Sandra Ahten is challenging incumbent John Dimit for Urbana School District Sub-District 7. Dimit has been on the school board since 1987, and has run unopposed for quite a long while. Sub-District 7 covers Southeast Urbana; you can find the boundaries of each district here. The district implemented the sub-district system in 1998 in an effort to encourage diverse representation on the board.
Ahten has been an Urbana resident since 1998: “I loved Urbana from the first time I got here. I love the progressive politics, love the community.” She’s currently the CEO of Elliott Counseling, and is looking to retire and be more involved in public service, having been involved in activism at the county level in the past, hence the run for school board.
SP: What do you think Urbana schools are doing well?
Ahten: I really like what Lucia Malanado is doing with regard to the Latinx population...The family liaisons is a really strong program. It saves lives, it keeps kids in school...we can pay lip service that it’s the family’s job to make sure their kids are in school, etc. We can say it’s the family’s job but if we don’t support the family to help them do that then we can’t educate the kids. One of the things I’m hoping to advocate for right away — this seems like a little thing, but it seems like there are a lot of little things that are overlooked — the family liaisons are great at their jobs but they do have high turnover, and I think it’s because they have a really hard job that doesn’t get enough support. One of the ways they don’t get support is just providing them with a cell phone. They have to do most of their work by texting and calling parents, and being available to text and call, but they have to use their own personal cell phones, so they can never really have a day off or shut off their phone. I hope to be the kind of board member that people come to with little ideas like that that can make a big difference.
SP: What are your thoughts on school resource officers in Urbana schools?
Ahten: I’m not fully for or against it. I feel like we have to do everything we can for safety. No one is going to learn in an unsafe environment. But that said, how safe do African American children feel around police officers? One of the solutions is to have more social workers...if you had more social workers dealing with the issues that the cops eventually get involved in. I also wonder about having security guards that aren’t hooked into the criminal justice system.
Even though Urbana says it (the SRO program) will never be used for disciplinary reasons, it actually is. Could you find another way to, without criminalizing the kid, to discipline them? I don’t think security guards would be a bad idea, and if a cop needs to be called I don’t think having specific cops respond who are trained in deescalation would be a bad thing, just not on the premises every day, all day...I think there are other solutions that still can prioritize safety and the safety of all kids, including kids that are traumatized by having police around.
SP: Speaking of discipline, that’s been another hot button issue in the Urbana schools over the past few years, in particular regarding the attempted rollout of restorative justice practices. What’s your opinion on how that was handled?
Ahten: How unfortunate that it went backwards, because what a great idea...to have restorative practices implemented well. I think it’s regretful it wasn’t rolled out in a better way. It was rolled out with the elimination of the deans, and I think even Don Owen regrets all of that. It’s such a ideal way to deal with discipline, and proven in much harder situations than what Urbana has, and I think it still is being implemented, we just need to put our weight behind it again as a board.
SP: Looking ahead to the fall, what is the best way to prepare for bringing students back to school buildings?
Ahten: I think one of my roles will be supporting the administration, and Jennifer Ivory-Tatum...People have such strong opinions about what should have been done and what should be done. Superintendents are bailing, and going elsewhere. I don’t have the answer for what to do post-pandemic, but I don’t think Urbana has done a bad job. They couldn’t do a good job. It was too hard. I really can’t default them for any decisions they made. I trust that they think about this a lot. My hope is that I can help to keep the superintendent happy, to keep people happy with her, to be a person who listens so that people feel heard...we need to have a steady hand more than anything.
SP: In addressing racial disparity, how can Urbana continue to work towards creating more equal outcomes?
Ahten: I really like something they’ve done recently, which is partnering with Cunningham Township to make sure kids aren’t falling through the cracks of homelessness...addressing poverty is probably the biggest way to help lessen the divide. Again, the family liaisons, making sure we have a good relationship with the housing district, supporting neighborhood programs. One thing they’re trying to do is getting teachers of color into the classroom...partnering with different colleges in the state. One of my strengths is innovative thinking. I grew the Elliott Counseling business a lot, and a lot of it was not through changing the whole system, but seeing where we can tweak it, where can we continue to improve.
SP: How do you plan to stay connected to teachers, staff, parents, and students; those who are affected by decisions made by the school board?
Ahten: The traditional school board meeting with the opportunity for people to speak before the meeting starts is not adequate, and it’s gotten worse because of Zoom. We could do a lot of seemingly pretty easy things: I could go to the PTA meetings, and be accessible through the PTA...it’s parents supporting teachers, and teachers being with parents, so why not mix a school board member in there. I have two schools in my district, and there are two different representatives that represent each school. I think we need to take advantage of the PTA connection. It’s a great system that we have these sub-districts. It gives you a chance to let people know who you are.
SP: Why should types of voters be paying attention to the school district race, even if they don’t have a student or are directly connected with the school district?
Ahten: The obvious answer is they are our kids. It takes a village, and we are a village. The other reason is things are literally decided by a dozen votes in these elections. A dozen votes could be the difference between having a progressive candidate, or an established and not progressive candidate. I’m not doing this over a power trip, or because it’s an easy thing to do, I’m doing it for Urbana. I’m a person who roots for the underdog. I have a heart for prisoners. I have a heart for immigrants. I understand issues pretty deeply, I study world issues and local issues, and I feel like even though I don’t have experience on a school board, I can get educated about the issues and represent the people in a good way.
You can learn more about Ahten from her campaign website, and hear from both candidates in their recent League of Women Voters candidate forum. Champaign County Voters Alliance has information about all candidates running in the April 6th election.
Interview was edited for space and clarity.