Municipal elections are happening April 2nd, and there are a variety of local positions up for grabs. We came up with some questions for candidates in several of these races, and will be publishing their answers over the course of the next couple of weeks as they respond. Smile Politely doesn’t generally endorse local candidates, and these interviews are not endorsements. Hopefully, they will provide you readers with some insight into the importance of local races, and help you develop a sense of which candidates share your values. We’ve reached out to those running for Champaign and Urbana school boards and park districts, Champaign City Council, Mayor of Champaign, and Parkland Board of Trustees.

There are two contested races for the Urbana District 116 school board, which is divided into sub districts. If you live in sub districts 4 or 6, you will have this race on your ballot. Not sure which district you’re in? You can look up that info here. These are 4 year terms.

Felipe Menanteau is challenging for the sub district 6 seat, on a shared platform with sub district 4 candidate Karie Brown-Tess.

Smile Politely: Why are you seeking a position on the District 116 school board? What do you hope to accomplish?

Felipe Menanteau: I have been a PTA board member, local organizer, high school mentor, advocate for the Dual Language programs and one of the leaders for ”Cena y Ciencias” that has brought science in Spanish to the students in our district. For the past year, I have witnessed the dysfunction within our Urbana School Board. Our community has faced several rash and reactionary decisions made by this board, which have far-reaching consequences.

Despite my deep involvement in the district, I felt that I had an obligation to take action, as our students, teachers, and community are currently served by a malfunctioning board which lacks transparency, accountability, and democracy. Our board consistently shows they only react after the fact when issues boil over.  We see that instead of critical thinking and problem-solving, the board chooses to be reactionary and vindictive --- they seem to be stuck in past feuds. While using the words “Equity” and “Social Justice” the current board has not demonstrated a tangible commitment to these values.

My running mate, Karie Brown-Tess and I have outlined three main purposes intended to guide every decision we make as School Board members. These are Equity, Transparency, and Accountability.

SP: In terms of addressing racial disparity in academic achievement, what thoughts/proposals do you have to continue to work towards more equal outcomes?

Menanteau: Here I will first and most importantly discuss equity. By equity, we mean that we will resist policies of our current federal administration which perpetuate the school to prison pipeline, weaken protections for students with disabilities, work to dismantle Title IX protections, and institute classist systems that restrict access to quality learning for poor and disenfranchised kids.

We have a poverty problem in Urbana. Across all ages our residents are poorer than Champaign, Normal, Bloomington, Lafayette and the national average. We need to acknowledge and work to address this reality, rather than ignoring what we don’t see our own households. At the same time the demographics of the students we serve in Urbana are changing--we now have a school enrollment which is a minority majority (36% black, 35% white), while the wealthiest neighborhoods are still predominantly white.

Along these lines, we all want the best for our own kids, right? Our society has the agreed-upon idea that being a “good parent” means exactly that—providing the best opportunities you can for your own child. But here is the catch, providing the best for our kids can come at the expense of other people’s kids. We see how this plays out in recent scandals of bribery for higher education from parents. It is an exhausting struggle to always need the best and again more importantly, if we are having the best, that means by default someone else is receiving less than.

I have the radical idea that as families we be can be more concerned about the collective than just our own kids. I think that most of us choose to be good parents, when, sometimes, we should choose to be good citizens as well. I believe that many of us in Urbana share this view-- after all the USD BOE’s Beliefs Statement says,  “everyone benefits when people willingly contribute to the well being of others and the greater good.”

SP: For our readers that live in Urbana, yet do not have students in the District 116, beyond tax dollars, why are these school board elections something that they should care about? Why should they do the work of researching the candidates and choosing wisely in this election?

Menanteau: Local elections can have an immediate impact in communities of the size of Urbana, sometimes far more important than the big elections at the federal level. When these elections are contested, as ours is this time for the first time in eight years, they can be decided by only a handful of votes. For too long these board seats have been uncontested or inherited without the proper debate needed in a democracy. The last time we got a new board member elected in Urbana was eight years ago! In fact, it has been 20 years since we’ve had an election when more than one seat was challenged. We need term limits on school board members!

