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URBANA — With six weeks to go until classes start, Urbana High students now know who their principal will be.

On Thursday, school board members signed off on hiring Mitch Berenson, currently the assistant principal at Lake Park High in Roselle, as interim principal for the 2019-20 school year.

Berenson, who didn’t attend Thursday’s meeting, plans to finish up at Lake Park in the coming days and soon begin his duties in Urbana. Among his first orders of business: interviewing assistant principal candidates within the next two weeks.

The interim tag is key in his hire.

It was just last month that the district announced that Deloris Brown would be replaced as the high school’s principal and that there was also an opening for an assistant principal.

Compounding the timing challenges: Urbana’s new superintendent, Jennifer Ivory-Tatum, started with the district 11 days ago after being selected by the board in mid-May.

“We didn’t post the (principal) position until people kind of scattered for the summer,” Ivory-Tatum said Thursday. “We weren’t sure when we posted it what we might end up with. Anyone who’s really looking to move has either interviewed or been offered something. But we ended up with four qualified people. We had a decent pool.”

Berenson, who received his bachelor’s degree in secondary education from the University of Illinois, has spent 23 years in education. He has held a range of roles — social studies teacher, driver’s ed instructor, guidance counselor and administrator.

Over the past 15 years, he has held administrative positions at five Illinois districts.

When the potential opportunity of returning to Illini Country presented itself, Berenson said he couldn’t pass it up.

“When you get the chance to go to this level, you want to take every advantage you can get,” he said Thursday. “It’ll be like a second homecoming, and I’m absolutely excited to come back to the area. I’m a diehard Illini basketball fan.”

Berenson added that he was impressed with both the high school itself and the “thorough job of vetting” that officials did during the interview phase.

But Urbana English teacher Sarah Jones questioned that vetting in her comments to the board Thursday.

“The decision-making process above my classroom level has not been transparent,” Jones said. “The decision-making process has at time been self-aggrandizing, nonsensical and sometimes downright cruel.

“As far as I can tell, teachers made it abundantly clear that we wanted a voice in who we wanted to lead us. But the first I knew of this process was the announcement for today’s meeting that there was going to be an interim principal.”

Ivory-Tatum said 20 Urbana High teachers and administrators participated in the first phase of the interview. That, she said, was followed by a higher-level interview with district administrators, then a Skype conversation with school board members.

Ivory-Tatum said she wants to wait until January to re-evaluate the position and “see where we’re at” with Berenson.

In his comments Thursday, board President John Dimit emphasized the “interim” title and referenced the search that will come next.

“It’s been a tumultuous year at the high school last year with a lot of changes,” Dimit said. “We asked our current superintendent to work on this as soon as she was identified; hence the time schedule and hence the need to have ‘interim’ attached to the title.

“This is so we make sure when we seek a permanent leader, we put the district’s best foot forward but do as comprehensive a search as possible.”

Berenson will move into the office occupied last school year by Brown, who was rehired by the district as a literacy interventionist teacher. Brown replaced longtime Principal Matt Stark, who took a position in Indiana following the district’s controversial decision to overhaul its student discipline system and eliminate the dean positions at the middle and high schools.

When asked if Berenson had any experience with restorative practices, Ivory-Tatum said his involvement with equity initiatives in his own district, as well as his experience with social-emotional learning strategies and work in counseling, is a testament to his ability to work with Urbana’s demographic.

“Over there, it’s just a different demographic than ours,” Ivory-Tatum said. “He’s worked with the Elgin school district in the past, which is a diverse school district, so we’re confident he can manage the diversity of our student body and really know them.”

Ivory-Tatum said Berenson will have the opportunity to interview for his position come January.

“He’s seeing the interim basis as an opportunity to wow us and show us what a great job he can do,” she said. “He wants to stay, and he has the year to show us how amazing he can be.”

Reporter

Aldo Toledo is a reporter covering local government at The News-Gazette. His email is atoledo@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@aldot29).