School board candidates square off

A town hall featured five candidates vying for two spots

click to enlarge Tiffany Mathis and Buffy Lael-Wolf
Tiffany Mathis and Buffy Lael-Wolf

Response to the pandemic and how to address equity issues were hot topics during a virtual forum for Springfield school board candidates. The Feb. 25 event was hosted by the Faith Coalition for the Common Good and League of Women Voters. Two of seven seats will be up for grabs during the April 6 election. Judith Johnson will not run to retain her seat in Subdistrict 6, and there are three candidates to fill the spot. Subdistrict 5 will have two candidates on the ballot, including an incumbent. Anthony Mares, the current board president, is running unopposed in Subdistrict 1. Michael Zimmers is also running unopposed in Subdistrict 4.

The contenders

Tiffany Mathis hopes to retain her position as board member for Subdistrict 5. She was appointed to the position in 2019. Mathis is CEO for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Illinois. Mathis is challenged by Buffy Lael-Wolf, who has three decades of experience in pediatric nursing and works for St. John's Hospital. Her daughter, diagnosed with autism, attends school in District 186.

Running to represent Subdistrict 6 is Erica Austin, a doctoral student at Ohio State University, earning a degree in higher education administration. She works at SIU School of Medicine. Also running is Michael Washington. He has a daughter who attends District 186 and has formerly worked in and coached volleyball in the district. Tom Shafer is also running. He's a former firefighter and perennial candidate for various local positions, including school board and city council.

COVID response

About 44% of students have returned to in-person school part time under the hybrid plan enacted at the beginning of the year. Mathis has been a proponent of getting kids back in school buildings. On Jan. 4, she voted along with a majority of the board, in a 4-3 vote, to begin hybrid, even though previously adopted public health metrics had not been met. "It's definitely no mystery how I feel on this issue," Mathis said. She said schools are not "super-spreader events." Mathis said she trusts the guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health on how to safely conduct school in Phase Four, the phase of the governor's plan that Springfield is currently in. Lael-Wolf said she wanted kids back in the classroom, though metrics from IDPH should be followed.

Shafer said students should return as soon as possible, safely. He asserted that "children do not seem to spread this disease" though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note children and teens can get and spread the virus. Williams said he has seen a number of emails from his child's school about positive cases in buildings and that public health metrics should be followed. Austin said precautions should be taken and vaccination awareness should be prioritized to ensure a safe return. As of Feb. 26, the district had recorded 150 positive cases of students and staff in buildings since Aug. 31. Positive cases in school buildings do not necessarily indicate outbreaks.

Equity

Candidates agreed that school curriculum should be focused on inclusive and accurate history. They also agreed the recruitment and retention of diverse teachers should be prioritized. The majority of District 186 students are Black but less than one in 10 teachers are Black. Mathis said the city as a whole needs to be accountable for making the community more inclusive. Lael-Wolf said an educator pipeline should be further developed, "so that when they (students) leave the community they want to come back and teach in our schools."

Austin, a native of the east side of Springfield, said resources are not equitably distributed across the district. "We get phenomenal [diverse] teachers here all the time, we just cannot keep them. Part of that is because we're not recognizing what we have," Austin said. She created a social media campaign to highlight Black district employees. Williams agreed there is an unfair distribution of resources. He said, "achievement begins at home," and "we need to work with our parents," in answering a question about the achievement gap. Shafer asserted there is a "scarcity of minority graduates" who choose education degrees. He pondered whether the district could "explore a contract clause that would give an incentive to minority teachers to begin their teaching career in Springfield."

The school board members who win election will be seated for two-year terms. View the forum in full here

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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