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.

Kathy Shannon has been a member of the Board since 2015, and she is running for another term.

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?

Kathy Shannon: I’ve been on the Unit 4 School Board since May of 2015. I’m a member of the CFT Areas of Consultation Committee, the Discipline Equity Advisory Committee, and the Education Equity Excellence Committee. I’ve earned Master Board Member certification through attending conferences and professional development classes.I’ve attended every regular and special Unit 4 board meeting over the last four years. 

During my time on the board, we created a comprehensive facilities plan by engaging community stakeholders, presenting information, and holding conversations. Together with the community, we created a plan to update and rebuild our aging facilities.  After the previous board’s two referendums failed, our plan passed decisively. This remarkable turnaround proved that the voters care deeply about our schools, but want to be engaged in the planning process.

We also conducted a superintendent search, and included community forums in that search.  We hired a new superintendent, set goals, and evaluated her progress toward those goals. 

Throughout my four year term, I’ve demonstrated a deep commitment to the school board and to the community.

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

Richards: The recent Kindergarten Individual Development Study (KIDS) showed that fewer than 1 in 4 children in our community enter our schools ready for kindergarten. In order to make any real dent in that problem, we'll eventually need to expand our early child education program. We also need to evaluate and expand on programs such as the new iRead and iCount volunteer programs, the Summer Bridge Academy, the Brilliant, Bold, Beautiful campaign, and our AP Summer Boot Camp program.

In addition, we need to continue to expand our trauma informed practices. Children who have been exposed to trauma can experience PTSD. They may have difficulty sleeping, listening, or concentrating. We have to understand their experience and find ways to help them feel calm, safe, and welcomed at school, so they can be ready to learn.

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? 

Shannon: We need to expand our commitment to restorative justice. Sometimes people say that restorative justice “lets kids off the hook”, but I disagree. When restorative justice is done right, it’s actually more work for the student than just enduring a punishment. When someone causes harm, they need to be an active participant in repairing that harm.  We need to help solidify the relationships between adults and students in our district, and when those relationships are harmed, we need everyone to do the hard work of restoring them.

Continuing and expanding programs like ACTIONS, our in-school suspension alternative program, and ACTIONS Restore, will be critical in this work.

We also need to deepen our trauma informed practices. Violence and economic hardship in the community have hurt our students, and it’s vital that we recognize that and help wrap services around them. We need to ask “What happened to you?” instead of asking “What’s wrong with you?”

During my term on the board, I’ve learned about how our administrators closely examine the discipline codes and processes, striving to remove bias and subjectivity. I admire the work done so far, and believe that it must continue.

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?

Shannon: Excellent schools have a positive impact throughout the community. They make it easier for businesses to move here or expand their local operations. They keep property values high. Our schools are an important reason that Champaign is one of the fastest growing cities in Illinois.

But even more importantly, our schools are where we nurture our future citizens. These students will be our neighbors, our voters, and our coworkers. More economically equal communities result in better outcomes for everyone at all income levels, and education is the best way to eliminate economic disparities. If we want compassionate, critical thinkers and lifelong learners around us, now is the time to create them.

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? 

Shannon: We need to find a more collaborative approach to contract negotiations. At least the last four CFT negotiations, going back to before I was on the board, have led to a strike vote and a federal mediator. I believe that even though a strike was avoided in every case, the entire process is stressful for all parties. The board suggested several options last year for changing the format of the negotiations process, but we were unable to come to an agreement with CFT leadership. I believe that a more public, less adversarial process would be better for all parties, and I look forward to finding a way to do that.

I, along with the rest of the board, supported the Champaign Educational Support Professionals (CESP) union by pledging to pay them for any day that CFT was on strike. 

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?

Shannon: I have found tremendous value in the CFT Areas of Consultation meetings over the last four years. These meetings have helped me better understand teachers’ perspectives. I also meet with individual teachers who reach out to me privately. I frequently talk to friends who are teachers in Wisconsin — this helps me to understand general teacher concerns, without the inherent conflict of hearing things from our own district. 

I volunteer at Garden Hills on a regular basis, in the mentoring program and in a new reading intervention program. I try to get to as many special events at various schools as possible, but it's important to be in the schools during ordinary days as well. My daughter is a student at Central High School. She and her friends provide valuable feedback about what school actually feels like to older students.