Urbana Middle School, Urbana High School. Bill Lackey/Staff

Urbana school board candidates debate future of city schools

Nine people are running for three spots on the Urbana school board this November and two more are running for another two-year position. Early voting has begun and the election will take place Nov. 7.

Those seeking one of the three seats are current school board members Tim Lacy, Alyssa Dunham, Darrell Thomas, as well as former school board members James B. Arter and John M. Birkhimer, and newcomers Nicole (Nikki) Blair, Elizabeth DeWitt, Jeffery Michael Hepp and Amy Shaloo Paul.

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Those running for the unexpired term of Warren Stevens, who was killed in a car crash last year, are Sarah Finch and Laura Reed.

Finch couldn’t make the candidates forum Wednesday night but said in a statement read at the event that she’s running because she believes she can be a good public servant.

“I believe a person should go into a position with an open mind to make the best decisions for all involved. I’ve always been a supporter of the Urbana City students, the operations and the administrators,” Finch said.

Reed attended and said that the school district needs to do better. She criticized the recent grades the district scored on the state report cards and said there’s no reason Urbana isn’t doing better.

“I believe in education and I believe in public education,” she said. “If we have strong public schools we open the door for all of our students to reach dreams and goals.”

The candidates took questions from the audience on a range of topics including what their opinion was of the challenges facing the district in the next four years and if they believed they could get along with other school board members.

The candidates running for the three positions had, for the most part, similar ideas. A synopsis of what they said their platforms are below.

READ: Clark, Champaign County schools score low on state report cards

James Arter

Arter said his few decades of experience will help him be the best school board member as possible.

“This is what I do and this is what I know,” he said. “This is where my passion lies.”

He said schools are important and he hopes to use his experience to help future generations of Urbana.

John M. Birkhimer

Birkhimer said he finds it sad that the community no longer supports the schools like they used to, and said if elected he would work to improve relations with residents and the district.

“I have no agenda than other to try to be a good board member, a supporter of this community and schools,” he said.

He said he will also support the staff members any way he can.

Nicole Blair

Blair said her strength is working in groups and problem-solving.

“I want parents to understand they can be involved at every level and every aspect of their child’s education,” she said. “I really believe the key of a successful district is to have families weaved into that district.”

When parents are involved in education, she said, a district will be successful.

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Elizabeth DeWitt

Dewitt said her goal is to re-establish the importance of the city school district to Urbana.

“Over the last few years, I have seen the community involvement and pride dwindle,” she said. “The community is losing faith in the district and are either moving their children out of the district or open enrolling. We need to regain the support of the community.”

Being transparent, communicating and standing as a unified team will help bring back the community.

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Alyssa Dunham

Dunham couldn’t make the event.

She said through a spokeswoman that her goal is to make sure the community knows what is going on in the district and to improve enrollment.

“With the new school buildings, we hope to get back students that we lost so that we can get more open enrollment then what we are losing in the district,” the spokeswoman said.

Jeffrey Hepp

Hepp said the district isn’t doing enough to let residents know what is going on in the schools.

“I believe we lack transparency and communication in the district,” he said, adding that many are confused and uninformed about the decisions that have been made.

He said the district should re-focus its attention on increasing the level of the programs it offers now to make sure they’re the best they possibly can be before the board tries to implement new programs.

Tim Lacy

Lacy is a current school board member and said he’ll continue to ask questions to make sure students are getting the best possible education.

“I got a policy that I am responsible for,” he said. “One thing my dad taught me is if you believe in something, you have to stand up for it. If something is not being handled it’s my job to bring it to light and let the other board members know.”

He isn’t someone who will just rubber stamp ideas without thoroughly exploring the issues, he said, and he hopes the community will allow him to continue to work on behalf of the students.

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Amy Paul

Paul has a positive outlook of the school district now and said the current staff is working hard to make sure students get the best education possible.

“Urbana is a district that has been showing great growth,” she said. “We also meet the needs of many different populations of students. As a potential board member, (the goal) is to continue to foster that growth. Working with community, administration, staff and students. We need to work to move forward.”

Paul is a principal at a Simon Kenton Elementary School in Springfield and said that experience can help her as a board member.

Darryl Thomas

Thomas was appointed to the board late last year and spent this year learning the position and understanding that a lot goes into making good decisions for students.

“Our focus needs to be the kids and the future of this country,” he said. “Since I have been on the board, I have served as vice president and I love this community.”

Working with legislators and setting the school up to be successful into the future will be his goal if elected, he said.

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