District 65 board to choose from 12 hopefuls to fill seat left by Anya Tanyavutti


Daily file photo by Ilana Arougheti

The Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Board of Education. The board is selecting from 12 applicants to fill its second vacancy since early August, after former board president Anya Tanyavutti resigned.

Saul Pink, Assistant City Editor

Content warning: this article discusses anti-Black hate crimes and hate symbols.

A Northwestern sociology professor, a real estate broker and former preschool director, an issues director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers and nine others share a common goal: to step into the most recent vacancy on the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Board of Education.

After former school board vice president Marquise Weatherspoon stepped down in early August, the board received 13 applications for her seat and ultimately selected Tracy Olasimbo, family engagement coordinator at Evanston Public Library, as its new member. 

But at the same meeting where Olasimbo was sworn in, former board president Anya Tanyavutti resigned. The school board will now consider the remaining 12 applicants from Weatherspoon’s seat for the new vacancy, and will choose the new member at a special Oct. 10 meeting, according to a Tuesday news release.

The candidate pool for these vacancies is larger than the last time around: when Weatherspoon filled Rebeca Mendoza’s vacancy in June 2021, the board reviewed seven applicants for the unpaid position. 

Olasimbo and the new board member will serve until the April 2023 school board elections, where they will have the option to run for the seat.  

Sociology Prof. Christine Percheski said she applied for the vacancy because she has a kindergartner and second-grader in District 65 schools, and she believes her expertise in families and children could be useful as a board member. 

“Parents and community members are really, really invested in the success of public schools,” Percheski said. “And we see a lot of national issues play out in surprising ways at the local level.”

To apply, candidates had to complete a form explaining their main goals and why they wanted to be on the board. Select applicants were chosen for a 20-minute interview with current board members.

The 13 candidates have a wide variety of occupations, from education to marketing, according to their applications, which the Evanston RoundTable obtained. The applicant pool includes several parents who have long been involved with District 65 Parent Teacher Association and related organizations. 

Henry Wilkins, founder of the non-profit STEM School Evanston, stressed that his main priority is ensuring the progress of opening a school in the 5th Ward. But Wilkins recognized that he would have to balance his priorities with the other six members.

“On a school board, you need to be (a) united front,” Wilkins told The Daily. “I would have to weigh personal things that I think are important, versus some of the other things that school board members want to highlight.”

Candidates across the board also cited diversity and inclusion efforts and teacher retention as priorities. In May, parents found nooses outside of Haven Middle School after the district announced it would be transferring at least seven Haven teachers to different schools. 

Erin Booker, a real estate broker and the preschool director at Lincoln Park Cooperative Nursery School, cited combating teacher attrition as one of District 65’s challenges. The District lost 52 teachers at the end of the 2021-22 school year. 

“The heart and soul of a school is the teachers and the admin,” Booker said. “Let’s look at why people are leaving our school because happy teachers don’t leave, happy administrators don’t leave.”

Omar Salem, issues director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers and an English teacher at Niles North High School, was selected for an interview after board members reviewed his written answers. Salem said he understands the community’s needs well from his experience representing fellow teachers and working with students.

Salem, whose daughter started kindergarten this year, plans to run for the board in April if he isn’t appointed. However, he said publicly campaigning to be on the school board “scares (him) the most.”

Despite the public attention that comes with the position, candidates are still eager to join the board. Salem said he’s seeking the position not as a stepping stone to a political career, but rather because he wants to use his experience to help Evanston students — including his daughter.

“It’s a difficult time to be on school boards. Everything they do is scrutinized,” Salem said. “I do think Evanston is a place where people want to be involved, and those 13 folks, like myself, are willing to deal with the ramifications of being in the public eye.”

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @saullpink

Related Stories:

Anya Tanyavutti leaves District 65 Board of Education after six years

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District 65 reflects on 2021-22 school year, discusses disproportionately high suspension rates for Black students