Last fall, Erin Connor was thinking about the upcoming District 97 school board election, but not as someone who might be running for office.
“I was thinking about trying to get someone to,” she said on Tuesday. “I have friends who are HR executives and doctors. So I was looking for someone whose resume Oak Park would value.”
But as she listened to parents and other community members, they told her they were looking for someone who could listen to them and engage them more in the district’s decision-making processes.
Connor said her target candidate didn’t materialize; instead, she presented herself. The 43-year-old mother of three D97 students said if she’s elected to the board, she’ll work to improve the district’s relationship with parents and other community stakeholders.
Connor graduated from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she studied marketing before spending 15 years in Corporate America, adding that she’s held management and key decision-making roles in the automotive and real estate industries.
“Throughout my career, I’ve experienced success in being a generalist,” Connor said. “At Toyota, I had the ability to lean into what I didn’t know.”
Connor said her role was to ask questions, try to look at problems from a different perspective, garner feedback from a diverse array of perspectives and work with a team to generate creative solutions for what would lead to “improved outcomes for the customer.”
Connor said if she’s elected, she’ll set her sights on trying to improve how the district communicates with parents, teachers and other community stakeholders. During the district’s transition from full remote learning to hybrid learning, she and other parents felt like they were somewhat in the dark.
The district was doing a lot of work to return students to in-person learning, she said, but “nothing was visible to the parents.” The lack of communication even extended to the good things happening in the district.
“They recently announced they’re starting Saturday schools for Tier 3 students who need additional support, but many parents only heard about that through hearsay,” Connor said.
“The district can do a better job of communicating about really big stuff and also about what they’re doing well,” she added. “I think better communication will make parents feel better about the leadership working behind the scenes.”
Connor said D97 “has a ton of talent in our leadership, but I don’t feel like there’s been a lot of visibility in terms of what parents can see and, based on feedback I hear from teachers at board meetings, I don’t feel like things are visible to them either. So, D97 can do a better job of being more communicative and transparent.”
If elected, Connor said, she’ll “listen, ask questions and work to challenge norms” while keeping “parents and teachers at the forefront of discussions.”
Addressing the qualities of the next superintendent, whom she may well have a role in selecting and directing if she’s elected, Connor said she’s looking for someone who centers equity while working to engage the district’s diverse stakeholders.
“When I think about a superintendent for our district, there are certain non-negotiables,” she said. “I’m thinking of someone who is supportive of our equity policy; someone who has experience with, or creative ideas about, narrowing the opportunity gap; someone who is a bold leader and willing to make tough decisions and stand behind those decisions, backing them up with data; someone who is a strong communicator.”
Connor added that the best candidate to succeed outgoing Supt. Carol Kelley should also be a leader who “is present, visible, engaged and involved. I feel like our leader needs to be someone who really sets the tone with their leadership team to be present, visible and engaged in our communities.”
Those qualities will be important as the district heads into yet another pandemic school year next fall, she said.
“One thing I feel really strongly about and that I know is on a lot of parents’ minds is the question of what are schools going to look like in the fall,” she said.
“I certainly don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t expect D97 leaders to have a crystal ball either, but I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be planning for a full in-person return, with a backup plan. I also support a remote option for students who aren’t ready to return to school, but we need to think big when it comes to students returning in the fall. The dynamics of COVID and the pandemic certainly are going to shift, but we need to be prepared to take steps to provide a more normal education for our children.”