Nearly half of the Unit 5 school board will turn over after the April 6 election. Three seats are up for grabs, with no incumbents running.
The race is heavily contested. Six candidates are vying for voter support. The field includes a wide range of perspectives, from teachers to parents to recent graduates.
The three seats will go to the top vote getters, except no more than one candidate can be elected from among candidates Janelle Czapar, Gavin Cunningham and Ericka Ralston as school boards limit the number of seats in each congressional township. Kentrica Coleman, Jeremy DeHaai and Stan Gozur also are seeking election to the board.
Janelle Czapar is the only educator in the race. She teaches science in El Paso Gridley schools.
“I have kind of a behind-the-scenes view. I have experience talking to kids as well, since I'm dealing with high school students on a daily basis," Czapar said. "I also have a background in science, and therefore I'm far more of an evidence and data-driven individual than it being about opinions.”
All four of her children attend Unit 5 schools. Czapar said they were drawn to the solid academic programming.
“I've also gotten to see as a taxpayer, citizen and person with a number of friends within the different communities here that, unfortunately, Unit 5 has budgeting issues," she said. "I got involved because I'm hopeful that we can do some work together as a new board, and try and find some solutions to help fix the budget and get it into a state of better financial health.”
Czapar said there’s a way to address the district’s budget woes without allowing it to fall into stagnation. She said the district should be more aggressive about seeking grant opportunities. There are a few line items that need to be continually reevaluated to make sure they’re being handled as cost-effectively as possible, she added.
"Transportation is huge. I am well aware that our busing system has been altered several times over the last 14 years that I've been here ... And part of that is because it's very expensive to handle the transportation, especially given the way the districting lines are and how some students are crossed from place to place," Czapar said.
Czapar said the district also could revisit special education services, reassessing whether the best use of resources is to transport students to Colene Hoose for those services instead of keeping them in their neighborhood schools. She added staffing changes should also be considered more often, ensuring the best people are on the job and students' needs are met in a financially responsible way.
Challenger Gavin Cunningham said staffing cuts are not on the table for him during budget restructuring. He said he'd like to see teachers—and, most importantly, students—be given a bigger voice in the decision-making process.
Cunningham graduated from Normal West high school last year. He’s now studying special education at Illinois State University.
"I decided that I wanted to run because when I look at the current school board, I don't see anybody who looks like myself," Cunningham said. "There is no student representation or recent graduate representation. While I appreciate everything that the current school board has done, there are issues that are directly impacting students that I believe are not being addressed.”
Cunningham said he can help bridge the gap between administrators, teachers, parents, and those at the center of these decisions: students.
“I've often told people that your children don't always tell you the complete truth when it comes to what's going on in their life," he said. "Students are often afraid to talk about what's going on, afraid to talk about mental health, that sort of stuff. And it's frankly something that's that many, many students are being affected by.”
Cunningham said he also wants to ensure students are taught diverse and complete history. If elected, he said, he wants to create a subcommittee to reform K-12 history curriculum.
“Anything from teaching about Juneteenth in high school, to talking more accurately about the relationships between Native Americans and European immigrants, and even (down to) kindergarten in first grade," he said.
Cunningham said he’s also running to represent Bloomington’s west side, a community he said has long been voiceless on the school board.
Ericka Ralston also is running because she feels some communities are underrepresented.
Ralston said she stays involved in her sons’ education. She’s part of the Sugar Creek Elementary PTO, and also served on Heartland Head Start’s governing board.
Ralston said she doesn’t see enough Black and brown people brought to the table. And when they are in the room, she said, they’re not necessarily being listened to.
"I want to be that ear," Ralston said. "I want to help our school board listen to all stakeholders, not just the people that come to the meetings. You have some parents they work during the time trying to provide for their families ... Why are we not reaching out to these parents that are unable?”
Ralston said Unit 5 offers great programming for students who are excelling, but not so much for the kids who are struggling in school.
“How do we help them to achieve what they want to achieve? If they want to be at a 5.0, what are we doing to make that attainable to them? What are we doing to make sure that even the kids that have fallen behind get to where they need to be?”
When it comes to paying for that programming, Ralston said fundraising could go a long way.
