DISTRICT 97 SCHOOL BOARD (4 open seats)

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

Gavin Kearney Headshot.jpg


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?

My family and I moved to Oak Park from the East coast 3+ years ago. We chose Oak Park because we wanted an integrated, inclusive and progressive community. I appreciate so much about Oak Park but have also been struck by its persistent inequities, including in District 97. I’m committee to addressing them and have been heavily involved in DivCo. I decided to run for School board to be more impactful.

I’ve been a racial justice attorney for 20+ years. I’m currently at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. Before that I advocated for environmental justice in NYC for over 12 years and for my first 6 years after law school I worked with john powell on issues of structural inequality in metropolitan America.

I am committed to equity and believe community-driven, movement-building advocacy is essential to progress. Legal and policy expertise play important roles and I’m experienced in drafting, passing and implementing equitable policies. I have worked with many community organizers, grassroots organizations, coalitions and other stakeholders. I highly value the leadership and wisdom of impacted communities and will work to incorporate it effectively into the Board’s policymaking and oversight.

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

The Board’s essential functions include hiring and overseeing the Superintendent, negotiating teacher contracts, and managing the budget. An effective School Board member must commit the time it takes to learn and effectively perform these core functions. A Board member must also bring attention to detail, and have the judgment and prudence to weigh considerations and make wise decisions.

The Board is part of a larger system and an effective Board member must commit to building trust with the administration, teachers, parents and students, while holding the Board and District accountable to achieving excellence and equity. This requires an ability to engage others without defensiveness or ego, a willingness to invite criticism and engage in uncomfortable conversations, and an ability to react to them constructively. I am results-oriented and actively seek out the input and expertise of others – I don’t have all the answers.

Finally, effective Board service requires a willingness to make tough decisions. To advance equity, we need to change policies and practices that aren’t working. An effective Board member needs to be driven by our collective mission of ensuring all of our kids have an excellent education even if it creates tension or strains relationships.

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?

Ultimately, the Board’s purpose is to ensure that all students receive an excellent education that allows them to thrive in life and engage critically and constructively in our diverse society. To do this, the Board sets the broad vision and priorities for the District, adopts policies that lay a path for achieving those priorities, and provides oversight to ensure they’re being met. The Board also hires and oversees the Superintendent who effectuates this vision, and is responsible for engaging the community in these efforts. This includes parents, students, community members and important Oak Park institutions like the Collaboration for Early Childhood and groups like DivCo and others who are vital partners in fulfilling the District’s mission.

Delegating authority to District staff and teachers is critical. Board micromanagement can bottleneck efforts and deflate morale. Key partners need to feel heard as priorities are set; they need to but-in. Then they need the latitude and supports needed to effectuate those priorities. Ideally, the Board, staff and schools are rowing in the same direction and the Board is ensuring appropriate qualitative and quantitative evaluation measures are in place to ensure progress and inform course corrections where needed.

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

I regularly balance competing interest in my work – as a part of large coalitions with diverse members, in negotiating contracts and settlement agreements, and as a manager in non-profit settings. Important considerations and lessons I’ve learned include:

  • Foregrounding mission. We can have healthy discussions about how to most effectively advance the District’s mission. Whether to advance the District’s mission is not up for debate and competing considerations, disputes and strategy debates should be evaluated by the degree to which they are essential to achieving our mission.

  • Understanding interests. I’ve seen many debates and negotiations fall apart because people don’t understand other parties’ interests. Taking the time to understand what people want allows you to find common goals and creative solutions for meeting them.

  • Clear, effective decision-making processes. It’s important to create space for stakeholder voices – to maintain urgency, shed light on an issue and understand people’s concerns and interests. It’s also important to make timely decisions. Doing both requires clear, purposeful decision-making processes that are fair and result in outcomes where people feel heard and valued even if they don’t get exactly what they want. It also builds good will that carries over to future challenges.

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

Transparency is essential to democracy and particularly important when parents and communities entrust a school district with their children. This means that critical information about the district should be available to stakeholders in an accessible, understandable form - information on key performance measures, services offered by the district and to which students may be entitled, district activities such as Board decision-making, etc.

The draft equity policy provides a good example of how I would put it into practice and I was one of the DivCo members that drafted and advocated for its transparency measures. Key policy requirements include:

  • An implementation planning process with stakeholder involvement.

