Melissa Owens: 2021 candidate for Elgin Area School District U-46
Four candidates are running for three, 4-year terms on the Elgin Area School District U-46 board.
Occupation: Coordinator of volunteer program at Community Crisis Center in Elgin
Civic involvement: District U-46 Educational Foundation board; planning committee for the Basket Brigade of Suburban Chicago; habitat restoration project volunteer in Kane and Cook counties; past chair of U-46 Community Advisory Council and the Specialized Services subcommittee, the Alignment Collaborative for Education Operating Board; various fundraising, steering, and planning committees, including the Elgin CROP Hunger Walk and the Spring Benefit Auction for the Community Crisis Center.
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. Four years ago, I sought election to the Board of Education because of my belief that public schools are the foundation of our community. I wanted to play a role in making sure School District U-46 serves our students and families well. I still believe in the importance of a robust public school system. I am proud of our accomplishments over the past four years, including increasing the number of social workers, counselors, and mental health supports in our buildings; bringing one-to-one technology to all students -- a process that was in place even before the pandemic; strengthening our career-readiness programs; and protecting local taxpayers by abating tax dollars toward our long-term debt. Looking forward to the next four years, the school board has numerous challenges to address. Many facilities are aging, and imbalances in capacity utilization exist across the district. We have service gaps resulting from the pandemic, and we are likely facing renewed funding constraints at the state level. The school board also needs to realign our strategic plan goals to set up our students for future success. I welcome these challenges and respectfully ask for the opportunity to continue serving our community's residents.
Q. How would you grade the current school board on its response to the pandemic? Why?
A. I would give our Board a "B" grade on our pandemic response. There are certain things that we could have done better. We struggled to maintain a sense of connection between our staff, our community, and ourselves -- not dissimilar to what many people have experienced during the pandemic. We lost focus on the priorities we set before the pandemic. And despite our best intentions, we were not always as responsive as we could have been and should have been to some parts of our community. That said, board members agreed very early on to a clearly defined communication and authority protocol, which allowed the administration to focus on operations and act as necessary. The protocol also allowed board members to streamline feedback from the community back to the administration. We advocated for developing a comprehensive back-to-school plan that prioritized safety and the delivery of critical services. Board members supported each other by engaging in pandemic-related learning sessions and sharing information. We also collectively recognize where we have struggled, particularly in being responsive to the community, which is something to work on in the future.
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. Seeking out information regarding all aspects of COVID-19; keeping abreast of local, regional, and statewide pandemic developments; attending webinars and other learning sessions offered by education-focused legal firms and the Illinois Association of School Boards; monitoring issues within the district concerning student instruction and service delivery; listening to community members, including parents, staff members, and students; and advocating for their concerns have been my primary focus as a school board member during the pandemic. Like other school districts, we received an unprecedented amount of feedback whenever we decided on a change to our instructional model. My practice has been to consult with our Board President regarding those concerns regularly. Also, I track concerns raised to board members and ask for clarification on those concerns publicly at board meetings, whether or not they mirror my concerns. I know that I have been far from perfect in responding to every concern raised. Still, I do try to offer clarification and additional resources on issues as much as possible. If reelected, I will continue to listen and consider differing viewpoints and work toward decisions that reflect the community's best interest as a whole.
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. At the start of the pandemic, the district rapidly pushed needed technology out to families and worked on connectivity issues. Our teachers did a remarkable job of getting up to speed on our new learning platform and re-imagining curriculum delivery in a completely different medium. Also, I am thankful that our focus has always been to deliver U-46 curriculum by U-46 teachers, whether a student is in our hybrid or remote program, rather than relying on a third-party company to provide remote instruction so that all students have access to the same instruction. It remains true, though, that curriculum and instruction written with an in-person model in mind do not always translate well to remote instruction and that forming relationships -- so integral to learning -- is very difficult remotely. Some parents have shared stories of how much their child is thriving with the change to remote learning. However, we know that other students are struggling, some of them for the first time in their educational careers. We might have alleviated some of those struggles if we had put more effort into getting some students in for one-on-one help.
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. It is important to note that, while it is the Board's job to set expectations and monitor instruction effectiveness, it is the administration's job to determine how best to conduct that instruction safely. Aside from a pivot back to remote learning when COVID numbers spiked late in the fall and a slightly delayed second-semester schedule, the district has mostly been able to adhere to the plan the administration presented to the Board last July. Like many other school districts, most of our students attend a two-day hybrid schedule, or they remain fully remote by choice. Our brief return in the fall did demonstrate where we had some gaps in protocols, allowing the administration to prioritize those protocols for the second semester. One take-away from the fall is the importance of flexibility to meet specialized needs across the system. Should the course of the pandemic cause us to retract at any point this spring, I will advocate for flexible and innovative ways to address instructional needs that are very difficult to meet remotely.
Q. What is your position on allowing high school sports to continue during the pandemic? Be specific.
A. There is no question that athletics is an essential part of high school. The cessation of sports activities has been a massive disappointment for many students. However, I agree with the Illinois State Board of Education that, for the safety of everyone involved with education, priority necessarily goes to instructional needs. It was disappointing that ISBE and the IHSA were at odds during the fall season with their guidance, particularly concerning high-risk sports safety. I am now encouraged to have a solid framework for athletic participation in place with pandemic metrics for sports in all risk categories. I fully support allowing our students the opportunity to participate in athletics in conjunction with the new guidance, as long as participation does not impact our ability to continue our instructional model safely. I will also add that other extracurricular activities are just as important as athletics, including visual and musical arts, theater, and special-interest clubs; I support the continuance of all of these programs with the same prioritization of safety in mind.