A virtual forum with candidates for the DeKalb School Board was held by the DeKalb Public Library before the April 6 consolidated elections. The most pressing issue in the district was unanimous for all five of the candidates running for the three seats: COVID-19 and its academic and mental health impact on DeKalb students.
DeKalb recently allowed students to return five days a week for the first time since the pandemic shut down schools last spring.
“The biggest thing is in making sure children are feeling safe, but also making sure they're comfortable -- and that's two different things," said Amanda Harness. She works for a scientific distribution company and wants to bring her corporate experience to the board.
Tony Martin is an activist and educator who taught at the Kishwaukee Education Consortium. He stressed how vital mental health support is and how he’d like to make it a priority for everyone in the district.
“We need to put a renewed emphasis on the mental health of our students by having more counselors in the building, said Martin. "I'm willing to admit that I suffered complex childhood trauma, and I didn't have access to a counselor, and I wish I did. I don't want that to happen to our students. I also think we should be looking at how counseling can benefit our teachers.”
Jose Jaques is a member of the National Guard and served as a school resource officer in DeKalb for 12 years. He said as students return in person, it’s time to reckon with overstuffed classrooms.
“We're dealing with upwards of 25 to 32 students in a class," said Jacques. "That is, for the most part, unmanageable.”
Each of the candidates spoke about a focus on equity and that they meet students where they are. Deyci Ramirez is an educator and parent of a middle schooler in DeKalb who talked about creating a strategic plan that aligns with the district’s diversity plan.
“'I’m excited for students to feel themselves reflected, validated and supported by the teachers in the district and the district members, but also within the curriculum,” said Ramirez.
Right now, more than half of DeKalb’s students are Black and Hispanic, yet they make up only 9% of the district’s teachers. The district’s new superintendent, Minerva Garcia-Sanchez, says that diversity plan was one of the key reasons the district stood out to her.
Ariel Owens is the assistant director at Northern Illinois University’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center. She talked about how she’s excited to work with the new superintendent.
“I would follow her lead, she is a justice-oriented leader, she's highly qualified," she said. "I also would be eager to share my own feedback. I was part of a research team where we studied access and retention for students of color and I feel like a lot could be transferable to teachers as well.”
Owens also said she wanted to make sure the schools are utilizing their connections at NIU.
“At NIU, there's a really great opportunity for mentorship. There's a lot of student organizations that love to get their service hours and through mentoring,” she said. “So, as we're seeing more students of color, and LGBTQ students within the district, connecting them with people who are older and are successful, because, ‘if you can see it, you can be it.’”
Jose Jaques says the board should use its platform to engage parents and the community more.
“We have public meetings," he said, "where we can celebrate the parents that actually take part. the volunteers that help and we can reward them for their efforts publicly, let them know that it's appreciated.”
As COVID-19 has canceled events like football games and theater productions, one community member asked about the candidates’ commitment to the arts, which they all agreed was essential.
“Funding the arts is paramount,” said Tony Martin. “I work in an alternative to expulsion school, and we don't have an arts program, and I just started one. And the kids love it. And I think that's so important.”
Amanda Harness agreed and said they should use tech they’ve utilized during the pandemic to make programs more accessible for parents and the community.
“I think one of the nice things with what has been going on with e-learning," said Harness, "is the ability to start being creative with activities in the school or if there's an elementary school play and parents are invited, maybe be able to stream that.”
The candidates were also asked about property taxes and if they’d commit to not raising them. Deyci Ramirez said she’d never want to raise taxes, but she doesn’t see it as strictly a burden.
“I'm part of that group that pays taxes as a homeowner here. So, that's never the intention,” she said. “However, whenever I do actually pay taxes, I see it as an investment to our children.”
The candidates expressed their appreciation for each other over the course of the campaign, saying they were glad to know the district would be in good hands regardless of the outcome. That should be known after the election this coming Tuesday.