The two longest-serving members of the District 91 school board declined to file petitions for candidacy by the 5 p.m. deadline at the Cook County Clerk’s Office, Dec. 22. President Francis Mott and Sean Blaylock were appointed in 2005 and 2006 and served a two-year term followed by two four-year terms.
“If you can’t accomplish what you want to do in 10 years, then I don’t know what you’re going to make better,” said Blaylock Monday afternoon, adding that it was time to step down to make room for the “Sean Blaylock of 10 years ago.”
Both candidates had been vague about whether they were going to run again. Mott did not respond to calls and emails for comment Monday.
The district has come a long way since the two first joined. In 2005, enrollment was more than 1,000 students and the district was financially solvent, thanks to a referendum passed the previous year. But the four elementary schools were vastly different in culture, climate and resources. The middle school had a negative reputation and the superintendent was leaving.
Blaylock thinks the most significant action that directed the district’s course since 2005 was the hiring of Lou Cavallo as superintendent. Among other things, Cavallo instituted the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) character education system, to measure and address behavioral problems at the middle school. Blaylock considers PBIS a success in the district and community.
However, he noted, “a robust superintendent evaluation process” is important to keep the district on track.
His proudest vote was creating the grade-level centers in 2008, which reorganized the four K-5 schools into two PK-2 and two 3-5 grade schools.
The change was hotly debated by parents at the time, but Blaylock said it served four purposes: keeping class sizes small, letting teachers collaborate, and keeping class cohorts age-appropriate. With shrinking enrollment, the change also meant teachers could work “without the concern for closing schools.”
Blaylock thinks the district has been on the right track with investing in technology, “in a fiscally responsible way.” An electrical engineer, he was a supporter of the district’s one-to-one student laptop initiative. He raised an objection at the time when the district chose Google Chromebooks because he said laptops were not part of Google’s “core competency,” and he worried the devices might not be supported in the future.
Blaylock also believes money spent on teacher professional development was well spent. The positive relationship with the teachers union and a contract stance he termed “fair” helped support student learning, he added.
Students have benefitted from the “academic growth model,” he said, which maps out a path for each child, no matter where they start.
Blaylock said D91 doesn’t do enough to “market how many positive things are happening in the schools,” and the district should be particularly proud of the academic foundation for students, extracurriculars and the positive school climate.
Ten years ago, both Mott and Blaylock were parents of D91 students, but those kids have grown up and moved on to high school and college. Blaylock thinks the board needs the voices of elementary school parents to keep the schools on track.
“There’s a pulse a parent gets about the schools,” Blaylock said, “that can really benefit the district.” When he started, his four children were students at Grant-White.
Currently, five of the seven board members have children who have passed through the elementary school years. “I’d rather have that proportion [of current and past school parents] turned around,” said Blaylock, who was the first African-American member on the D91 board. He said the district still has a ways to go to create a diverse pool of teachers in every school.
“A couple of our schools have made encouraging strides in this area. A couple of our schools certainly have room for improvement,” he said. “There’s a strong validity to the principle of role models [for children of color],” he said.
Any personal agenda was out of place on the school board, which eats up time and requires commitment and compromise, Blaylock warned potential new members.
“Anyone who doesn’t have an overwhelming passion for seeing all the children in the district obtain a quality education will become frustrated and a liability to the district and its students,” he added.
In 2013, six candidates ran for four spots on the board. The race got hot when an anonymous “dirty laundry” blog popped up alleging, among other things, that the district’s tax abatement of $1.5 million was actually a fraud. The site was later linked to Village Commissioner Tom Mannix, a professional campaign consultant. Mannix’s college roommate Thomas Bradley Keefner ran unsuccessfully for the school board in that election.
Blaylock said new board members need to keep the direction going by sticking to and refining the district’s vision and mission and by being receptive to parents and the community. It was important not to become complacent, he said, but to think 8-10 years in the future.
“I encourage parents and community members to vote and hold school board members accountable based on what they do to benefit the development of students,” he said.