Gary R. Saake: 2021 candidate for West Chicago High School District 94 School Board
Six candidates are running for four seats on the West Chicago High School District 94 School Board in the April 6, 2021, election.
Occupation: Vice President and co-owner of a financial technologies firm
Civic Involvement: Current -- District 94 Board of Education member; Chairman of the Board, DuPage Credit Union; Previous -- Treasurer, District 94; part-time firefighter/EMT, Lisle-Woodridge Fire District; Board of Directors, Illinois VICA/SkillsUSA; Naperville Emergency Communications Team; For the People of Illinois; Precinct Committeeman, Winfield Township
Q: Why are you running for this office, whether for reelection or election the first time? Is there a particular issue that motivates you, and if so, what is it?
A: I have been honored to serve on the board, sharing my talents, knowledge, and life experiences in a way that serves the community and helps our youth to reach their full potential.
During my tenure, the District has made great strides in many areas, some of which include the expansion of curriculum and programs, fiscal stability, facility improvements, enhanced internal and external communications, and transparency. I have been proud to provide leadership for many of those successes.
Despite the progress made, challenges remain. This is particularly true given the impact of the pandemic. Experienced leadership will be required to navigate those challenges.
My specific priorities for this term, include:
• Aggressively, but safely, return to full-time in-person learning.
• Develop and implement programs, services, and strategies to help students offset the academic and social-emotional impacts of the pandemic.
• Maintain sustainable finances, despite the fiscal condition of the State.
• Complete a formal strategic plan, engaging all stakeholders to assure that the goals of the District are aligned with community expectations.
• Work toward a collective bargaining environment that is more collaborative by engaging in Interest Based Bargaining.
• Expand access and exposure to vocational curriculum.
• Develop meaningful metrics to measure the District against.
Q: How would you grade the current school board on its response to the pandemic? Why?
A: I will preface the answer with the caveat that we are still in the middle of the pandemic, which is continually evolving, and will take time and distance to accurately assess.
When the Governor initially closed schools for in-person learning in March 2020, it was initially anticipated to be a two-week closure. It was then extended through the end of the school year. And, as time went on, the impediments to reopening became greater and greater as more "guidance" was issued. At the same time, the negative academic and social emotional impacts of remote learning have continued to grow larger and larger.
My primary criticism at this point is that I feel we, as a board, should have provided more direction to our administration regarding our expectations earlier. That may or may not have impacted decisions made but, in retrospect, I think we should have had those discussions earlier than we did. A secondary criticism is that we should have communicated with the public more often.
I believe our faculty and staff put forth stellar efforts in doing amazing things under no-win conditions. Much of what was done was like flying a plane while still building it.
Q: How do you view your role in confronting the pandemic: provide leadership even if unpopular, give a voice to constituents -- even ones with whom you disagree, or defer to state authorities?
A: A balance of all of the above.
Our options were, and continue to be, severely constrained by Executive Orders and guidance set forth by federal, state, and local agencies. The guidance provided from these sources has often been contradictory, and constantly changing, leaving them open to interpretation, and very fluid.
We have a fiduciary responsibility to comply with these regulations to minimize exposure of the District to legal jeopardy, even when they clash with emerging scientific evidence, reason, common sense, or our own personal views of them. The District also has both a legal and moral obligation to provide a safe environment for faculty, staff, and students.
The pandemic became very polarizing, and there are strong, and reasoned, opinions on both sides. While I have personally advocated for a more aggressive approach toward returning to greater in-person attendance, I fully respect that families are having to make highly personal and difficult decisions as to what is right for them. I have worked to assure that there are choices available that meet their individual needs and wishes.
Q: Did your district continue to adequately serve students during the disruptions caused by the pandemic? If so, please cite an example of how it successfully adjusted to continue providing services. If not, please cite a specific example of what could have been done better.
A: Given the legal constraints placed on us, I believe we have done the best that we could.
Through the extraordinary efforts of our faculty and staff, I feel we did many things very well.
Being a 1:1 technology district, and the originator of e-Learning in Illinois, District 94 had the advantage of having the infrastructure in place for remote learning, being far better prepared at the outset than the vast majority of districts.
Examples of some of the successes include continuing to provide lunches to students while there was no, or limited, in-person learning. We went the extra mile to distribute free meals to all students, regardless of their status of qualifying for free and reduced meals. Virtually all the costs were grant-funded. Another example is how we reached out to students and families where there was a lack of academic engagement.
As this is an ongoing situation, I believe there will ample opportunity to assess what, with the benefit of hindsight, should have been done differently, and I truly hope it sparks conversation at all levels of government about how policymakers should respond to pandemics in the future.
Q: Do you have a plan on how to safely and effectively conduct classes in the spring? What have you learned from the fall semester that you would change in the spring?
A: I believe the most important thing we have learned from the fall semester is that long-term remote learning does not adequately meet the needs of students, despite exceptional efforts for it to do so. We must aggressively move to restore in-person learning to the greatest extent possible.
We currently offer both a hybrid and a fully-remote option, and have provided direction to the administration to seek ways to expand the in-person option, while complying with all safety mandates. At the same time, we need to continue to make improvements to our remote learning program for those that have chosen it.
Our staff will have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated by March 5, which I expect will go a long way to alleviate any apprehension on their part. Limited COVID testing is available also.
As we continue to transition back into in-person learning, I believe we must focus on addressing both the increased social-emotional and academic needs that have resulted from the pandemic. This will not be like a light switch where when the pandemic is over, everything will be normal. We should fully expect, and plan for, long-term impacts on the students and the District.
Q: What is your position on allowing high school sports to continue during the pandemic? Be specific.
A: Athletics is an important part of the high school experience. I believe that sports that can be conducted safely should continue to be to the greatest extent possible.