Endorsements: Binkowski, Fitzgerald, McMillen, Wandke for Naperville Unit Dist. 203
Remote, hybrid and full in-person schooling is top of mind for all nine Naperville Unit District 203 school board candidates running for four, 4-years terms in the April 6 election.
Incumbents President Kristin Fitzgerald, Vice President Donna Wandke and Charles Cush believe that the current school board made the best of a difficult and ever-changing situation regarding the pandemic and the district's Return to Learn plan. While they are committed to ensuring students and staff can return to classrooms safely following DuPage County and Illinois guidelines, they also agree that the board can do more to improve communication with district families. All believe in fiscal responsibility and supported returning to taxpayers a $10 million surplus that resulted from two months of mandatory closures at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
Beyond the pandemic, Fitzgerald, a former policy consultant and eight-year board member, has championed closing the equity gap and promoting inclusivity through the Comprehensive Equity Plan and developing more programming to address students' academic, social and emotional needs.
Wandke brings a unique perspective to the board as a former educator at Naperville North. As such, she has asked tough questions of the board over the eight years she's served and has pushed for more professional development for teachers who are also learning a new way of teaching remotely.
Cush's focuses are student growth, college and career readiness and financial stewardship.
Challengers Andrew Binkowski, Bill Eagan, Christi Helm, Amanda McMillen, Robert Reed and Adam Russo, who all have children in District 203 schools, strongly feel that the board should have done more to clearly communicate the Return to Learn plan in a timely manner. They all express frustration with what they see as the board's lack of transparency and inability to come up with creative solutions that could have allowed students to return to classrooms sooner than the Jan. 26 hybrid start date. Citing less class time when students are learning remotely or in hybrid, the challengers are also concerned about the widening achievement gap and the increase in students' mental health issues due to social isolation.
McMillen, a social worker, argues that the $10 million surplus could have been used to add air purifiers and temporary classrooms (to maintain proper social distancing) in schools. She proposes more funds be put toward mentoring, tutors and other outside resources that could help students who are struggling academically and with mental health issues. She also is committed to addressing the longer-term effects on students and staff.
Binkowski, a college professor, scientist and father of four in elementary, junior high and high school, understands firsthand the difficulties of remote teaching and learning. Not afraid to ask tough questions of the board members, he views recovering from the pandemic as an opportunity to improve the education system by re-evaluating and re-imagining teaching methods and the structure of the school day going forward.
Russo, a clinical social worker, has seen firsthand how anxiety and social-emotional learning issues have spiked among students of all ages during the pandemic. He's a strong proponent of getting kids back in school to lesson the anxiety and inequities among students of all backgrounds.
Helm, a single mom with a background in sociology and education, would like to explore the district partnering with nonprofit organizations to provide supplemental resources and programs to help struggling students.
Eagan, an accountant who is concerned with students falling behind, especially at the younger ages, questions why the board didn't do more to open sooner and why the surplus wasn't spent on hiring more teachers and/or adding plexiglass dividers in classrooms.
For Reed, a chief operations officer at a bank, transparency, accountability, equity and finding inefficiencies are priorities to pursue.
This is an interesting set of passionate candidates. In our assessment, incumbents Fitzgerald and Wandke represent an important mix of experience and independence that merits their return. Among the challengers, we find that Binkowski and McMillen offer especially relevant professional backgrounds and insightful forward thinking. Fitzgerald, Wandke, Binkowski and McMillen are endorsed.