Jennifer Rakow: 2023 candidate for Elgin Community College District 509 board
Town: St. Charles
Age on Election Day: 55
Occupation: HR director
Employer: IHC Construction Companies, LLC
Previous offices held: ECC board trustee since 2017
Q: Why are you running for this office, whether for reelection or election the first time? Is there a particular issue that motivates you?
A: This is an important election for the ECC board of trustees, given four of the seven seats are up for election.
With six years of experience on the board, including two years as chair and four as the legislative liaison to state and federal representatives, I'm running again to ensure the college remains in dependable, trustworthy hands and continues on its current upward trajectory of success. I am motivated by ECC's mission to improve lives through learning and by the positive impact this is making in the lives of so many people.
Q: In tough economic times, many students (and working professionals) turn to a community college for its educational value. How do you ensure that a person's financial sacrifice results in an educational benefit?
A: The quality of education and the opportunities for success that students receive at ECC are outstanding. This is evidenced by the fact that ECC was recently named a Top 25 college out of 1,047 community colleges in the nation.
And last year ECC was named an Achieving the Dream Leader College of Distinction. These prestigious recognitions are the direct result of the college's dedication to dismantle barriers, expand access, and improve student success. Student success coaches, wellness professionals, student advisors, student life clubs & activities, award winning faculty, financial advisors, free tutoring, and student access and disability services are all available to ensure that students stay in college, progress, graduate with their degree or certificate, and thrive in the process.
Q: How would you describe the state of your college's finances? What issues will your district have to confront in coming years and what measures do you support to address them? If you believe cuts are necessary, what programs and expenses should be reduced or eliminated? On the income side, do you support any tax or fee increases?
A: ECC is in a strong financial position, with a balanced budget, six months of operating expenses in reserve, and minimal reliance on state aid. ECC maintains a AAA bond rating, received a clean, unmodified audit for FY22, and remains fiscally responsible and conservative without sacrificing quality of education.
Committed to keeping education affordable, the board approved a flat tuition for the sixth year in a row and a flat tax levy for the third year in a row. Enrollment continues to be a challenge for higher ed in general. ECC has implemented a strategic focus and outreach to meet students where they are to ensure their unique needs are met.
As a result, ECC's enrollment numbers are thankfully climbing and will need to continue to do so to bring us back to pre-pandemic levels. Flexibility in course offerings (in-person, online, or a hybrid format), affordability of tuition (including fees and books), and intentional and holistic care of students will be key to our continued success.
Q: What are three specific nonfinancial challenges your community college will have to face in the next four years and what are your thoughts about how each should be addressed?
A: Space issues. ECC needs to keep a close eye on its master plan, and plan ahead for expansion/renovations that will improve learning and support student success, such as the creation of its STEM corridor. A strong STEM education will ensure our students are skilled workforce participants.
Costly textbooks remain a barrier in student performance. Faculty need easy access to information about available alternatives, including openly licensed materials and materials available across multiple mediums. Students need access to cost effective options early on, so they can hit the semester running.
There is a tremendous need for respiratory therapists. ECC is well positioned to partner with local hospitals to meet the demand. Our students, workforce, and community at large will benefit from such a program. Creation, approval, and funding of a respiratory therapist program are urgent. I'm committed to ensuring the respiratory care program becomes a reality as soon as possible.
Q: Describe your experience working in a group setting to determine policy. What is your style in such a setting to reach agreement and manage school district policy? Explain how you think that will be effective in producing effective actions and decisions of your school board.
A: As current chair of the board of trustees, it is my responsibility to uphold the integrity of the board's process. I strive to set a tone of positive leadership and am always mindful of our civic trusteeship obligation to the citizens of District 509.
As the sole governing body of the college, it is imperative that the board govern effectively, in a transparent manner, and with excellent stewardship of college resources. The board meets a day in advance to ensure we all receive the same information and are adequately informed about all educational, financial, and relevant college issues, prior to voting. I ensure that all board member concerns and any perspectives shared by the public are heard, that we conduct ourselves in a professional manner to work through any differences, and attempt to arrive at a consensus by board members on all board decisions. The board acts as one body, upholding the final decision of the majority vote, respecting any differences of opinion.
Q: What makes you the best candidate for the job?
A: I am a responsible, diligent, dedicated, humble, open-minded, compassionate, insightful, ethical decision-maker and public servant with six years of experience as an ECC Trustee. I am committed to ECC's mission of improving lives through learning and ensuring the college is a strong asset we can all be proud of, today, and moving forward into the future.
Born and raised in Elgin, a graduate of Larkin High School, currently an Elgin professional and a St. Charles resident with two sons who graduated from ECC, I care deeply about my community's investment, and want to ensure that an education at ECC remains accessible, affordable, and of the highest quality possible. Serving on the board for another term would be a great honor and privilege.
Q: What's one good idea you have to better your district that no one is talking about yet?
A: Enrollment is an ongoing challenge for higher ed, especially coming out of the pandemic and due to the declining birthrate. ECC's ongoing relationship building with our K-12 partners is essential; however, I think there needs to be a greater emphasis, as early as middle school, to encourage students and their families to think ahead about post-secondary education and career aspirations.
I also strongly believe that implementing apprenticeships during high school is key to student success. This would give students the opportunity to explore career options early on, to better appreciate and understand the skills and education required in their career of choice, and to plan accordingly. This would also greatly benefit employers looking to build their future workforce.