  • An implementation plan that is public and includes goals, strategies and milestones.

  • Bi-annual public reporting requirements.

  • Robust stakeholder engagement throughout implementation of the policy.

  • A central, user-friendly, on-line space where key data and reports on equity can be found.

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?

I want the District to develop best practices for community engagement that incudes a focus on reaching those families most impacted by current inequities. This would include:

  • Valuing the many benefits of bringing diverse perspectives to help us understand issues and develop solutions.

  • Identifying multiple strategies for reaching diverse voices. Periodic e-mails don’t get the job done. We need to proactively seek out diverse voices. This includes trying different means of communication and hosting events where and when families can attend and providing supports like childcare.

  • Having clear goals and evaluating whether the goals are being met - are we reaching everyone we need to? Is their input informing our decisions? Evaluation allows us to use trial and error to find strategies that work best.

  • Ensuring that community engagement events are purposeful and build trust. Too many events feel like they’re just checking a community engagement box. Goals for any event should be clear to all participants, people’s time and input should be valued, criticism should be invited, and participants should know how their input will inform District decision-making.

In terms of social media, I’m on Facebook but am open to other platforms that would advance our communication goals.

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)?

A primary way for me has been participation in Irving’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee and participation in the District-wide Diversity Committee, including its Policy Team. Through these I have gotten to know many diverse community members and learned a lot about the challenges tin District 97 for students of different demographic groups and identities. I’ve also learned a lot by attending a variety of forums sponsored by DivCos around the District including America to Me discussions and presentations by experts like David Stovall and Amanda Lewis.

My work on the DivCo Policy Team has connected me to other folks organizing for equity in D97, D200 and in the broader village and this has broadened my understanding of how different people experience Oak Park and its schools.

Since declaring my candidacy, I’ve also sought opportunities to have coffee with people who can help me understand key issues and challenges faced by the District around equity. This has included community leaders, early childhood specialists, education equity experts, teachers and others. These have helped me build relationships with people who can provide valuable insight and guidance should I be elected.

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?

In my answer to question 5, I described the basic assessment and accountability framework that would be my starting point – clear goals and strategies for achieving them developed with stakeholders at the table; milestones; and regular reporting on progress. Where strategies aren’t working, an evaluation of why to inform necessary changes.

Specific metrics will vary by issue. In each area data needs to be disaggregated by key demographic characteristics, including but not limited to race/ethnicity, language status, disability status, and socioeconomic status.

Key issues to me and some of the metrics I would consider include:

  • Student performance – test scores, grades, percentage of students on track to finish high school prepared for college.

  • Access to advanced learning opportunities – if we continue with our Gifted and Talented program, the percentage of students in it by group.

  • Discipline rates.

  • Teacher hiring and assignment – are we on track to creating a faculty that is representative of the student body? Are strategies for diversifying our faculty working? Are all students taught by diverse faculty during their time in D97?

I have more to learn about key metrics and if elected I’ll deepen my understanding of current and best practices.

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

Although I have a lot of experience with race equity, most of that isn’t in the educational field and I have been working to educate myself on key issues and best practices. I’m currently reading Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools, by Amanda Lewis and John Diamond and find it highly relevant to District 97.

To effectively engage around the equity policy discussion, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at how other districts approach the issue. I’ve read numerous district equity policies, implementation plans and progress reports. Some districts have also performed equity audits of their district and I’ve found those very useful in thinking about how to chart a path toward equity in District 97.

Another important source for me is my family. Both of my parents were teachers. My wife is an educator who works with first generation college students. My three siblings are a high school English teacher, an assistant high school principal, and a grade school counselor. I’ve also reached out to many of the education and childhood experts that live in Oak Park to get their perspectives on where District 97 is and where it needs to go.

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 taxes in Oak Park are increasing at a significantly greater rate than people’s incomes, particularly over the last few years. According to the Village’s Taxing Bodies Efficiencies Task Force Report a major cause of this is recent referenda by District 97, District 200 and the Village. That said, I’ve had discussions with current and former Board members that indicate that the District’s finances are in good shape and it can continue without tax increases for the foreseeable future. If I’m elected, digging deeper into the budget will be an important priority.

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?

