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. Smile Politely doesn’t generally endorse local candidates, we’d just like to do our part to provide voters with some insight into the importance of these local races and have some 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 this time around. There are nine candidates, three of which are current school board members, and you will be selecting them for a four year term.

Michael Foellmer, who works for the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois, is challenging for a seat on the board. 

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?

Michael Foellmer: As the son of two teachers, I’ve always had an interest in running for the school board. I think at this stage, after the near-strike by the Champaign Federation of Teachers, I felt compelled to run in order to mend the relationships between the teachers and the board/administration. It is a critical responsibility of the board to ensure all of our teachers and our students and their families are afforded the respect they deserve from the governing body of the district. Most importantly, I will work to cultivate trusting relationships between the community, teachers, administration, and the board in order to ensure every voice is heard. I will also expect our district to provide accurate and detailed accounting information in order for our community to understand our district’s expenditures and hold the board accountable for its fiscal decisions.

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

Foellmer: I will work with teachers and administrators to ensure our professional development opportunities provide tools for successful, innovative instruction in the classroom that is mindful of the unique backgrounds of the student in our community. I plan to work with community groups to assist in trauma-informed care and instruction for our students. Lastly, I plan to study our schools of choice model to determine how we can make adjustments to ensure equitable opportunities for all families in our district.

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?

Foellmer: I expect that our board will take the opportunity to study our policies and ensure that they do not contain biases that cause unequal treatment of students of different races. Second, I propose intensive professional development trainings around implicit bias and micro-aggressions for our faculty and staff to provide spaces to learn and grow around issues that may be unfamiliar for folks who have not had the opportunity to engage in this way on difficult issues such as race. Additionally, as a student of the Masters in Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership department at U of I, I know the importance of examining responses to disruptive behavior through the developmental lens. By ensuring that we provide every opportunity for students to succeed and working with district administrators and teachers to provide the tools for that success, we can avoid disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates for our Black and African American students.

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?

Foellmer: Every race for every position at the municipal level should be important to the members of a community. These positions have the greatest effect on the overall success of the community and have the greatest impact on the daily lives of its citizens. I encourage Champaign residents who do not have children to think of the future of the community when voting in this election. The students that are learning in our district will one day be working in our community and owning the businesses we frequent. They will be fixing our infrastructure and supporting our economy. It is critical that we provide opportunities for our students to be their best selves so we can reap the social benefits of their brilliance. An inequitable school system will perpetuate a cycle of inequitable opportunity.

SP: As an 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?

Foellmer: During the next negotiations cycle, I expect the board to have built a relationship with the teachers that is respectful and trusting. When there is an existing relationship of communication, there will likely be fewer surprises at the negotiating table and the board will understand the needs of the teachers. The previous board did successfully avoid the strike by coming to an agreement, but not before putting undue stress on the community by inducing a strike vote. I believe the board recognizes its lack of relationship building and I know that I will be a reliable voice for our teachers and staff members in our local unions.

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?

Foellmer: I will openly engage in afternoon and evening public coffee sessions throughout the Unit 4 school district as well as take time to visit schools during the day to meet with teachers. I do not expect to host formalized sessions with prepared agendas, but rather provide open and informal discussion spaces in order to hear the concerns and ideas from both community members and staff. I would like to provide the opportunity to hold after-school meet-and-greet opportunities for the board and students to meet to get a better sense of our students concerns. I believe that these informal settings are the places to invent new, unique ideas in order to address the most difficult challenges we face because these are the people who face them on a day-to-day basis.