Get To Know The Three New DeKalb School Board Members

Apr 21, 2021

Following the consolidated elections earlier this month, three new members will soon take seats on the DeKalb School Board.

On the campaign trail, voters often asked Ari Owens how she was going to leverage her connections with Northern Illinois University on the school board. She’s the assistant director at NIU’s Gender & Sexuality Resource Center.

Owens said she hopes she can help students in the district take advantage of the counseling and mentorship programs they offer.

“NIU offers a lot as it relates to consulting," she said. "But, also, we offer things here for college students that are also open to the community, but I think the community doesn't always realize that.”

She’s not the only new board member who works for the university. Deyci Ramirez is a counselor at the CHANCE Program, which is a retention and holistic admissions organization at NIU.

In fact, Ramirez won’t even be the only CHANCE Program counselor on the school board.

Amanda Harness is the third new member of the school board. She works at a scientific distribution company and sold herself as a candidate with corporate experience who would lend a different perspective to the board.

“I'm not there to be a teacher," said Harness. "I'm there to help facilitate and do the things needed so the teachers are set up for success, the students are set up for success.” 

The new members join the board as the district transitions back to in-person learning during the pandemic and as a new superintendent, Minerva Garcia-Sanchez, comes to DeKalb.

Garcia-Sanchez told WNIJ that the district’s diversity plan was a key reason she wanted to work in DeKalb. Deyci Ramirez said she’s really excited to collaborate with the new superintendent on turning the diversity plan into an actionable strategic plan. Ramirez is from the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago where Garcia-Sanchez is currently Chief of Schools.

“A lot of the things in the diversity plan is talking about creating a much more diverse staff,” she said. “So, in order for us to do that, we need to talk about hiring practices. How is that going to be achieved?”

Owens said cultivating an inclusive culture means diversity isn’t just a box you check off or a PowerPoint training staff are asked to complete.

“A good way to make it more than that is to be intentional about weaving that education in everywhere,” she said. “Really looking at the things we do every day, meetings teachers have or conferences. Just the idea of being more inclusive -- how we can weave that into all of our practices?”

Harness talked about how the school board sits at a unique intersection in that they’re beholden to both students and staff as well as the general taxpayer. She said they have a responsibility to be receptive to feedback from the community on everything from taxes to curriculum.

Owens said she heard a lot of input from community members who wanted to stay anonymous, which tells her that people might be afraid to talk about areas of improvement.

Deyci Ramirez agreed and emphasized data-driven studies exploring topics like school discipline and access to mental health resources.

That includes data from reports like the School Climate Survey. It showed that Black students consistently feel lower levels of support and belonging across all levels of the district.

“It's not just about having a place at the table or a seat at the table,” said Ramirez. “It's about having a voice at the table.”

Ramirez noted that just because there are areas to improve doesn’t mean there aren’t great programs and initiatives happening in DeKalb already.

She said she’s been very impressed by her middle school daughter’s teachers and counselors engaging with students still learning remotely.

Harness said she looks forward to connecting with teachers and seeing the work happening inside classrooms.

“When they said, ‘What is the greatest asset of the school?’ -- it's the teachers,” she said. “Because, without good teachers, you don't have students that are learning and succeeding.”

The new members of the board will be sworn in soon to serve four-year terms. It’s nearly impossible to say exactly what the challenges will be. But Owens said she’s thankful the campaign allowed her and the other candidates to make connections with advocates across the district. And she hopes those advocates will continue to let their voices be heard.