DISTRICT 97 SCHOOL BOARD (4 open seats)

Barika Grant | Gavin Kearney | Jung Kim | Cheree Moore | Holly Spurlock


Barika Grant

candidate for 2019 District 97 School Board

1. What motivates you to seek this office? What skills, experiences, and perspectives would you bring to the Board, and why would those contributions be valuable to District 97?

I heard one too many stories about how children of color were being treated in the district. That, coupled with the declining test scores was my impetus to seek a seat at the table. I am a mother of three, former PTO Treasurer, and worked in the private sector for many years managing design projects on Wall Street. 

In my professional life, I interview users to design systems and interfaces that support their tasks. The job entails understanding how to ask questions, in a non-leading and objective way to get the best results. The job also involves dealing with multiple stakeholders that can influence the final product. It is my job to manage the different interests, while remaining the user advocate. 

I see the role on the board being very similar to my job in the private sector. I will bring the skill of managing multiple stakeholders, while remaining an advocate for D97 students.

2. What do you think makes an effective School Board Member?

An effective School Board member is an objective listener, great communicator, mediator, conscientious dissenter, and one who does thorough due diligence.

School Board members must listen to all sides of an argument. There are both competing and cooperative interests at play, thus one must be open to listening to all interested parties objectively, before coming to a conclusion. 

School Board members must communicate with clarity and brevity. Issues and solutions can be misrepresented or misconstrued to the detriment of the entire School Board, or to an individual Board member. Arguments can get distorted to the point where multiple interested parties are not even arguing the original point. As such, a board member should be clear, direct and intentional in communicating an argument, idea, or solution.

School Board members must be able to mediate between two parties, especially in tense situations. There will be situations either in closed or open sessions, where two contingents are talking at, past, or over each other. Where a board member is not involved in this exchange, they need to mediate the conflict.

School Board members must be able to be conscientious dissenters, whereby countering an otherwise unanimous decision if they disagree. They should be able to disagree, without being disagreeable.

Finally, School Board members should do their research and due diligence. All topics or issues are not going to be familiar to the member(s). They should do their research and be prepared before any decision.

3. What is your understanding of the purpose of the District 97 Board? What do you see as the appropriate relationship between the School Board, District staff, and the ten schools in the District?

D97 Board is in charge of personnel issues as it pertains to the Superintendent  (i.e hiring, retaining, firing, defining benchmarks, holding them accountable to measurable outcomes etc.) Outreach and listening to community concerns, Teacher’s contracts, Budget and allocation of tax and referendum funds (i.e., faculty, teacher and administrator pay, facilities budget, program budget etc.), setting Policies and making sure D97 is compliant with all state mandated laws.

The School Board should be student advocates. While Staff and the schools have a vested interest in teachers and administration, the School Board should be on the side of students.

4. When in your experience have you had to balance competing interests? What process did you use? What did you learn?

I’ve dealt with this in both my professional and personal life, and compromise is the only solution.  No one is going to get everything they want. 

5. What does transparency in government mean to you? How would you put it into practice?

It means that every meeting, financial entanglement, conflict of interest, and decision as it relates to public business and finance is available to the public. 

It also means that public official’s personal finance and business relationships should be scrutinized to establish that there are no conflicts of interest. 

6. As more of our local discourse happens in social media, what is your view on how local elected officials should communicate with and respond to constituents? How will you engage with the breadth of the community, and not just the voices that are loudest or easiest to find?

Elected Officials should have a few channels to open dialogue with the community. Online forums should allow constituents to send messages and thoughts openly or anonymously. 

Online surveys that allow open-ended answers can be launched through the e-newsletters of the independent schools.

Offline, hosting town halls will give people in the community and opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns. 

Personally, I always look at the “comments” section after reading local articles. It gives me a pulse of the community with varying viewpoints. 

In addition, I ask people questions when meeting them, whether on the playground, at my children’s activities, at the bus stop, at the gym, anywhere in town. I ask people their feelings on their particular school, teachers their kids have, any complaints they have etc. I also speak with the teachers and principals.  I’ve gleaned a lot about D97 just talking to people, in normal situations.

7. In what ways have you sought to better know and understand the concerns and needs of residents outside your demographic group (specifically the demographic groups of race, religion, ability, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status)?

I’m a social person, as such I talk to lots of people. Through my network of friends and groups I’m involved with, I hear concerns from all different groups.  

I’ve also introduced myself to countless people, first for getting signatures to petition for the board, then as a candidate campaigning for the board. After introducing myself and explaining my platform and why I decided to run, I ask them what their experiences have been in D97 and people are honest, so I’ve learned a lot. It’s been a positive experience having people open up, but the content itself is oftentimes worrisome. 

8. How should the District assess its policies and progress with respect to special needs and the opportunity gap? As a Board Member, what metrics will you use to determine whether the District is succeeding?

Although testing is controversial, we need and objective measure as a benchmark. I’d measure year over year progress to determine if the District is succeeding. If test scores have improved within grade levels, then progress is occurring. If the test scores are stagnant, or declining, there is no progress, thus failing. 

If the number of students with IEP’s is increasing year over year, that’s a failure. 

9. What have been your most useful sources of information about pre-secondary education? Have you found any research to be particularly informative?

