“As public defenders, we’re lawyers, but we’re also social workers,” said Sara Dixon Spivy, a Cook County public defender who wants to bring what she believes to be her acute sense of compassion and justice to the District 200 school board.
Spivy, 40, is among a field of seven candidates vying for three open seats on the District 200 school board. The field was reduced from eight after Stephen Schuler, an electronic trader and local philanthropist, considered to be perhaps the most financially formidable candidate in the race, withdrew his candidacy last week.
Spivy said that the skills she’s derived from working shoulder-to-shoulder with, and advocating for, the mentally ill and substance abusers would be particularly useful in negotiating for the rights of students who may have gotten a bad break.
“Part of being a public defender is you have to be very good at working with other people, because a vast majority of our practice involves negotiating plea deals,” she said. “That’s what I do all day long—I try to get my clients deals. So working with a governing body to reach a consensus comes naturally to me. I’m very good at that,” she said.
Spivy referenced the recent brouhaha over the construction of a new pool at the high school as a particular moment during which she could’ve used not only her negotiating skills, but also her outsider status.
The mother of a biracial one-year-old and a two-year resident of Oak Park said that she has an intimate stake in many of the district’s most entrenched issues—such as the academic achievement gap between black and white students—but, as someone new to the village, can look at those issues with fresh eyes.
“My son’s biracial and my partner’s kids are African American [elementary students who attend D97 schools],” she said. “Statistically speaking, African Americans are on the other side of the achievement gap.”
“I think I do represent an underserved population on the board in that I am a newcomer to Oak Park and I think that that can be a strength, because I’m less invested in the tradition and more interested in making sure our children get a good education down the road,” Spivy said.
Taking inspiration from her career as a public defender, Spivy said that, if elected, she hopes to implement a program to address substance abuse among students through the lenses of public policy and public health, instead of crime and punishment.
“For instance, one example would be for parents to volunteer their kids for random testing,” she said. “I think that alleviates some of the constitutional concerns. Then once the student is subject to random testing, the idea is that they’d get treatment if they test positive.”