Cynthia Ashford Hollis



What motivates you to seek this office?  Have you participated in public service in the past?  If so, how? If not, why now?  What skills, experiences, and perspectives would you bring to the running of the school district?

I have always believed that the voices and needs of all children must be heard and represented.  I have lived my life being one of those voices to help improve the lives of all children.  I began using my voice representing children in my career as a public service Attorney in Juvenile and Child Support cases. I have seen the devastating effects of what a poor educational system can do to children. I now desire to be a voice for children at the Board level in District 97 and promote needed change, while working to sustain our community’s high level educational expectations for our children. I will meld my devotion to the education of children with my background of child advocacy and my continued service on PTO boards in a leadership capacity. I am currently serving as the PTO Council Board President, and I will bring all my skills and experiences to the Board. Growing up in Oak Park schools as a kid I can relate to the children's experiences and now I am in a position to advocate for their voices as a Board member.

Would you describe yourself as an agent of social change?  Why or why not?

 Yes, I am an agent of social change and I have devoted my professional career to public service in order to promote positive change in the lives of people, especially the lives of children. If elected to the District 97 Board, I will work tirelessly with my colleagues to advance social and educational change that guarantees that every child in the district will experience a high quality, whole-child centered, equity-based education.

One of the most important roles of the school board is connecting with the community, both serving as as an advocate for district improvement and reporting back to the community on the district’s performance. Do you believe the board’s communication processes have been successful in recent years?  What specifically would you do to improve two-way communication?

While I believe that the district has been earnest in its desire to communicate with all stakeholders, there is much work to do. I believe Dr. Kelley’s arrival and her Community Talks, tweets, and multiple opportunities for residents to participate in a new Vision for the District has led to a new and invigorated commitment to community outreach. I believe the Board’s recent addition of the CCE, the Committee for Community Engagement, chaired by 7 Oak Park residents with expertise in marketing, social media, technology, public relations, television, and journalism will dramatically improve 2-way communication between the community and the district, including efforts dedicated to engaging residents without children in D97, the business, and faith communities. I look forward to being a part of a Board team that is both committed to community engagement and one that puts mechanisms in place to make true 2-way engagement a reality.

Oak Park has a persistent achievement gap between white and black students, despite ongoing conversations and a stated commitment to diversity. How will you support the district in addressing the achievement gap? What initiatives would you advocate?     

First of all, I support the district’s use of the term “opportunity gap” rather than achievement gap. I applaud Dr. Kelley and the Board for addressing this issue and openly talking about it.  I support the Vision plan that has been established for the District: "Oak Park Elementary School District 97 will create a positive learning environment for all student that is equitable, inclusive and focused on the whole child". The Vision plan enhances the curriculum and I believe that when the right elements are in place, the district will demonstrate significant progress towards its goal of all students achieving at high levels. I would support the district by making sure I fully understand the plans and programs that are going to be in place to help teachers, parents and students.  I support the district’s current plan to put in place and monitor programs that address the concept of whole child educational needs. I also support the district’s commitment to professional development on the issues of bias behavior and academically challenging all students. Since this Vision entails an enhanced partnership with the parents as well, I would advocate for personal development sessions for parents as new procedures are developed and encourage transparency as this process unveils. Finally, I would support new procedures to ensure teacher feedback designed to assess the quality of instruction and student performance.

Racial bias is a persistent problem in special education.  How can the district address this issue at an institutional level?  

Oak Park’s Special Education Department is highly respected and does offer a wide range of services to students with special needs. However, I would advocate for a systemic review of how students are assessed and placed in the Special Education program.  A careful and critical analysis of the Special Education program would ensure that students who need Special Education services would receive them and that students whose needs would best be served outside of Special Education would also be served.

The board monitors progress toward district goals and compliance with board policies using data as the basis for assessment. What experience do you have with setting and managing to policies? How comfortable are you with data analysis?

In my career, I have been involved in creating policy and procedures regarding how cases are processed and made ready for court as well as training polices for attorneys.  As an attorney, I have had to analyze facts and data for over 27 years. I know that the district, the Board’s Policy Committee, and the Board as a whole, use the IASB’s PRESS policy services and that the Board continuously reviews its policy manual. I also know that of Board’s use of data to align Board goals and actions to Board policies and I am comfortable with leveraging my past policy experience to move the district and the Board forward.

D97 has two referenda on the ballot this year. Do you support these referenda? Why or why not?

I will vote for the two referenda. District 97 like all Illinois public schools systems relies heavily on property tax revenue because the state of Illinois currently ranks 50th in the nation in funding public education with tax revenue. I grew up in Oak Park and my parents knew the value of a good education and were willing to pay the taxes in Oak Park so we could get the education we needed to be successful in corporate America. My husband and I started our son our in the Chicago schools system but we knew very quickly that our children would get a better education without dealing with school lottery, if we moved back to Oak Park. Many people come to this community for the schools, as is evident in the recent surge to the 6,000 mark the district has achieved for enrollment.   Lastly, with the crippling effects the state budget has had on the revenue currently owed to schools and with no indication of any likely increase in state education funding, the district, as is appropriate in a time of tax caps, has turned to the community. My husband and I have made sacrifices and are willing to make more for our children's education.  In the volatile and uncertain world of education finance in Illinois, the district determined the appropriate way to maintain the current educational school system and to make needed improvements in K-5 schools that average 85 years of age was to seek an operating and bond referenda. As a citizen and as a potential District 97 Board member, I support those decisions and I will vote for both referenda.

Even if the referenda pass, D97 will need to contain costs. Where do you think the district should make cuts? Which programs should be protected? Address specifically your recommendation on the middle school CAST and BRAVO programs, library aids, etc.

Any cuts would be difficult in this community so dedicated to education, however, it is the Board’s duty to work with the superintendent to ensure that reductions have the least impact on the education of the children. As to specific programmatic reductions, the IASB Principles of Effective Board Governance make clear that the Board hires a superintendent, and especially in times of financial struggles and unavoidable reductions, the Board expects that superintendent to bring to the Board an analysis of the programs most impactful or least impactful on both social emotional and academic student growth. Then, based on the superintendent’s recommendations and rationales, the Board, in its proper role, assesses and evaluates the recommendations and directs the action to be taken by the superintendent. I am not dodging this question, but I am aware of the roles played by the superintendent and the Board. When those roles are faithfully performed by both the Board and the superintendent, the outcomes for all stakeholders, especially children, are best served.

Staff salary and benefits account for roughly 80% of D97 costs, and the current teacher contract ends 2018. What experience and ideas would you bring to the upcoming contract negotiation?

As an experienced, career attorney, I have experience with negotiating and contracting large grants to ensure the requisite funding for our governmental unit. Throughout my career I have been involved with contract law so I would bring that knowledge to the district. My professional experience has led me to understand that negotiations lead to a satisfactory outcome / contract when all parties feel valued, believe they have been heard, their interests understood, and have an accurate understanding of the revenue and expenditure sides of bargaining.

Seventy percent of D97 funding comes from local property taxes.  How can taxpayers get the most for their money?  What experience would you bring to your role of financial oversight for the district?  

I believe that responsible stewardship of our community’s tax dollars is an essential Board member role as the school board is a trustee for the entire community. That responsible stewardship is best demonstrated by genuine transparency, authentic 2-way community engagement, and thoughtful policy-based educational decisions. As someone whose professional career has required and inspired me to be a trustee for the both the financial and physical well-being of children and families, financial oversight is inherent in my approach to both career and volunteer service.

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