By Terry Dean
It was two years ago that Valerie Fisher retired from the District 200 Board of Education after serving three terms, a total of 12 years.
On June 23, Fisher reclaimed one of the seven school board seats after being appointed by fellow trustees to replace Jacques Conway, who resigned from the board May 26.
Fisher, 63, was among 10 individuals who applied for the newly open seat. Former board member and president Barry Greenwald also submitted a letter of interest, as did John Allen, who came in fourth place in a failed re-election bid on April 5.
At last Thursday's school board meeting, the six members present approved Fisher by a 5-1 vote, with Sharon Patchak-Layman the lone dissenter. Fisher was sworn in after the vote and immediately seated.
The meeting grew tense, however, as some members of the audience objected the board's decision. Longtime school activist and critic Wyanetta Johnson of the parent group APPLE (African-American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education) was upset that the vote took place before the public was allowed to make comment. Members in the audience, though, were allowed to speak during public comments shortly after the vote.
Johnson and fellow APPLE member Burcy Hines were also upset that a minority member was not chosen, arguing that the selection represents a lack of needed diversity. With Conway's resignation and Allen's election loss, Ralph Lee remains the only African-American member on the high school board. Johnson also criticized the board for keeping the names of individuals seeking the appointment private.
Patchak-Layman also noted the need for more diversity in her statement prior to casting her vote.
"The board should reflect the students we serve and their community," she said. "The board sets the example for the school community. We talk about the importance of having a diverse work force. We talk about having broad representation and involvement of parents and guardians. We talk about eliminating systemic inhibitors to success for students and staff of color. ... This appointment does not reflect our goals or serve our students."
After the vote, those board members who supported Fisher's appointment offered comment, defending their decision. They cited Fisher's experience as a factor in her favor.
Amy McCormack noted that point but also expressed dismay about some of the harshness she felt coming from critics. Without mentioning Johnson and Hines specifically, a visibly distraught McCormack said that while she supports an individual's First Amendment rights, such rights can also be taken too far.
"We have the right to freedom of speech, and everyone in this room had a right to make a public comment. That said, just because something is constitutional doesn't make it right," she said. "The personal comments that were made about Ms. Fisher were unfair and untrue. I am grateful, very grateful, to Ms. Fisher for stepping up to the plate and serving this school again."
But both Hines and Johnson addressed the board again soon after members spoke.
"I love Valerie; Valerie and I have gone nose-to-nose with other one another and have been the best of friends for years," Johnson said. "What I'm angry about is you kept it a secret and you didn't let anybody know who you were going to bring into this school."