Candidates share personal reasons why they ran for Unit 5 school board
The candidates running for Unit 5 school board this spring have essentially split themselves into two slates – one for the tax referendum, the other against it. The county’s Republican Party endorsed one slate. Organized labor endorsed the other. Other groups like PTOs, the League of Women Voters, and even Unit 5 students are getting involved politically.
Simply put, there are more “sides” – more us-versus-them – than is typical in a Bloomington-Normal school board election. Yet despite all those political entanglements, each candidate also has deeply personal reasons for running, in many cases shaped by their own experiences with Unit 5.
There are four seats up for election April 4. Each slate has four candidates. A ninth candidate, Steve Mackowiak, is not aligned with either and declined WGLT’s requests for an interview.
Brad Wurth, Amee Jada, Dennis Frank, and Mollie Emery are on the Students First slate, which is aligned with Republicans, according to paperwork filed with the state. They oppose the referendum and the school board’s recent budget cuts and say alternatives – such as an expansion of e-learning – could help close the district’s $12 million budget deficit. Incumbents Amy Roser and Kelly Pyle and newcomers Alex Williams and Mark Adams are grouped as their own nameless, informal slate. They say they’re big supporters of public education and that passing the referendum is the only way forward. They’ve been endorsed by the Unit 5 teachers union and others in organized labor.
Alex Williams said he’s running for school board because he believes in public education. Williams and his wife were both first-generation college graduates. Their three children attended Unit 5 schools.
“Part of the reason why I’m running is to ensure that kids that are going through the system get the same great opportunities as my three kids,” Williams said.
Williams, who is Black, said Unit 5 has made great progress on its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) priorities in recent years, and he wants that to continue. Williams talked about his own daughter’s experience in 7th grade, when she had her first African American teacher after years of shying away from math.
“And a light bulb went on for her, in her level of engagement with math. We saw her soar,” Williams said. “Representation matters.”
Williams works in insurance and financial services, including time in banking and internal communications.
Dennis Frank said one of the big reasons he’s running is to help improve the reading and math proficiency of Unit 5 students. He said he got interested after looking at his own grandchild’s school’s performance, which he thought wasn’t good.
Frank said he wants to see Unit 5 do more to empower parents to help their own students, acknowledging challenges faced by parents who work long hours or multiple jobs or who are English learners themselves. Frank said he had his own “light bulb” moment when his kids’ teachers gave him advice on “how you can do better raising your child.”
“They taught me how to improve my kids’ education,” Frank said.
Frank, who works as a project manager at Country Financial, sounded skeptical about DEI’s importance in Unit 5 – that it was “with us whether we like it or not.” He asked whether it would help students’ reading and math proficiencies. He said he didn’t “know what’s taught exactly in a DEI class in high school, or whatever the meetings are,” but that people of color have given him mixed feedback when he’s knocked doors during the campaign.
“The Hispanic people were not too keen on the DIE. They felt it wasn’t for their best interest,” Frank said. “The Asian community were … more … it’s OK, but they don’t really need it for themselves. Our main growth in Unit 5 right now is Hispanics and Asians – that’s our largest growth of minorities. It’s gonna continue that way. We should pay attention to them.”
The McLean County Republican Party, which endorsed Frank’s slate, this week called DEI an “evil influence” on public schools, where “traditional Christian values are being forcefully rejected.”
Kelly Pyle was appointed to the school board in 2018, then was elected to a full term in 2019. She has two children in Unit 5 and previously served on the district’s Citizens Advisory Council.
Pyle works in higher education. She’s also the daughter of two public school teachers.
“I’ve grown up knowing that education is so important. I felt like this was an opportunity where I could serve our community in that capacity,” Pyle said.
Pyle said Unit 5’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are intended to make sure “all students – regardless of their socioeconomic status or how they identify – are given the opportunity to be successful.”
“We recognize that there are achievement gaps in certain student groups. And so we’re pleased to see the DELT (District Equity Leadership) Team is looking to investigate what some of those barriers have been, and how we can overcome those things,” Pyle said. “If I’m re-elected, that will continue to be an important part of my vision for our board – to continue the work of the DEI initiatives.”
Mollie Emery started a run for Unit 5 school board in 2021 but withdrew following a challenge to her petitions. Emery has one child already in Unit 5 schools, along with two younger children.
Emery has been critical of how schools handled COVID, including the shift to remote learning and mask requirements.
“I feel like 2020 and COVID destroyed a lot of trust in general. I feel like there’s a group of parents who felt their wishes weren’t honored. That is an area that exists to repair that relationship. Parents do need to be involved. Parents, right now, don’t feel like their input was valued. And I’m one of them. I felt that way. That doesn’t mean I’m a crazy parent or a lazy parent. It just means, I wanted something for my child that I didn’t feel like the school was letting me choose,” Emery said.
Emery said her oldest child, now 7, uses Unit 5’s special education services. She’d like to see Unit 5 do a better job of helping newer special ed parents navigate that world, including Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).