“We can say all day long that ‘we want, we want, we want, we want’ but where's the ‘need’ at?" she said. "Most kids, if you tell them basketball is going to be cut and that's something that they really, really like, they say, ‘Well, if we raise this amount of money, we can keep this program.’”
Ralston said the district could seek corporate partnerships with companies like State Farm, Country Financial, or even Home Depot, where she works.
Running for one of the other two open seats is Kentrica Coleman, who also prioritizes identifying and addressing equity gaps for students.
“I know that we want to enable all students in this district to thrive and compete, no matter their circumstances. And in doing so we must address and understand barriers that are keeping them from moving forward. I commit to be that voice for all students," she said.
Coleman currently serves on Unit 5’s Citizens Advisory Council. She’s also president of the Evans Junior High PTO and works with several booster clubs. She's a technology manager for State Farm.
Coleman said in all of these capacities, she takes an issues-focused approach.
"You think about the financial health of Unit 5. We've talked about lack of diversity and staff. We talk about our academic achievement gaps between minority versus non-minority students and how do we close that gap there. We've talked about remote learning and pandemic recovery," she said.
Coleman, like most other candidates, said she wants to focus on revenue generation—not budget cuts—to keep the district’s spending on track.
“As we think about what a three- to five-year deficit reduction plan would look like, what are those ways that we can increase revenue, that maybe leverages our current assets?" Coleman said. "Our buildings, for example—can it be leveraged as a shared resource with the community?”
Also like the other candidates, Coleman acknowledges a property tax hike might become necessary. But she said the district must do significant outreach before putting a measure on the ballot to make sure there’s community buy-in.
Candidate Stan Gozur agrees. The State Farm actuary said he wants to use his budgeting and mathematical savvy to tackle district funding deficits head on.
Gozur said he’s disappointed the graduated income tax referendum didn’t pass in November. He said voters may not have thought about how it would impact local schools—especially with other revenue sources hampered by the pandemic.
“That does end up becoming less money in the state budget toward our local school districts. And so we really have to take a look inside at our school district, have those conversations with our community and say, 'What is it that we truly want the unit to look like?'" Gozur said. "Where do we want the responsibility and the ownership of its success to lie? Do we want to place that in the state's hands, or do we want to take that into our own hands?"
Gozur said he does not approach the school board race with an agenda. He said he wants his role to be representative of the will of constituents.
“I'm not saying things are broken. I'm not saying this one area in particular is the sole reason I'm running. I'm running for the full term. I want to be a voice for everyone in the district, all students, all parents, and I want to be a good fiduciary for all taxpayers," Gozur said.
Gozur said he would like to see more attention paid to closing the educational gap by focusing on younger students.
“What I would like to do is really focus on how can Unit 5 canimprove that by concentrating on the elementary level," he said. "This is where students are more impressionable than any other age, and they're coming in with a widest range of needs.”
Challenger Jeremy DeHaai also said relying on state funding isn’t a safe bet. DeHaai, a sales manager at Kroff Chemical Company, said outmigration from Illinois doesn’t paint an optimistic picture for the future tax base.
“I'd like to see if there's potential for getting donations to school district for other things—if there are grants that can be provided by organizations like State Farm or other corporate entities in the area that can provide grants to the school district for programs and for education," DeHaai said.
DeHaai said a good example is the $1 million donation from Rivian and Reditus Labs to provide COVID-19 testing to Unit 5 high schools.
The pandemic is what prompted DeHaai to run, adding his top priority is getting students back into the classroom.
"There are kids in the community that maybe they don't have good internet access. They have a single parent that is working and they don't have somebody that can be there with them," DeHaai said. "They're not going to be able to get the education via the remote learning.”
DeHaai said remote learning has been particularly detrimental for students in special education programs. He said that is one area he would not consider cutting funding.
DeHaai said what sets him apart from other candidates are his intentions. He said he’s in it to serve the community, not bolster his own profile.
“My focus is strictly going to be on the kids," he said. "I'm not knocking any of the other candidates, but I think some of the other folks, for them, this is potentially a launch of their political career or it's a stepping stone.”
The election is April 6. Early voting is now underway.
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