I know there are some concerns about potential costs of the equity policy. These have been stoked by a memo the Administration put out that gave the impression that the policy required the District to hire 19 full-time equivalent employees upon passage. It doesn’t. The policy requires a planning process that identifies inequities and strategies for achieving them. Alternatives would be evaluated and cost would be a consideration

I see achieving equity as mission-critical, not optional. I fully support investing resources in it. I’m confident that we can make significant progress toward achieving equity through doing better with existing funds. If we are faced with the potential need for additional revenue, I would first look to whether there are efficiencies to be gained in existing District practices and then look to whether there are non-essential expenses that can be reduced before considering adding to the property tax burden. I would not support any proposed increase if I’m not confident that it’s necessary for us to fulfill our mission as a school district.

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 when all students are given what they need to receive an excellent education.

I strongly support adopting a formal race equity policy. A D97 teacher who I greatly respect recently said she was depressed to look at disaggregated student test data because every year the data show the same results. Clearly we’re not doing enough and need a new, comprehensive approach.

Key specifics include a comprehensive equity audit, clear goal-setting, clear strategies, public reporting requirements, and robust stakeholder engagement. I think the District should retain an expert to lead this process or co-lead it with the Administration- I’m not sure we have the capacity currently to get the audit and community engagement right.

I have been heavily engaged in equity policy efforts as part of the DivCo Policy Team. I researched numerous other policies and drafted DivCo’s recommendations on the first policy draft with input from many others. I am also part of a small group that reviewed subsequent drafts and engaged with Board members to ensure that the policy is strong and clear. In its current form it’s one of the strongest equity policies in the country.

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?

To be honest, I don’t know how effective these steps have been. I haven’t seen info from the District on expected outcomes from detracking or results from the places where they have done it. That said, I believe that students learn and grow best in diverse classrooms. My son is in a fully inclusive classroom this year. He’s challenged academically and his social growth and appreciation for the diverse strengths and gifts that his peers bring to the classroom have been outstanding.

I generally support de-tracking efforts and they must be undertaken effectively – with teacher buy-in and a growth mindset - a belief and emphasis on the fact that all students are capable of learning. I support equipping our teachers to engage in differentiated teaching in the classroom – pushing in rather than pulling out. This is particularly important in a District where Gifted and Talented participation is so correlated with race and ethnicity. I don’t think a school district should be labeling some students “gifted and talented” and not others and doing so is particularly problematic when White students are more likely to get the label and Black and Brown students are not.

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?

It’s important for students, teachers and other personnel to have a clear understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment. It can take many forms and can occur in ways that are harmful, but also where students aren’t sure about how to understand or respond to the behavior. Similarly, without proper training teachers and personnel may not accurately identify as sexual harassment or respond to it with the seriousness it warrants.

It’s also important to have clarity on how sexual harassment is dealt with. Students need to know who they can tell, what kind of response they can expect, how their confidentiality can be protected, etc. Teachers and personnel need to know how they are expected to respond and there needs to be uniform standards.

As with discipline generally, the response to sexual harassment should incorporate restorative justice practices. There needs to be repercussions for the behavior, but it also needs to be approached from the standpoint that kids can learn from their negative actions and develop greater appreciation and empathy for those impacted.

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?

Early childhood learning and growth are critical to our equity efforts. When kids start kindergarten at a disadvantage relative to their peers it makes it that much harder for District 97 to achieve equity. As I’ve learned about the Collaboration, including through informal meetings with staff, I have been impressed with their work and vision and I would be eager to find ways for the Collaboration and the District to strengthen their partnership.

Prior to moving to Oak Park, we lived in a school district with universal Pre-K. It was a great community asset and a real difference maker for families that could not otherwise enroll their kids in pre-K programs. I support the goal of universal pre-K for Oak Park, but I would want to look long and hard at the cost of it and at the variety of strategies that could be used to ensure that all kids in Oak Park start kindergarten on strong footing.

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

At the moment, I don’t have any campaign donors, although some friends are providing in-kind support: food and drink for coffees, some graphic design help, etc. I may do a fundraiser in the next couple of weeks to help cover my campaign expenses, but I expect that to consist of small donations from friends and supporters – my expenses are pretty modest.

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[The above answers were supplied on 2/15/19. 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.]