Katherine Bell, 2021 candidate for St. Charles Unit District 303 board
Five candidates are vying for four seats on the St. Charles Unit District 303 board in the April 6 election. Incumbents Heidi Jo Fairgrieve and Edward McNally are facing newcomers Katherine Bell, an entrepreneur; James Stombres, retired teacher; and Carolyn Marie Waibel, former 708 Mental Health Board chair. They are all St. Charles residents.
The Daily Herald asked the candidates several questions about issues facing the district.
Below are Bell's responses.
In-person early voting begins March 10 only at the Kane County Clerk's Office, 719 S. Batavia Ave., Bldg. B, in Geneva and the Aurora satellite office, 5 E. Downer Place, Suite F. In-person early voting at locations throughout the county begins March 22. Learn more at www.kanecountyclerk.org/Elections.
City: St. Charles
Civic Involvement: PTO and school volunteering, ran educational events, organized events to celebrate class of 2020
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'm a first-time candidate. Now that my children are older, I want to give back to the community as a whole to support our wonderful Saint Charles educational system, students and staff. I see a need to bring together our local community. As community members, parents, students and teachers, we all need to work together cohesively. Many community members feel the connection has been lost or broken and I want to help bring that back. The board must seek to guarantee public trust and staff trust. In my opinion, making sure our district is not just meeting academic needs but also social and emotional needs of all students as well is the most important issue outside of those covid-related.
I will focus on supporting students and teachers first while maintaining fiscal responsibility as well as a student centric anti-bullying atmosphere and maintain open and honest communication with the community. I also want to ensure strategic planning, student achievement and wellness, retain excellent student-focused staff, and an honest assessment of progress continue to be key goals. Together, we can support and expand the educational opportunities for all students. In addition, we must adequately, yet safely, acknowledge and celebrate our 2021 graduates.
Q: How would you grade the current school board on its response to the pandemic? Why?
A: I feel they reacted poorly at first due to lack of preparedness as the state recommended in years prior to COVID. The superintendent was not willing to allocate resources to allow staff to develop e-learning in anticipation of a way to better manage the balance between snow days and extending the school year. Had he allowed the staff to prepare as the state had suggested and the staff requested, D303 would have had a far easier transition to state mandated e-learning once the pandemic unfolded. That said, I feel the majority of the teachers rose to the challenge and did the very best they could with the short amount of time they had which was merely days.
Now, the long-term effects of extended e-learning are more evident and students and staff need to safely return to the classroom where the most effective learning takes place. Other than the current hybrid status, it is unclear what the plans are to return more students to a longer school day. Much of that will depend on how the state mandates that direction, however I am not aware of what plans, if any, D303 has should we return to Phase 5.
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: The most important thing I can do first as a new board member is listen to all those involved. After hearing from all sides, consideration needs to be given to how the state mandates in-person learning or moves to Phase 5. Then, I would work to safely return as many students and teachers to the classroom as possible within the state's constraints.
This is a multifaceted situation. For some, in-person school is the best option for safety, nutrition and/or learning and we simply cannot ignore those students. However, there are also those very vulnerable to the virus. I feel we must offer options to meet the needs of all students and staff. We can't offer a one-size fits all solution during this pandemic, nor can we offer a solution that defies the state's mandates. One thing that sets me apart from other candidates is a mantra I take from my late father. He always encouraged me to engage in conversation with many viewpoints especially those that differ from mine because one of two things will happen, my views validated or I just might learn something. Elected officials should always be willing to learn from those with opposing views.
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: I don't feel D303 adequately met the needs of all students and staff caused by the pandemic. The superintendent denied requests by staff to be given time and resources to prepare for impending change from the state adjusting snow days to e-learning instead of extending the school year prior to the pandemic. Had that request not been denied, teachers would have had the ability and time to prepare instead of in just a few days throwing together e-learning among constantly changing scenarios.
In addition, during 2020 summer break, teachers were told not to plan for either in-person learning or specific schedules/classes due to the lack of certainty in the state's mandates. Yet, disappointingly, instead he told the public over and over how much the teachers were preparing for in-person and e-learning. This lack of preparation led to a delay to the start of the school year, a drastic lack of teachers in the high schools and further distrust from the community.
It's vital school boards hold their superintendent fully accountable. In D303, they haven't. Once the pandemic hit, it became clear had they held him accountable before, we wouldn't have had difficulties stemming from his inability to perform his duties.
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: COVID represents significant financial and logistical challenges. Analyzing its financial impact should be addressed first to identify potential budget concerns then logistical obstacles can be assessed and managed if/when funding issues arise. If more funding is required, resources must be identified and utilized to shore up potential funding gaps. Protection protocols (PPE, sanitizing, transmission reduction and control) need to be designed and strictly followed to ensure student and staff safety. The return to school and activities must be done safely. While safety measures are being planned, enough teachers must be guaranteed to return. Until the pandemic is fully behind us, not all students and staff will be able to return to in-person learning. We need to provide enough in-person teachers for all in-person students.
Our spring semester is already underway. The only way to change things now would be for the state to fully reopen. In order for our students and staff to return to pre-pandemic classes and activities, funds need to be allocated for the above mentioned protection protocols. Students and staff cannot fully return unless all safety measures and state mandates are fully implemented and we have enough staff to ensure effective learning for all students.
Q: What is your position on allowing high school sports to continue during the pandemic? Be specific.
A: Much like a return to in-person learning, a return to high school sports will very much depend on state mandates and moving to Phase 5. I know that many students depend on sports to allow them access to a higher education. We must find a safe way to ensure our athletes are able to somehow highlight their abilities to colleges. If the only option is to in some way record their participation to highlight their talents, then we must make that available to them for use in college recruiting. Participating in sports is a wonderful outlet for students as well as a potential path to college. D303 must provide as many opportunities as possible within safety and state guidelines for students to return to sports and activities. Many of our neighboring states have been successful in safely returning students to sports and activities and we should utilize the successes of our neighbors to facilitate a safe return to sports and activities for all of our students.