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Ahead of retirement, Barry Reilly reflects on challenges and opportunities in District 87 and beyond

District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly
Carleigh Gray
WGLT file
Retiring District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly.

Barry Reilly has spent more than 30 years with Bloomington District 87. At the end of the month, he'll retire after an 11-year tenure as superintendent.

In an interview with WGLT, Reilly reflect on the challenges of the last few years.

The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

WGLT: You're coming to the end of your career at the tail end of one of the most tumultuous periods in recent memory, coming off the pandemic. What have the last few years in education have been like for you?

Reilly: It's been extremely challenging. But that's not just for me, if you talk to any classroom, teacher, building, principal, teacher’s assistant, cook in the kitchen, custodian, board member — anyone in education. It's been extremely difficult. Just because of a lot of unknowns during that time, a lot of very difficult and challenging decisions had to be made.

And then something that we didn't foresee, which was a certain segment of the public that just became extremely agitated and angry at things that weren't necessarily of our doing. But we became a focal point. When I say we I'm just talking about public education in general, it wasn't just District 87. Because I have plenty of colleagues who could sit here and say the same thing. So it certainly wasn't what I envisioned my last couple of years in my career to be. But my hope, obviously, for my friends and colleagues is that we've moved past that.

The other thing that really created some challenges for us — and again, this was pretty universal — was just having kids come back to establish routines in person. We underestimated how challenging that would be. And that created a more stress for classroom teachers, principals, on the front lines. And that, in turn, created stress for those of us who had to support them.

You mentioned the contentiousness of parents over the past few years, and that’s one thing — among many — teachers have had to contend with. Many teachers report feeling burnt out. How concerned are you for the profession?

I'm very concerned. We’re already experiencing a shortage of educators, for a variety of reasons. And then you put on top of that a national perspective that has really attacked public education in recent years. It's a recipe for people not getting into the profession in the first place.

Some of your best educators, who normally would encourage others to get into the profession, they might not be doing that. They would be the normally would be the first ones to encourage their own children to become teachers and given what they've experienced in the last couple of years, that is very much not the case.

And so I think that there's a lot of concern. But there's also a lot of hope. I think that the last few months have been better. Especially once we moved past the mask mandate. Although we’re still experiencing challenges, things were progressing in a better direction. And we do get people who are excited. We have new hires already this summer that are very excited about beginning this profession for the first time. And so I think that we'll get there, it's just going to take some time.

Speaking of challenges teachers face, there’s been a push on both the national and local level for more transparency in curriculum. Illinois Republicans have introduced bills that would require teachers to publish curriculum and for libraries to publish lists of available books. Where do you fall on that?

Well, I'm not concerned about the transparency of curriculum and what's available. That just takes some effort to get it out there. I think as parents, they should be informed on what the curriculum is. Now, it's interesting when you have some that want to remove certain things out of the curriculum, whether it's at a state or federal level. And yet, those are some of the same people who will advocate for local control. Those things contradict each other. And you can't be setting rules and laws and regulations at the state and federal level that keep local decisions out. And then at the other side of your mouth, say that, yeah, but I'm all about local control. Because that's that that's not the case with what we're seeing. I’m not saying our local legislators are doing that, but you can certainly see it at the state and federal level. So I don't think it's a bad thing for transparency in terms of having that information out there. They ought to be able to know and see what their kids are learning in school.

Is this push for more parental involvement – some would say interference – in what’s going on in schools a new phenomenon? Or is it something that crops up cyclically?

I think it's more than a cyclical thing because I haven't seen anything like this in my 30-plus years. But some of those attacks that come at us are not necessarily coming from our own community. In my case, when we were experiencing people showing up at board meetings who were speaking out against critical race theory, the sex ed curriculum — whatever the case was — most of those individuals were not even members of the District 87 community. And many of my peers could say the same thing in their communities. So if you kind of peel that back and you look at what your local people want and care about, they're invested and they see what you're doing. And they in general, they support it.

So is this a trend that you kind of hope blows over?

Well, I'd like to say that it might. But when you start to mix in politics, I've definitely seen more of that today than we ever have. And when you're looking at midterm elections coming up at the federal level, and a presidential election not too far down the road, that will filter down to the local level. In fact, where school board elections tended to be nonpartisan, I'm seeing much more partisan politics when it comes to school board elections. And that's unfortunate because most people get into that to serve the good of kids in the community. And now you're starting to see, even at the local level, that some are running on specific agendas that are beyond that. And that, to me, is a little disheartening.

Ideas around school safety certainly tend split along partisan lines. And here we are again in the midst of another national debate about what should be done to prevent mass shootings. What are your feelings about it?

Well, here locally, we do a lot of really good work. In terms of school safety, we have a full-time director of safety and security. We have two resource officers — one at the junior high one at the high school. Our buildings are in close proximity to each other so response time from the Bloomington Police Department is fast if we ever needed a real emergency situation addressed.

But the reality is our best security is the information that comes from our students, our community, to be proactive and addressing problems before they start. Our biggest challenge, quite frankly, is social media and the problems that that creates in terms of conflict. If we could get rid of that, we probably solve 70 to 80% of the conflicts that we have in schools. But that’s not reality.

Calls have been renewed in the wake of the Uvalde massacre for teachers to be armed. Where do you fall on that issue?

I think that's one of the dumbest ideas in the history of ideas. You know, a police officer is highly skilled and trained. And the last thing they want to do is pull that gun out and pull that trigger. The last thing I want to do is put weapons in the hands of teachers. That's not what they signed up for. If you think about the training that would need to be associated with that, the security of a weapon … you know, I'd have nightmares of Mr. Smith coming to the office saying, "I can't find my gun today." Then what do we do? On the surface, it might sound like a great idea. But for us, in a setting where we have local police in close proximity, it makes absolutely no sense to do that.

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