UPDATED 8:10 P.M. | Voters in District 87 don't have a lot of choices when they make their school board selections on election day, but the new board will have one of its most important decisions to make soon after it is sworn in this spring.
Incoming board members could shape the Bloomington public school system for years to come.
The District 87 school has four open seats on the ballot on April 6 and four candidates. It was five until Jon Reed pulled out of the race after a series of offensive social media posts surfaced.
Three of the four candidates are incumbents: Brigette Beasley Gibson, Elizabeth Fox Anvick and Chuck Irwin. Candidate Fitzgerald Samedy is seeking elected office for the first time.
Samedy reportedly said he planned to withdraw from the race on Friday and later retracted his statement to the Pantagraph.
Chuck Irwin is a retired school administrator. He is seeking a second term on the board. Irwin says the school board has two main jobs – set policy for the school system and hire a superintendent. The new board will get that chance soon as Barry Reilly has announced he will retire after the next school year.
Irwin said the district needs someone with vision to guide the district through tough financial times. That's something he said Reilly has done well.
“Even with the financial situation of the district, you look around the district, you look at our facilities and buildings, the new band facility (fine arts wing), athletic field (renovation), we’ve been able to maintain what we have and also to expand on facilities,” Irwin said.
Elizabeth Fox Anvick works in IT at State Farm. She is seeking a second term on the school board.
Anvick said the search for a new school leader presents a challenge and an opportunity. She said it's important the district hire someone who understands the needs of a diverse school district.
“(They must) understand what it’s like to teach in a very diverse district, because you need to be able to connect with all of your students,” Anvick said.
Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities make up a majority of the student population in District 87.
Brigette Beasley Gibson works a career track manager at State Farm. She’s been on the board since 2016. Gibson said diversity is also a key issue for her. She and Reilly have co-chaired a committee on diversity, equity and inclusion (DNI) in District 87.
“In an effort to get together on a regular basis to build our acumen around DNI as it relates to education and then hear from the community in terms of what they want to see and who things should be different,” Gibson said.
Fitzgerald Samedy will bring a different perspective to the board.
Samedy works for an electronics company in Normal and has served as a Republican precinct committeeman. He initially campaigned with Jon Reed. Their names were on signs that urged voters to “Elect Two Good Men.” Samedy has since distanced himself from Reed.
Samedy said he was originally motivated to run because he wanted schools reopened during the pandemic. He said too many students are struggling and unsafe learning from home. Samedy also said remote learning has also been tough on parents. He said many can’t afford daycare or tutoring and have had to become teachers themselves.
“There are a lot of people out of jobs. Not only are they struggling, they are struggling to teach,” Samedy said. “It’s parents like myself. I don’t know Algebra. I’m not a teacher.”
District 87 has already started to move students in the classroom on a more limited basis, but the school board has been largely hands-off on return to school plans.
Board members Brigette Beasley Gibson, Chuck Irwin and Elizabeth Fox Anvick say the administration has handled the pandemic well. Anvick said the board isn't there to micro-manage.
“I would hate for us to get down in the weeds on some things, because then it’s a slippery slope of ‘why didn’t we call a snow day today,’” Anvick said.
The school board incumbents say District 87 has managed its money well even though state funding hasn't kept up with rising costs.
Chuck Irwin said it's possible budget cuts may be coming if state funding stays flat. He notes the district issued working cash bonds last year and he said that should keep it on good financial footing for several years. Irwin said if the district ever needed a financial lifeline, he would likely want to go to the voters to consider a tax increase.
“Cutting programs is a difficult decision and staff involved staff, because that’s where most of your expenses in terms of salaries (are),” Irwin said. “So, programs would have to be cut. Staff would have to be cut.”
Brigette Beasley Gibson said the district has discussed a tax referendum in the past. She said if it became necessary, the district would look to see if Unit 5 would consider its own referendum.
“That’s always one of the key things we try to do is work together and if we were (to seek a referendum) we would consider the needs of both districts,” she said.
Gibson said the district's property tax rate of about $5.15 per $100 assessed valuation is in a good place now. District 87's tax rate has essentially stayed flat for several years. It's tax levy increased about 3% this year. That's based on a projected increased in taxable land values.
Fitzgerald Samedy takes a more critical view of the district's finances. He implies without evidence the district is wasting money on things not relevant to education.
“Where is the money going and how is it being spent?” Samedy said. “That’s way I’d like to run for District 87. If it’s being spent on wine and luxury couches, then it’s going to be cut.”
Samedy said the district's taxes are already too high. When asked what he would cut, Samedy said he'd need to see the budget first.
Early voting is already underway.
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