DECATUR — A sweeping $55 million five-year Decatur School District strategic plan is moving forward, encompassing many issues that affect the education of children of all ages in the community, and the four school board candidates touched on many of them during a debate Wednesday.
The candidates are vying for three open seats in the April 2 election, and they met at Richland Community College on Wednesday to answer questions about district issues. Sponsored by the Herald & Review and the NAACP Decatur Branch, the debate covered a variety of topics, but discipline and finances came up most often.
The candidates are Leara Evans, a retired educator; Regan Lewis, a Decatur attorney; Andrew Taylor, economic development officer for Decatur and Macon County; and incumbent Dan Oakes, a retired banker.
“An educator's voice is needed on the board,” Evans said in her opening statement. “Most board don't have educators and I want to be that voice.”
Evans' experience in special education has made her particularly aware of discipline issues in the schools, she said, and that is an area that she wants to address with policy changes and more support for teachers at the classroom level.
Lewis said she was born in Decatur and attended kindergarten at Muffley School, but when her parents divorced, she moved away with her mother. She came back to attend Millikin University, where she met her husband, and when they both finished law school, they chose Decatur as their home, though people they knew advised against it.
“I want to build up my city rather than put it down,” she said.
Oakes, as the only incumbent, said he first became involved with the schools 35 years ago, when he attended a Parent-Teacher Association meeting at his daughter's school and only six parents were there. Since then, he has served on PTAs and booster clubs and has been on the school board continuously since 1998, and served a term from 1991-94.
The district's strategic plan, he said, will make significant changes in Decatur schools with updated and consolidated buildings and new programs, and he'd like to see the process through to its completion.
The schools and the economy are inextricably linked, Taylor said, and as a “numbers guy,” he knows that schools affect the labor force. Recruiters must be able to convince potential employees that Decatur is a place they want to be.
“Why me?” Taylor said. “Numbers. I know the city, I know the statistics, I know the advantages and the shortfalls.”
When finances came up, Oakes said the state is funding the district at 64 percent of what the Illinois State Board of Education has determined is necessary, and the district is in good financial shape. If the state comes through with the other 36 percent down the road, he said, imagine what the district could do with that.
“I think we're doing a great job making the most of our money,” he said. “I don't think we're wasting any.”
Though raising taxes is always unpopular, Taylor said, wise use of resources could help the district avoid the need to increase the levy or make that increase a small one.
“We need to take the money from the state and put it the places where it's best utilized,” Evans said. “Fund our own and give teachers what they need.”
It's always a good idea to regularly review the budget and remove surplus spending, Lewis said, but she would also suggest pursuing grants and partnerships with community organizations and businesses for extra funding.
The largest challenge facing the district, Lewis said, is perception. People assume the worst. The school board has to work to change that perception.
“Perception has been a problem for years,” Oakes said. The solution, he said, is transparency. One example he cited is the open house at Stephen Decatur Middle School, which will be the only middle school beginning in August, as the two middle schools combine. Teachers, parents and students offered feedback on every aspect of the move, from the programs to the configuration of the building.
“The perception is out there, and it's wrong,” Oakes said.
Evans said part of the reason for the perception that the district is undesirable is the low student achievement, which she said could be corrected if the discipline issues are addressed.
“We have a discipline problem in the district,” she said. “Teachers are not effectively able to teach because of disruptive students.”
One thing the board has discussed as part of the strategic plan is making Decatur a “destination district.” The candidates were asked if they were in favor of that idea, and why.
“Why wouldn't you want to be a place that people want to go?” Oakes said.
Taylor cited the many opportunities in the district, not just in the public schools, but Richland and Millikin, and training programs for those who don't want to go to college but prefer to enter the trades.
“I think we can have a destination district where all students can succeed,” Evans said. “That will happen when everyone has a say. When we have students achieving, everybody will want their kids to come here.”
“We should strive to be a destination district,” Lewis said. “I think we're well on our way.”