Municipal elections are happening April 2nd, and there are a variety of local positions up for grabs. We came up with some questions for candidates in several of these races, and will be publishing their answers over the course of the next couple of weeks. Smile Politely doesn’t generally endorse local candidates, we’d just like to do our part to provide voters with some insight into the importance of these local races and have some sense of which candidates share your values. We’ve reached out to those running for Champaign and Urbana school boards and park districts, Champaign City Council, Mayor of Champaign, and Parkland Board of Trustees.

Champaign residents will be electing four school board members this time around. There are nine candidates, three of which are current school board members, and you will be selecting them for a four year term.

Amy Armstrong is one of the incumbents running, she was elected in 2015.

Smile Politely: Why should voters choose to keep you on the school board? What successes can you point to, and what do you hope to improve upon?

Amy Armstrong: My advocating in Unit 4 schools began back in 2006, specifically around students with intellectual disabilities. I sat on the Excellence and Equality in Education (EEE) committee in Unit 4 for two years where I learned about our student demographic, scores, issues, curriculum, and staff at Unit 4. My experience founding the Stephens Family YMCA with Larkin's Place, service on other community boards, and having four students in Unit 4 gives me a broad view of needs and issues in our community and schools

Since being elected to the Board of Education in 2015, I have served as Vice-President. I have completed training to achieve Master Board Member Level certification, and attended 100% of board meetings for four years. I facilitated the partnership between Unit 4 Community Schools and Carle. I co-chaired three successful labor agreement negotiations with two different unions. I also co-chaired the "Tier 2" District and community committee, which created the long-range facilities plan for Unit 4. We also created and worked toward passing the successful $183 million referendum along with adding $25 million from District reserves to address facility needs. Currently, I co-chair the Referendum Oversight Committee, charged with connecting the community to the construction projects and budget oversight. 

Our schools don’t belong to the Board of Education, they belong to our community. We are caretakers and our role is to leave things better than we found them for future generations. I along with current board members have done that and hope to continue the work we started. 

SP: In terms of addressing racial disparity in academic achievement, what thoughts/proposals do you have to continue to work towards more equal outcomes?

Armstrong: I want to expand our professional development and work with trauma informed practices. Our children are coming to school with higher social and emotional needs that must be addressed. We need to continue to surround this work in equity initiatives to ensure our students who are struggling feel supported. Dr. Wiegand and now Dr. Zola are overseeing the trauma informed work through Dr. deGruy.

I have also been focusing on Dyslexia services. The state of Ohio created a pilot project, screening all children for Dyslexia entering kindergarten and again in first and second grade.  Much like the current model for Autism teams, I believe Unit 4 could create Dyslexia teams providing screening, interventions, and supports and be a leader in serving students that are not identified early enough and are not currently reaching their full potential.  

SP: How do you plan to address suspension and expulsion rates for African American students that are out of proportion with the percentage of African American students in the schools? 

Armstrong: All behavior is communication. If we engage our students with social and emotional best practices via trauma informed approaches, the relationship between school and student will change. Our students who are struggling to read are also more likely to act out if these struggles create self-esteem issues. One of my own children was not successful in the typical school environment but thrived at the Novak campus. Expanding our options for alternative placements such as Novak, ACTIONS, and ACTIONS Restore, along with increasing supports and services, will increase our capacity to meet students' needs.

SP: For our readers that live in Champaign yet do not have students in the Unit 4 School District, beyond tax dollars, why are these school board elections something that they should care about? Why should they do the work of researching the candidates and choosing wisely in this election?

Armstrong: The School Board is one of the most important boards in our community.  Research shows turnover on a Board of Education negatively impacts student achievement. Taxpayers, staff, and most importantly students, deserve and need knowledgeable board members who have regularly attended board meetings or have been serving on committees in Unit 4. Continuity and stability on the Board of Education is paramount to the success of students and healthy public schools.

Our district will continue to approach issues with a reactive, "triage" mindset vs. proactively focusing on improvement if we don't have consistency on the Board of Education. There is also little to no accountability when change is the constant.   

SP: As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. Looking back at the most recent contract negotiations, what do you think went well, and would you have done differently? How will that inform your actions moving forward? 

Armstrong: In 2016 we began negotiating with both unions CESP and CFT simultaneously. The disparity in process/outcome between the tw0 was drastic. CESP agreed upon a new contract and CFT asked for a federal mediator and authorized a strike vote and eventually reached an agreement but it was a stressful process for everyone including our community.  

Wanting to see a different outcome in CFT negotiations from the 2012, 2014 (with a previous Board), and 2016 votes to authorize strikes, the Board sought a better outcome in 2018 by reducing the size of our bargaining team and using staff input and legal guidance where we needed it. We also supported our CESP union members by assuring them they would keep receiving pay/benefits should CFT union members go on strike.

In retrospect and in the future I think bargaining could be done in an open meeting format so the whole board is involved and the monthly meetings with CFT can be used to be proactive and ensure no one is taken by surprise at bargaining. This could foster relationship building between all parties as well as ensure all board members understand issues or areas of concern. Unions give strength to the voice of teachers. CFT has dedicated and talented people who can bring the teacher perspective on day-to-day issues and needs to district-level meetings. An emphasis on collaboration at these meetings will contribute to continual problem solving rather than saving every conflict for bargaining

SP: How will you stay connected to staff and students who do the day to day work and live with the policy decisions you enact?

Armstrong: I have four children that have attended various schools in Unit 4. I have a vast knowledge of the staff and have worked diligently to build teams for my children. I understand the demographic of our students and challenges staff face as well as strengths. These past four years in my board capacity I have learned how to ask teachers and staff for input and keep open lines of communication that respect boundaries. I’ve not found staff unwilling or unable to let me know exactly how they feel on any given topic we may be discussing. I am regularly in buildings, at events, and have close friendships with teachers and support staff.  I am an attentive listener. As an involved parent I feel I have also had the ability to use my current relationships with teachers as well as my own experiences to bring their perspective into decision-making.