Valarie Brown-Dykstra: 2021 candidate for District 129 School Board
Four candidates are running for three seats on the West Aurora District 129 School Board in the April 6, 2021, election.
City: North Aurora
Civic Involvement: West Aurora School District 129 school board member, St. Mark's Lutheran Church, FDL, vacation Bible school, Sunday school teacher, PTSO treasurer, PTO secretary, PTA vice president, chair of teen night committee, chair of districtwide senior citizen band breakfast committee, chair of eighth-grade formal committee, chair of dance committee, book fair volunteer, angel tree volunteer, Girl Scout Leader, Salvation Army bell ringer, YWCA board of directors, president of Altrusa
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 am running for reelection to the school board because I would like to see the plans that we have implemented in the district come to fruition. With the pandemic still interrupting "normal" operations, many programs have been suspended until a future date. I also can offer a unique viewpoint to the board as an alumna and parent of alumnae of West Aurora schools and how best to honor its time-honored traditions while exploring advancements and enhancements. As a former teacher, I can empathize with our current educators as they face unimaginable challenges in instructing our students. As an attorney, I can use my experience and expertise to help guide the board and district to make sound, reasoned decisions. Finally, while providing our students with the best possible education that we can, I can also provide a perspective and voice for our stakeholders who pay taxes within the district but who have no students. We owe all of our stakeholders a duty of responsibility for the assets with which we have been entrusted.
Q: How would you grade the current school board on its response to the pandemic? Why?
A: I cannot offer a grade without knowing the rubric upon which the grade would be based. Both the school board and the administration have been taxed with making decisions, often with incomplete or inaccurate data, within time frames that offer inadequate periods for reflection during this pandemic. Illinois school boards and administrations were given a few hours on March 13, 2020, to determine some method of learning and instruction for all of their students for the next two weeks when Governor Pritzker issued his emergency executive order closing schools and businesses amid the pandemic. As the closure continued, the administration and board had to develop plans and methods for delivering a learning process to 13,000 students, many without access to internet service, laptops or similar learning devices, or basic educational materials in home. While it is easy to review the board's and administration's actions through the lens of today's knowledge and find fault with decisions made, I suggest that a proper measure of the success of their actions is viewing the action taken at the time it was taken with the knowledge that was then available within the restrictions that were then imposed. Using this determination, I submit that the board and administration acted with the highest regard for the education of its students.
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: I believe that the role of a school board member involves all three of these roles. A school board derives its authority from state statutes, and as such, is subject to the lawful directives of its governing bodies and those of the state, such as Governor Pritzker, the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Department of Public Health. If a school board should determine to act outside the scope of its authorized duties, it could potentially open itself, the district and the individual board members to legal liability for the ultra vires acts.
The board has an obligation to work closely with the superintendent to provide leadership in the direction of the district's policies and procedures even when those decisions are unpopular. Not every member of the board may agree with the path that the superintendent has chosen, and individual members have the right and the responsibility to make their rationale and opinion known to the superintendent and the rest of the board, but ultimately, the majority of the board will direct the actions of the administration. The school board should act in the best interests of the students as a whole, and not be swayed or influenced by what is easy or popular or of benefit to only a small, vocal portion of its student population.
Finally, the board has an obligation to listen to its constituents, even those with whom they disagree, with an open mind and to share those concerns with the rest of the board and the administration if the constituent has not already done so. This can be the most difficult interaction as a board member, as it is human nature to wish to assist those with a concern, but the board still must act in the best interests of the student population as a whole, even to the detriment of a stakeholder's desire, if that desire is contrary to greater good.
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: Yes, our district continued to adequately serve students during this unprecedented global pandemic. Could we have done better? Perhaps, as there is almost always room for improvement. I strongly believe that we should strive for excellence, not perfection. Perfection is impossible and leads to dissatisfaction, while everyone can strive to achieve their own excellence. I credit our administration with working exceptionally hard during this pandemic to find creative solutions to problems and taking proactive measures to stay in the forefront of developing situations.
An example of this approach is keeping our students fed during the spring, summer, and fall. Many of our students live below the poverty line and rely on the breakfast and lunch meals that are provided in school. Knowing this, our administration made sure that meals would be available for our students to pick up, even over holidays and weekends, so that amidst pandemic fears, food insecurity would not be an additional burden for our children and their families. We were already paying for our food service contract, so the administration arranged for them to prepare to-go meals for our students. A hungry student doesn't learn well, so once we were able to provide nourishment, our administration then arranged for our staff to offer lessons for their students remotely. It was a huge undertaking to convert from in person learning to remote learning with no advance notice or planning within a few weeks time. Our teachers worked diligently to keep our students interested in learning despite the unfamiliar routine. Was it perfect? No, but we were able to pivot and to give students as normal a routine as we possibly could during a time when the entire world shut down.
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: Our administration has worked tirelessly to offer in person learning to those students who desire it. Approximately 80% of district parents requested in person learning and we are able to offer it while following the guidelines established by the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education. We are also offering remote learning to those students whose parents requested that option. The major take-away from the fall semester is that remote learning is not the best method of instruction for all children, and that the option to have in person learning in the child's home school with the child's teacher is a beneficial change for the spring semester.
Q: What is your position on allowing high school sports to continue during the pandemic? Be specific.
A: I am pleased that our student athletes may begin their seasons now that the Illinois Department of Public Health has issued guidelines for safe competition and the IHSA has set seasons for various sports. This will offer additional normalcy for our high school students.