out of her position by former Superintendent Don Owen, who announced in February 2017 that she would be principal of Thomas Paine Elementary instead of deputy superintendent.

No public explanation was ever given by Owen or the board; public backlash followed for weeks.

Many noted then that Ivory-Tatum’s reassignment would remove the only woman of color out of one of the district’s three highest leadership positions.

Now, she will not only occupy that top role, but will also be choosing the district’s next two assistant superintendent positions, come July 1.

Along with Owen, Assistant Superintendent Kathy Barbour was put on paid leave in early December for allegedly violating board directives. Urbana’s other assistant superintendent, Samuel Byndom, had been on paid leave since late October for allegedly trying to tape a closed board meeting with a recording pen.

All three former administrators have tenure and the option to assume classroom-level positions in 2019-20.

The school board hired Minnesota-based School Exec Connect in February to conduct a nationwide search for the district’s next superintendent; in the meantime, former Superintendent Preston Williams came out of retirement to serve in the interim. So did fellow Urbana retirees Jean Korder and Gayle Jefferies, rounding out the interim leadership team.

Ivory-Tatum’s hire marks a "next step forward" for the district, Dimit said.

And the board isn’t the only group that sees it that way: Scott Dowds, an Urbana dad who started a Facebook group that brought several hundred district parents together last year, said they’re future-focused as well.

"Our parent group is looking forward to working with the new superintendent to keep moving the needle forward," he said.

So is Ivory-Tatum: "We are going to move onward and upward to great things," she said.


Lyndsay Jones is a reporter covering education at The News-Gazette. Her email is ljones@news-gazette, and you can follow her on Twitter (@__lyndsayjones).