Central Street Neighbors Association hosts D65 school board candidates in forum

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Daily file photo by Patrick Svitek

The Evanston/ Skokie School District 65 Education Center, at 1500 McDaniel Avenue. Eight candidates are running for D65 school board positions.

Olivia Alexander, Reporter

The eight Evanston/Skokie School District 65 School Board candidates discussed their plans to address the district’s budget deficit during a Wednesday virtual forum hosted by the Central Street Neighbors Association.

Eight candidates are vying for four spots in the April 6 election. During the forum, CSNA Vice President and moderator Jeff Smith asked candidates about their stances on finances, district literacy programs and the new equity curriculum.

In response to serious budget shortfalls, school board members in 2017 unanimously approved a resolution to include an ask on the ballot to increase property taxes to pay for rising district operation costs. The referendum passed in April 2017 with more than 80 percent of voters in favor. Without the referendum, the district projected it would see a $114.4 million deficit by fiscal year 2025. Today, the district faces a budget deficit of $1.9 million in the upcoming fiscal year, due in part to COVID-19 related costs.

Soo La Kim, a current D65 school board member and the Assistant Dean of Graduate Programs at Northwestern’s School of Professional Studies, said the 2017 referendum was meant “to buy time,” not to be a solution to a problem D65 has been facing for decades.

“There are a lot of factors that contribute to the structural deficit and the issue is that the solutions were not addressed earlier, and so whatever board is elected will need to deal with that,” Kim said.

Candidate Angela Blaising said she believes her background in the real estate and hotel industries would be valuable to the board as they navigate the budget. She said the deficit, and the unseen pledge, is a direct result of mismanagement by the board and superintendent.

“If we continue on the trajectory that we’re on, we will be in dire financial straits,” Blaising said. “Four to five million (dollar) budget cuts every year is going to wreak havoc on education. I think it’s a big problem, and I think it needs to be dealt with.”

During the forum, moderator Jeff Smith also asked candidates to speak on district literacy programs and how D65 can best prepare its students for Evanston Township High School.

Mental health clinician Kate Magrino Voorhees (Bienen ’01, SESP ’05) said early childhood education is critical for literacy development. She said she is concerned about the idea of cutting staff reading interventionists, which she said would spread teachers too thin.

“My concern is that we would lower the benchmark to make it seem like the kids are doing better,” Voorhees said. “I want to always maintain high standards and high benchmarks for our kids.”

Christ Temple Missionary Baptist Church Minister and single mother of four Marquise Weatherspoon said she was concerned that her son, who has an individualized educational plan, did not receive more literacy support as a child. However, she applauded the district’s efforts toward improving literacy interventions, such as increased support for students with IEPs and working with D202 to help students transition to high school.

Additionally, Weatherspoon said D65 must prioritize increasing staff diversity.

“In middle school, what we could add to their curriculum is some more people that look like the students that they are teaching in order to understand where they are in their gap,” Weatherspoon said. “By understanding their ability to learn.”

Ndona Muboyayi, CEO of nonprofit organization Majestic Reign and president of Evanston grassroots organization Our Village: The Black Evanstonian said the achievement gap has plagued the district for decades. Muboyayi said the district must work to improve English learning programs to better support students who are falling behind.

Candidate Donna Wang Su, program manager of the Farley Center at Northwestern, also said middle school intervention is critical to narrow literacy gaps. Su said literacy is really a key thread running throughout all of the district’s instruction — including the district’s new equity curriculum.

The curriculum, set to be complete by this summer, aims to center anti-racism in social studies.

Smith asked candidates whether they felt the district’s equity curriculum taught children their Whiteness “was a bad thing.” Weatherspoon said the district started teaching that Black lives matter far too late. She said she doesn’t want any student to feel “ostracized for who they are.”

“I agree with the fact that the district has included so many different curriculums to speak to the times that we are in right now,” Weatherspoon said. “Our children will be better humans because of the curriculum that they are learning in D65 at this point.”

Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan, equity consultant and current board vice president said she’ll continue to work toward equitable outcomes for the district’s students.

As a parent, Lindsay-Ryan said she wants her own children to gain more understanding and empathy for the experiences of others through education.

“I think that there’s a way for us to do that that is honest and allows each of us to understand where our identities situate us and how that impacts our interactions with each other,” Lindsay-Ryan said.

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