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.

Champaign residents will be electing four school board members for a four year term. There are nine candidates listed on the ballot, three of which are current school board members. Lee McDonald has retired from a career in the business world, and is seeking one of those seats. 

Smile Politely: Why did you decide to run for school board? What do you hope to accomplish and why are you a better choice than the other candidates/incumbents? 

Lee McDonald: I have worked in the business world for over 36 years starting with my family’s small firm in St. Louis followed by thirteen years with W.W. Grainger and sixteen years with FedEx Services. While my positions were with the sales divisions for all, I have had training/classes in negotiation, finance, technology, total cost analysis, internal culture, etc. My wife worked for almost 20 years as a teacher’s aide in a Unit 4 middle school striving to get students to their needed grade level. I am now retired and have the time to give back to the community by working on issues within Unit 4.

Growing up in a large city I saw too many examples of children who had little or no chance to get to the middle class or above. One of my “passions” has always been how do we break the cycle of poverty?  It is a big question that involves society, culture, and a lot more than school.  However, school can be part of the solution.  The best way out of poverty is via education and what education leads to. 54.1% of Unit 4 students are considered low income.

Every study agrees that if a student is not at needed levels for English Language Arts (ELA) and math by the third grade that they generally stay behind throughout school and are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Third grade is the tipping point! Over the last four years the Unit 4 report card for low income third grade students has been declining and is underperforming compared to the state of Illinois benchmark. Currently only 12% of low income third graders are at a third-grade level for ELA versus the state benchmark of 24%.  For math the scores are 14% for Unit 4 and 23% for the state of Illinois. This is not meant to be a criticism of Unit 4, but merely an opportunity for improvement that lies within the K-3 grades and pre-school. Too many kids are not ready for Kindergarten at age five and struggle in a structured classroom. Take a look at what Montgomery County did near Dayton, OH. I would like to see a pilot program with a limited group of future students who are considered low income. Start with two years of pre-school prior to Kindergarten. Then track the student performance on several levels including ELA and math; discipline issues; parent/guardian involvement; social interaction with other students, etc. Assess their progress yearly at every grade level until they take the PARCC testing in the 3rd grade. If there is a positive causal/effectual outcome then consider how to expand the program and to what degree.

Also, I would like to see more options and training for students who won’t get to college, specifically in the trades like electrical, plumbing, general construction, truck driving, etc. There is currently a nationwide shortage in these areas. Expand our offering with more partnerships with Parkland and local businesses to explore apprenticeships for students.

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

McDonald: Like the suspension rates discussed in the next question, I believe the disparity in academic achievement needs to be reviewed at a higher level than just school. Academics needs to be embraced both in the home, neighborhood, with friends and relatives, etc. if a child is going to succeed. Poverty and the cycle of poverty is a much larger influence on the academic achievement of our children. If we are going to instill a love of learning we have to start very early, hopefully with the help of influences both inside and outside of school. Let’s start with a pilot program with two years of pre-school for low income students with yearly measurements through the third grade. See my answer in the first question above.

SP: How do you plan to address suspension and expulsion rates for African American students that are out of proportion with the percentage of African American students in the schools? 

McDonald: Many in the community point to a racial bias as a cause for the current numbers in these areas. We have to be careful to assume a conclusion based on perception and then use a single set of numbers to prove a cause and effect relationship. The more scientific way to proceed is to look at the numbers without forming a predetermined outcome. Review multiple number sets first, then see if you can draw a conclusion as to the cause. Remember that low-income students make up 54.1% of our students. Black students were 67 of 100 in-school suspensions; 242 of 323 out-of-school suspensions; and 381 of 511 incidents of violence. However, low income students were 82 of 100 in-school suspensions; 289 of 323 out-of-school suspensions; and 468 of 511 incidents of violence. Does that point to a bigger issue involving culture and environment outside of school? I would welcome an open and respectful discussion among parents, administrators, teachers, and the board to drill down to the cause of discipline concerns with suggestions on how to create improvement.  While it is difficult to see inside one’s heart, the teacher’s I have talked to seem to be especially focused to help the students with discipline problems and those who are behind academically.   

SP: For our readers that live in Champaign yet do not have students in the Unit 4 School District, 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?  

McDonald: I see Unit 4 as a business providing a service to their customers who are the tax payers, citizens of the community, and parents/guardians of our students. The school board is the board of directors of the company. Administrators are management with the labor force being our teachers and support staff. Our students are the product we produce hopefully graduating as a 12th grader and going into a professional career or to college. If our end product is a well-rounded member of society with either a job or progressing to start a college career, then society as a whole will benefit. Vote for candidates that embrace programs and processes that assist our students to reach their goals.

SP: As a board member, how would you approach the next round of contract negotiations? What do you think the previous board did well, and what would you like to improve upon? 

McDonald: I have always found it interesting how some contract negotiations between management and unions will be settled weeks or months prior to expiring versus the opposite negotiation that is decided at the 11th hour just before a strike. I worked for a large firm where the first case was the situation. Union contracts were decided months before the expiration date. It was interesting there was a strong internal culture where every employee felt that their contributions were valued by management. And that any issue was worthy of review at anytime from any employee. In the future it would be beneficial if Unit 4 negotiations could be completed without mediation and in an open forum where all issues and proposals are for all to see. Any misinformation could be kept at a minimum and any hearsay would be eliminated. Also, I believe that current board members would like to keep all third-party negotiators out of the process during future negotiations. 

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?

McDonald: I would live by the Eight Characteristics of Effective School Boards in the Center for Public Education website. For me two of them jump off the page. “Effective school boards have a collaborative relationship with staff and the community and establish a strong communications structure to inform and engage both internal and external stakeholders in setting and achieving district goals.” And, “Embrace and monitor data, even when the information is negative, and use it to drive continuous improvement.”