Seven candidates running for four spots on Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 board
Seven candidates are vying for four spots on Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47's board in the April election.
Among the top issues for these candidates, according to interviews with the Northwest Herald, are how to move the district forward in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure students' social and emotional needs are met.
Of the seven candidates, four have not previously sat on the school board.
Tim Mahaffy currently is the superintendent and business manager of Fox River Grove School District 3 and will be retiring at the end of this school year.
"I thought this would be a good opportunity to give back to my own community school district in which I live," Mahaffy said. "Both of my daughters were students in District 47, and although they are now adults, I still want the very best for District 47."
As superintendent, Mahaffy said, he learned every tax, grant, state or federal funding dollar that comes into the district is important.
"The proper allocation of all revenue and spending within our means is very important both to the fiscal health of the school district, overall property values and maintaining a supportive community," he said.
Cascia Talbert, of Crystal Lake, is a professional writer who runs a blog called Talbert Zoo.
Talbert has five children with special needs, four of whom are school-aged, and said she decided to run because while her children thrived pre-pandemic, they suffered academically, socially and emotionally when COVID-19 hit and all the schools shut down.
Talbert created a Facebook group with the goal of trying to get District 47, as well as Crystal Lake-based Community High School District 155, to open for in-person learning.
"Several parents told me that they felt like the school board was not listening to them, and so I thought I needed to do more," she said.
Debra Barton, of Crystal Lake, is a retired director of special education for McHenry Elementary School District 15, who also works part time as a university supervisor for National Louis University.
"I'm looking for other ways to contribute to the community, and because I have 32 years experience in education and I have my doctorate and curriculum and instruction, I thought this might be a good way for me to apply my skills and contribute to the community," Barton said.
As a school administrator, Barton said, she worked on balancing the needs of the students and her staff, as well as those of parents and the community.
"People come from different viewpoints based on where they come from," Barton said. "And so (I would use) those skills to be able to pull together a variety of viewpoints to come up with a specific decision or a course of action."
Dan Palombit, of Lake in the Hills, worked as a teacher at Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 and currently is an administrator there in student support services.
"I want to be able to provide my professional experience as an educator (and) as an educational leader to the school board and the superintendent and to help them make District 47 a great place to go to school, a great place to work, and a place that the community feels is a good steward of their public funds," Palombit said.
He said a lot of this comes with getting good information, for example, by taking a tour of school buildings or fostering two-way communication with the appropriate channels to hear concerns.
To Palombit, this means talking to the "people who are doing it in the trenches every single day" and finding ways to involve the community in school board matters and meetings.
Current board member Jonathan Powell teaches math at Prairie Ridge High School and said he wants to be on the board because he values education.
"What I've tried to do in my 18 years of teaching is just give that passion to the kids," he said. "I just love working with kids and preparing kids for the future."
As a teacher and board member, Powell said, he was able to see both sides to education issues.
"That has been absolutely huge just to know different perspectives of every situation and angle," Powell said. "That's very important, I believe, when you're trying to come up with healthy systems for our educational process."
Betsy Les, who's been on the board for eight years, was the first principal to open Woods Creek Elementary School and after she retired, was a college professor at Concordia University in River Forest, teaching at the graduate level.
"There are not too many things in my life that had been more important than school," Les said. "It benefits our kids, and it benefits the communities. Strong schools make for a stronger community."
Education as a whole, including at District 47, has gone through many changes, Les said.
"We've adopted new curriculum, we hired a new superintendent since I was on the board. We've hired new central office administrators. We have remodeled Coventry (Elementary) School, which we had to do," Les said. "Most importantly, I think we have a phenomenal focus on student learning."
Emily Smith, of Lake in the Hills, is a real estate agent.
She said being on the board gave her a way to be a voice for parents and community members, and hopes to keep advocating for people if reelected.
Smith was appointed a year and a half ago and said she has learned a lot since then.
"I have found a way to connect and hear from people that have all different angles and perspectives on the same topic and issue," she said. "And it has been very eye-opening for me to be able to take all that information and research it and come to a conclusion that I feel best suits everyone's needs."
One thing all candidates agreed on is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath will be one of the biggest challenges the next school board faces.
"Things have been very different for our kids for the past year, so I think we're going to require some special programs, some special interventions, and things like that to get all of our students back on track," Les said.
Although Talbert said she doesn't always agree with what the McHenry County Department of Health is saying, she said the district needs to listen to it.
"They're doing a great job, listening to the health department and following protocols," Talbert said. "However, I am very confused as to why they waited until the end of the school year to open up the schools because there are neighboring districts that have been open successfully for longer, and the private schools are all open."
She said the district should continue to offer a remote option for families who don't feel safe going back to school, adding parents need more choice.
School districts need to determine what normal means post-pandemic, Mahaffy said.
"There is no question that there has been learning loss due to this pandemic," Mahaffy said. "We also need to understand that it is not isolated to our community. It is worldwide. With that being said, it is imperative that we embrace the fact that we are continuing to educate our students during a pandemic."
As schools move out of this health crisis, he said, "we need to plan for and evaluate current learning levels and do everything we can to ensure every child is progressing at an appropriate rate."
Smith said there was no "perfect plan" for dealing with the pandemic, but she said she is proud of how District 47 handled the COVID-19 crisis.
"Our administration worked really, really hard and is still working very hard to think of all sorts of different things and all the different puzzle pieces that go into making the school year happen during the pandemic," Smith said. "And they didn't do it in a silo. They did it by working with the teachers and the union and parents."
"It's a puzzle because of different levels of learning," Smith said. "I do feel responsible to research issues as they arise and reach out to all parties to guide my decisions."
The pandemic has been a crazy time for schools, Barton said, with trying to keep everyone safe while providing students a quality education.
"I've gotten the opportunity to see how different buildings and different districts handled doing hybrid learning and remote teaching," Barton said. "I think the biggest thing moving forward is going to be recovering from the pandemic. Ideally, we'll have everyone back in the fall."
Students have lost a lot of instruction over the past year, so Barton said it will also be important to figure out how to fill those gaps and what financial effects the district will endure from the economy being shut down.
All the candidates said the board will need to address financial challenges moving forward, as well as balancing students' academic and social and emotional needs.
Something Powell said that has been hard to see is the increased anxiety and depression among students, as well as the overuse of screen time.
"Every parent loves their kids, all teachers care for their kids, but we need to be on the same page for what is best for the kids long term," Powell said.
Palombit said one issue important to him is decreasing student absenteeism and truancy.
"When we look at students who are not routinely regularly attending school, we need to find out the root cause," Palombit said. "Is it a transportation issue? Is it a home issue? Are there some social emotional things going on?"
One way to improve truancy, Palombit said, could be to use the alternative learning methods from the pandemic and use them to help struggling students.
Les said she wants to work on improving is communicating with the general public, especially as, after COVID-19, board members were sometimes getting between 50 and 60 emails a day.
"I hope in the future, we are going to talk about figuring out a more efficient way to communicate with parents who want to write letters to the board, We'd love their input," she said. "When I get an email from a parent, I feel it's important for me to respond to them."