I’ve poured over a lot of data as it pertains to the primary schools in Oak Park. I’ve looked at the teacher contracts, the budgets, number of school days, hours of instruction and curriculum of the elementary schools, in isolation, and comparatively to other schools in Illinois and other states. I wanted to understand why Oak Park was spending so much, compared to other similar suburbs, and why our performance wasn’t reflecting the spend.  

I also wanted to understand if our testing is inherently flawed and if that was why the testing is reflecting so poorly. I researched that and one of the principals got me MAP questions, so I could analyze their validity. 

What I found was that, while not terrible, the testing questions could be greatly improved. That alone boost scores. 

There needs to be an effort, if we are going to continue using these tests, to work with the testing companies to make sure the questions are unambiguous, culturally sensitive and relevant.

10. Why have property taxes assessed by the District increased so substantially over the past 10-15 years? Can the District continue without additional tax increases? How?

Property tax increases cannot be discussed in a vacuum (i.e. as it pertains to D97 only) Property taxes have gone up for various reasons. D97, D200, in addition to other taxing bodies in the village have asked for more money to either maintain services and programs, or to improve them. 

In the case of D97, projected overcrowding (which effects class size) elicited the ask for faculty increases and facility expansions. That, coupled with the decrease in state funding caused the ballot referendum. 

With the passage of the referendum, there was a large 10% increase ($1,000 per $10,000) reflected in taxpayers’ bills the following year. This, in addition to the year over year inflation increase to the tax levy added annually, tax payers have seen their property taxes rise significantly over the last couple of years.

I’m concerned about this, as it is not sustainable and hurts the diversity of the village. I don’t want to live in a place where only dual income, 30-55 year old wealthy people with children can afford to live. At this rate, we are going to lose young, single parents, retired, fixed-income, and middle-income residents. They simply won’t be able to afford to live here. And when these residents start moving out, they are going to have a problem selling their property because of those very taxes that forced them to sell.

Again, long-term solutions are not exclusive to D97. Oak Park and the state of Illinois bear some shared responsibility. Oak Park relies heavily on residential property taxes to fund education. Oak Park needs to broaden its tax base, especially in business and commercial property. Oak Park is landlocked and their are few opportunities to do this, but when those opportunities arise, they are defeated. Last year, Taco Bell wanted to build on a vacant lot on Madison. This would have been a new source of tax revenue, however the residents opposed it due to the unhealthiness of the fast food chain and the potential traffic it would cause. As Oak Parkers, we have to be realistic about what it takes to keep taxes neutral or lower them.

Two additional things will help raise the funding pool. 1) The state of Illinois needs to pay their share towards education. The states’ budget crises leaves our tax payers holding the bag. 2) Cook Country needs to change the way they assess multi-family units. Single family units pay more per sq. ft. than Multi-units In property taxes. This doesn’t happen in most other states. 

11. How will you balance the community's desire to decrease the property tax burden with the need to create an equitable environment for all students?

Please see the response above about growing the tax base. 

12. How do you define equity? Do you favor implementing a formal equity lens/framework across District 97, and if so, what specifics should it include? How have you engaged with efforts by the current Board to develop an equity policy?

Equity is meeting each student, where they are, and giving them the tools and resources that allow them to succeed to their highest potential.

All teachers must have equity and bias training as part of their continuing education hours.

Yes, I favor a formal equity framework across D97. I’ve reviewed the current equity policy that has yet to be passed. I think it is inclusive and exhaustive and want to see it passed.

13. The District has recently taken steps to eliminate tracking in some areas (for instance, in math classes for some grades). How effective have these initiatives been? Should they be expanded? What specific initiatives would you support to address the range of learning differences among students?

I do not know if they have been effective, I have not seen the data. I cannot say if it should be expanded. What I can say is that children learn differently and we should target teaching and teacher’s based on the child’s learning style.

14. Allegations of sexual harassment (between students) have been made at both middle schools, and the District has been criticized for its failure to have a well-defined policy on how incidents like this are addressed. As a Board Member, how would you work to protect students in the wake of such allegations? What challenges would you anticipate while drafting a policy? What safeguards should a new policy include to protect to populations already affected disproportionately by disciplinary practices?

I’d need to understand the specifics on this matter, which I do not know. I cannot speak on this matter without more information.

15. District 97 Board Members share responsibility for oversight of the Collaboration for Early Childhood. What is your vision for early childhood education in Oak Park? Should preschool be available to every child in Oak Park? Should the District fund a preschool program for all students?

I am a proponent of universal pre-K, as I’ve seen the positive effects it has on underserved and underprivileged students. Currently, the Collaboration for Early Childhood gets funding from the state and enrolls “at risk” students (i.e. premature or multiple birth, ESL, adopted, speech delays etc.) All students don’t get the benefits of the program, however most of the children identified as needing it, get it. If we are falling behind on giving the children that need it, the opportunity to have it, it needs to be funded. 

While I think universal pre-K is the goal, I understand that our tax burden is already high. If the state is not going to fund it, I don’t think it’s possible for the property tax payers to fund universal pre-K in Oak Park.

16. Please list the three largest donors to your campaign by dollar amount contributed.

I’ve not accepted any money. I’m self financed.

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[The above answers were supplied on 2/17/19. It may be possible to find more current financial information at the Illinois Sunshine website. Illinois Sunshine is also a useful resource for identifying past contributions by individuals to political candidates and committees in Illinois.]