“I’ve had absolutely phenomenal experiences with Unit 5’s special ed programs, and I’ve had other times where I saw room for opportunity. My perspective is, oh my gosh, how life-changing would it have been if back in pre-K or (kindergarten), I had someone showing me what the future looked like,” Emery said. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Emery works part-time as a school nurse in Unit 5.
Mark Adams works as a community planner for the McLean County Regional Planning Commission. He said education is important, and he volunteered for the Yes for Unit 5 pro-referendum campaign last fall. He said he was “shocked and dismayed” when voters rejected it.
“I was pretty disheartened,” Adams said. “I didn’t have sleepless nights, but I was very, very worried. Because as a community planner, I know what happens when you disinvest and don’t invest in key social institutions like schools and what happens to a community.”
Adams’ wife is a Unit 5 junior high teacher. When asked how big a role parents should have in what their kids learn and when they learn it, Adams said teachers are “very qualified and hard-working and they deserve the benefit of the doubt.”
“That’s part of why they go to school, is to learn about the reality of the world. It’s important that parents continue to work with teachers, give feedback, speak at PTO meetings,” he said. “Be respectful, but know that it takes a village. And that means teachers listen to the parents. Parents do have a role, but it’s so important that parents know they are part of it. They are not the only part.”
Brad Wurth is a Country Financial agent in Bloomington-Normal. He has four kids, including two who attended Unit 5 schools and two who are home-schooled.
Wurth said he was inspired to run in part by his own family’s experiences. His son earned 41 hours of college credit while he was a Normal West student, through Unit 5’s partnership with Heartland Community College. But Wurth said it was an onerous process and that his family ran into many “pitfalls and some hurdles” along the way.
“There’s a huge opportunity for more high school students to do that, but we’re not making it easy for them,” said Wurth, who has proposed an expanded use of e-learning to address Unit 5’s budget deficit. “We had to find a way to stumble into that.”
Wurth has been following Unit 5 for years and been critical of its leadership. He’s previously called for the closure of Carlock Elementary School as one way to address the deficit, and he’s raised concerns about a higher concentration of low-income students in certain elementary schools that has “dramatically impacted the property values of homes in those areas,” according to an email he sent to a school board member.
When asked what he likes about Unit 5, Wurth cited the district’s extracurriculars (like sports and clubs) and the diversity of its families.
“I don’t dislike Unit 5,” Wurth said. “Unit 5 does a fabulous job in the product that we offer. But there’s a huge opportunity to make it better. And the numbers show that. Our proficiencies are just OK.”
Amy Roser was appointed to the school board in 2018 and won a full term in 2019.
On the importance of education, Roser points to her own father, who never graduated high school. Roser said she got frustrated with him because he never came to her activities when she was in high school. Later in life, Roser realized it was because he didn’t feel comfortable around others who were educated and was insecure about the path his life had taken.
“But what he did was, he put six of us kids through postsecondary education. We all had some amazing opportunities that were provided to us, through his hard work and his commitment to us,” Roser said. “There’s value in giving back.”
Roser’s two children attend Unit 5 schools. She works at Illinois State University.
Roser said good schools are the foundation of a strong community.
“I am motivated to continue in this role because we have work left to do,” Roser said, “in terms of providing strategic direction and a solid financial footing for our district, for McLean County, for our community, and for our kids.”
Amee Jada has two kids in Unit 5 schools, and a third who is studying elementary education at Illinois State University. She works at the healthcare-sharing group Samaritan Ministries in Peoria.
Jada said she’s stepping out of her comfort zone to run for school board.
“I stepped into this because I knew there was a need for it. And I just wanted to be a vessel for the voice of the community and the students. There’s a lot of stuff going on that I don’t agree with, so I want to make sure that changes get made – improvements and things like that,” Jada said.
Jada said Unit 5 has a “spending issue that needs to be addressed.” She thinks the current school board has been overspending and mismanaging its resources.
“And you’re asking people for $20 million more to put in your hands? I don’t want to give them $20 million more. They’ve already been fiscally irresponsible with what they’ve been given,” she said.
Voters will have limited information about Steve Mackowiak before they cast their ballot. He declined a WGLT interview request and, on Feb. 22, said he would not be doing any more press or public events and would be letting “the two slates … battle this one out.” But he told WGLT he could “most definitely serve” if he were to win.
Mackowiak, who has a daughter in sixth grade, said he works construction and volunteers with youths at Vale Church. At a McLean County Republican event last month, Mackowiak said his “life went down a very dark road” after getting in with the wrong crowd in high school. He said he has struggled with “depression, anxiety, identity issues, loneliness, and the list goes on and on.”
He told the GOP crowd that “schools should teach reading, writing, math, history, science, and the rest should be left to the parents.”
“I don’t think we should be helping them be more confused. We need to help them be confident in who they are,” Mackowiak said. “One of the things going on in our culture right now is telling boys they can be girls and girls they can be boys. That’s false. There’s a distinct difference between men and women. Always has, always will be. These children need guidance, kindness, and love. And when they’re dealing with these kinds of identity issues, we need to help them see themselves as the wonderful human they are.”