Moreover, Urbana Schools don’t operate in a vacuum and even people in Champaign should care too. The decisions made by the Urbana School Board affect everyone throughout our community.  Aside from voters getting a bigger say in how their tax money is spent, it is most important for all citizens to be engaged with our board as our schools shape our citizenry and community. When we raise and educate our Urbana children with compassion, understanding, equity, and achievement as goals, imagine what our greater community could be! It is important to note that it is the responsibility of our school board to set these policies and goals, and currently we are not seeing the leadership we need.

SP: Are you committed to pursuing restorative justice as a way to deal with current disciplinary issues in the Urbana schools? Why or why not?

Menanteau: My running mate, Karie Brown-Tess and I are committed to advancing research-based restorative discipline practices to achieve racial equity in discipline. I would like to acknowledge that reducing exclusionary discipline has been amongst the guidelines from the US Department of Education for several years and it has been adopted as a goal of USD116 to be in compliance with SB 100 (Illinois Public Act 99-456) which went into effect in 2016. This policy is not a matter of debate. The current board has publicly stated their commitment to this on numerous occasions, including in the News-Gazette. I would also like to say that restorative practices are about repairing harm versus the simple enforcing of rules. Restorative practices are about community building and conflict resolution, while suspension and expulsions are still part of it, while discipline is still enforced. Unfortunately, the implementation that was attempted under the leadership of this board was reluctant and timid at best. Without the crucial buy-in from teachers, forcing them to shoulder the burden of these rushed changes. Again, we see the disastrous consequences when policies are set and pushed by administrators instead of the elected officials-- the board members. We need leaders on our board, not reluctant followers.

SP: How will you address concerns about lack of communication and transparency with parents and community members?

Menanteau: Transparency is another one of the three foundations of our platform. The school board has acted as a private board on many levels, board members have been silent in crucial decisions. Over the last two months I have had the opportunity to meet and chat with many of our community members. From putting together bits and pieces I have been able to fill in the void of information and clear up the cloud of gossip in which our community is enshrouded due to the lack of transparency and leadership of the board. Right now, our community is being informed only from local journalists and their Freedom of Information Act requests. If I am elected, I pledge to stand-up and to speak up for them. I want to encourage our board members to openly and appropriately express their agreement or dissent in the decision-making, beyond a vote yes or no.  

Finally, we need to better work together as a community. We need to hear the voices from all sections, not just the loudest and privileged ones. Some members of our community have been pushed too far out of the conversation that we cannot hear their voices. We need to go to where the silences are.

SP: How will you stay connected to staff and students who do the day to day work and live with the policy decisions you enact?

Menanteau: Our board is not meaningfully incorporating enough voices when setting policy. I will start by finally considering the voices of our students. For too long our board has toyed with the idea of having a student representative on the board. They are still discussing this, while some members are actively dismissing it. Their lack of action makes it clear that this is not a priority for them. I will make sure that we finally have a student representative on the board!

Our board should also be comprised of standing committees on issues like policy, curriculum, and finance. These committees should be made up of community advocates, policy experts, research experts, and most importantly, our students, teachers, and parents. These committees should have board oversight with one or two board members. These committees should regularly report to our board.

With these structural improvements that Karie and I would bring to the board, our board would inherently be more connected to the students, staff, and community. Additionally, when I am elected, I will be available. I will hold “coffee hours” every month, where I will meet with anyone who wants to drop by.

SP: How can Urbana prevent another total collapse of its administration in the future?

Menanteau: This really hits at the third and final piece of our platform — accountability. School Boards are supposed to be in charge of setting policy which our administration carries out. In Urbana, our board has not been in charge of setting the policy. It has failed to provide leadership and vision to guide us in the addressing the problems facing our community. They have been coasting. As a result, administrators, who are not elected officials, have been setting the policy. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the policy — this is not the process in a democracy.

Our board needs to model what greater presence in our schools looks like — meeting with and listening to our wonderful USD staff, mentoring our students and attending their events, being present at PTA meetings. As a parent serving as PTA president, I can assure you this would have been meaningful if our current board had ever come for a visit. I firmly believe that in the modeling of this presence, we serve as examples for the greater community of how important it is to be visible and to be listening.