Kristen Steel: 2021 candidate for District 211 School Board
Nine candidates for three 4-year terms
Hometown: Hoffman Estates
Age: (Did not respond)
Occupation: Registered Dietitian
Employer: Self-employed consultant for Fortune 500 CPG Companies.
Civic involvement: PTA member for Dist 54 Elementary School for several years; Business Board for Homeowners Association for 2 years
Q. Why are you running for this office? Is there a particular issue that motivates you, and if so, what is it?
A. The 2020/2021 school year has been a challenging one and community members have become more aware of what is happening in the district, and the shortfalls that are in front of the community. Township High School District 211 is much more than just curriculum, it is preparing students for life after high school, this is clearly stated in their mission. Many of the district students are struggling and face new challenges- both at home and at school- and it is the role of school, the district and the BOE to create a safe and fulfilling environment which will allow them to succeed. I will prioritize getting our students back to full- time in person learning, safely and effectively. The Board's purpose is representing the community, while always keeping the students as top priority. In the aftermath of COVID and returning to school, investing in our youth now is more important than it has ever been. Township High School District 211 must have better communication with the community, a willingness to give the voice of residents' equal weight as extended to the administration, and implement this into practice. This office is accountable to the public they serve. We must support the health and well-being of our students at every opportunity and do far more to measure and drive success.
Q. How would you grade the current school board on its response to the pandemic? Why?
A. I would grade the current D211 BOE a F in its response to the pandemic. It is the role of the school board to represent the community, taxpayers and best interest of the students within the district. When the resolution that was passed in July to give sole decision making capability to the Superintendent- and relinquished the meaningful oversight the BOE should have- it was at that point clear that the communication, transparency and ability for the BOE to have impact on a return to learn plan was stifled. This resolution passed 7-0. The plans to return to in person rested solely on the Superintendent, lacked transparency, and communication about the plan was poor. The mental health, scarcity of action in taking the data and information that was learned throughout the year, falling grades, rampant cheating- all seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. When BOE members asked the hard questions, the answers were not given, the question or answers were brushed under the rug, or not taken into account to create a positive action plan. Academic performance has severely declined, there is less instruction time, far less teacher to student face time. Answers the community were seeking, publicly, were not openly given and forced via FOIA. The seriousness of how students were/are struggling was not- and is not- top priority, as evident by the plan that was in place; or lack thereof.
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. State authorities will always have a role and impact in helping guide the district policy and plans in a time like this. Unfortunately during the pandemic, Illinois local legislators allowed unilateral authority to the Governor. Our local representatives were silent and did not offer aid during the pandemic. My leadership style is to roll up my sleeves and do what is best for our children, first and foremost. Having a child in the District provides much more insight than any of the current incumbents whose term is expiring 2021. I will take my personal experiences as a parent, and echo the voices of other parents at the BOE table. Much of what state authorities lay out are guidelines and it is up to the district to formulate plans around those guidelines. I view my role as a BOE member to help interpret the information from state authorities, and to understand what is currently happening in the community, how it is impacting students, parents and taxpayers in order to help provide direction for the district so that we can continue to meet our foremost goal of serving the educational needs of the community. Again, what we have all lived through the past year is a first for all. But even during COVID-19, while our main goal of serving the educational needs of the community is still the same, many of our strategies for accomplishing this have had to change. My role is to ask questions to get to the core of a matter and provide financially responsible solutions.
Q. Did your district continue to adequately serve students during the disruptions caused by the pandemic?
A. The district continued to adequately provide meals/food to those that were in need. This is a very important service that District 211 provides and thousands of taxpayers benefited from this hard work. The educational and athletic disruptions have been great, as well as difficult for all students in some fashion. While the district has attempted to provide academic support to those in need- the communication around that has been murky. Many students did not know this support existed; many thought it was just for students "needing help"; while it was also a time for a student to sign up to be in person for a lab or project. This was a good thing the district offered, but it was not appropriately communicated to the students. As last year wore on and more was known about COVID, the district was slow to provide a plan to return to in person learning. The district did a great disservice to the students with having a very large percentage of teachers not teaching in the building. This is not to say that many teachers had a legitimate medical accommodation; but many also traveled out of state when the district made it clear that they would need to "quarantine" for 14 days. This caused further disruptions for our students, as well as the many adaptive pauses that were put in place. Because the sole decision making capability resided with the superintendent, the BOE had little input and impact on plans to move forward, including travel quarantine with no symptoms.
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. Simply put, the students and teachers should be in school unless there is a medical reason for them not to be. Prior to the pandemic, was there a "choice" or reason for students to not be in school? The answer is a resounding NO- unless it is medically necessary for a student to be out of school. It is not a secret that state and county guidelines are often inconsistent and provide little clarity; however, it is up to the district and BOE to formulate a safe plan for return to in person. I have yet to see a time bound plan using metrics and data to support it. The BOE has allowed the administration to accommodate the teachers in ways that have proved to be detrimental to the education quality, and quantity, of our children. This has proved difficult, as it is hard for the current BOE to truly have a positive impact on a plan to move back to in person learning when they do not communicate effectively together, or with the administration. The current BOE cannot have a strong, positive impact on helping to set a plan in place when the decision resides solely with the superintendent; and when it was requested for this to change, it was voted down (5/2) as even a discussion item on the following month's agenda. The BOE President did not stand up for this discussion, and candidate and current long time BOE member Anna Klimkowicz voted this motion down. This is further proof that there is little collaborative approach to how the administration and BOE should communicate and work together to solve complex, important issues.
Q. What is your position on allowing high school sports to continue during the pandemic? Be specific.
A. High school sports should have been playing all along. Other states have done this well; and community data and sport specific data support this. It is unfortunate that in Illinois student athletes have been used and political pawns and have had to pay the price. Our youth's mental health has taken a downward turn and much of this is attributed to being isolated, not being in school and not playing the sport they love, playing the instrument they love to play or performing in the theater they love to perform in. This cannot be dismissed. Also not to be dismissed is the fact that student participation IN SCHOOL, cheating, and deterioration of grades would not be as negative had they had the extracurriculars in their life as well. Also to note, the local press should be advocating for our student athletes as they begin to get back to play; and not shaming them regarding masks, distancing, etc., and focus on the positive outcomes as we move forward and out of the pandemic. Our community youth have been through a lot over the past 10 months and that should not go unnoticed. Instead of pointing out the negatives to our students and student athletes, we should be celebrating and shedding light on the positives.
Q. What other issues need to be addressed?
A. The ethics within the BOE is something that should be addressed, and it is my hopes that with new members- whether I am included or not- that this changes. There are conflicts of interest that reside between members of the BOE and the Teachers Union. Current members have been elected with the support of the local teachers union- both verbal, written and monetary. That is a conflict of interest in this non partisan community election. It is my hope that this campaign is not impacted by this, as it was in 2017.