School board forum allows community to connect with candidates

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School board forum allows community to connect with candidates

Ben Lipka

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On March 7, District 219 held a school board candidate forum in order to allow community members to meet the candidates running in the upcoming school board election on April 4. The event was hosted by the Niles North and West Parent Advisory Councils and was moderated by a panel of four district students. Neama Abraham, Virginia Camacho, Richard Evonitz, and Joseph Nowik are the four candidates running for three open seats on the board. However, Camacho was not present at the forum.

On certain issues, all three candidates had near identical positions. They all lauded District 219’s incredible diversity as an incredible asset to the community. In addition, all three candidates cited equity as a core value to their governing philosophy. Another subject of mutual agreement was the need to expand the district’s mission beyond the narrow definition of “college-ready.” All three candidates agreed that the district should pursue nuanced goals the are more inclusive toward students who may not be suited to the traditional four-year college path. Attendance at the forum was sparse and was mostly comprised of district parents. A handful of local students were also present.

Naema Abraham
Abraham is a Niles North alumni and current mother of a Niles North student. She hopes to bring her experience as an Assyrian immigrant and human resources professional to the D219 community. She believes that her human resources experience would be a tremendous asset to the board in the areas of union agreements and hiring. A central issue for Abraham was the lack of representation for immigrants on the board.

Abraham hopes “To be able to be a voice for the immigrant and minorities who just don’t have the kind of support that they should.” Of particular concern to Abraham is the lack of students of color in AP and honors classes. She suggested that staff should make a greater effort to push students into challenging classes. In addition, she suggested that perhaps efforts to increase minority representation at high-level classes should begin at feeder schools.

Richard Evonitz
Evonitz is the father of a Niles North graduate. In addition to his work as an attorney, he has served for the past eight years on the District 73 (East Prairie) board of education. He is currently the president of the District 73 board. He emphasized his strong belief in public service, financial transparency, and his school board experience as his primary qualifications. In particular, he believes that the success of District 73 during his time on its board shows his fitness for office.

“I bring eight years of experience being on a school board at the East Prairie District 73 and most of that time I served as Board president, so I hope my resume shows my experience, the leadership, and the results that are going to be a value to the citizens of this district,” Evonitz said.

Joseph Nowik
Nowik has two children in District 219 — a daughter at Niles West and a son in the Bridges program at Niles North. In addition to his job as Director of Operations for a local manufacturing company, he is the current Secretary Pro Tempore for the District 219 board of education. Nowik spoke primarily about the need for financial transparency, a diverse staff, and issues affecting special needs students. Like Evonitz, Nowik placed a heavy emphasis on keeping the district’s spending focused and transparent.

While he favored using the district’s expansive financial resources to create new programs, he qualified that opinion by stating, “We must be prudent on those programs and I am a strong believer that we need to establish metrics in those programs to make sure they are functioning. And if they are not functioning, then we need to take proactive actions to either reduce those programs or eliminate them altogether.”

Nowik also pointed out the fact that the diversity of the district’s student body is not reflected in its staff. He advocated for the district to use job openings left by retired teachers to increase staff diversity. Of particular concern for Nowik, was the lack of a stand-alone facility for special needs students over the age of 18. By law, the district is required to serve special needs students until their 22nd birthday. At District 219, education for special needs students ages 18 and up is provided through the Bridges program at Niles North. The Bridges program is focused on teaching life-skills, such as grocery shopping or social awareness. However, Nowik believes that the school building environment is not conducive to this sort of education. He advocated a long-term vision of building a separate facility specially for teaching life-skills to Bridges students.

Religious Neutral Calendar Controversy
Another important issue addressed by the candidates was the place of religious holidays in the school calendar. For years, the district granted the Jewish holidays of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, and the Christian holiday of Good Friday off (Christmas was also off due to its placement during winter break). Due to the changing demographics of the district, the board voted in 2016 to eliminate all religious holidays from the calendar, with the exception of Christmas, for the 2017-2018 school year. In addition, Columbus Day was renamed Indigenous People’s Day and was made a non-attendance day. The board explained their rationale for this change by stating, “We do not want to show preference for one religion over another or for one religious holiday over another.” While the change has yet to take affect, community members have already raised concerns over the equity and practicality of the plan.

All three candidates were asked either by the moderators or North Star News about their opinions on the recent changes. Abraham explicitly voiced her support for the religious neutral calendar and noted that she believed that it would be the fairest plan for the district’s diverse student body. The only incumbent of the group, Nowik, actually voted in favor of the religious neutral calendar. He remains in favor of the plan because he believes that it brings the district in line with its feeder school and prevents it from having to make difficult choices about which holidays to honor. Evonitz was the only candidate to show any doubt about the plan. He made it clear that the district should give either all religious holidays off or no religious holidays off. When pressed, he admitted that he leans towards giving all religious holidays off, assuming that the administration and student body supported that decision.

School board election will take place on April 4, with seats up for grabs. For more information, visit the board’s website.

Featured image courtesy of the Chicago Tribune

This article was written by Zach Harris, a freelancer for North Star News. To get involved in freelancing, come to the North Star room after school.