Holly Spurlock

Candidates for District 97 school board

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Age: 42

Previous elected experience: D97 School Board

Previous community experience: I did not have previous community board experience prior to being elected to the school board.  My prior community service experience includes being a Big Sister with Big Brothers Big Sisters, successfully obtaining asylum for a Togolese refugee, pro bono legal counsel on behalf of the Woodlawn Childrens' Promise Community to establish a replica of the Harlem Childrens' Promise Zone on the South side of Chicago, and led the Data Sharing effort in connection with a Chicago Anti-Violence initiative.   

Occupation:  Director, Strategic Claims at CNA Insurance.  I partner with claims representatives to strategically manage high severity claims against lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, and other professionals through litigation and negotiate resolutions.

Education: BA Humanities with Special Honors, University of Texas at Austin, 1997; JD, Northwestern University, 2001; MBA, Booth School of Business, 2011

Do you believe that race is the primary predictor of student outcomes in District 97? Please expound. 

If "student outcomes" refers to (a) disproportionate application of discipline such as suspensions, (b) disproportionate exclusion from advanced learning, (c) over-identification of special education needs, and (d) other disadvantages resulting from systemic bias against students of color, then yes, I believe race is the primary predictor of student outcomes in District 97.  If the question of student outcomes is limited to academic performance, the data shows that race, socioeconomic status and IEP status are all predictors of student outcomes in D97 and I would have to study additional disaggregated data to determine which one is primary.  That said, I suspect that study would demonstrate that race is likely the primary predictor of academic performance in District 97 as well.

The reason that race is the primary predictor of student outcomes under the broad definition referenced above is because of institutionalized racism in our schools.  Our students of color are experiencing District 97 differently because the systems and structures were designed for white students.  This is evident in the euro-centric curriculum, the different expectations of our white students and students of color and the ways implicit bias manifests itself in the experiences of our students of color and their families.  Accordingly, we are working to change our District culture and embrace the community-wide effort to dismantle the current system and build a more inclusive and equitable environment for our students.  

It is likely that if you're elected to the board, there will already have been a racial equity policy in place. What are your thoughts on a racial equity policy? Do you believe that it is necessary to ensure that race is not a predictor of student outcomes (assuming you believe this is the case)? And if so, how would you ensure that the racial equity policy is effectively implemented? 

As the Board President and one of 2 board members who served on the Policy Committee this year, I have had the opportunity to work on the Racial and Educational Equity Policy that is before the Board.  I am very proud of our work.  We leveraged the expertise, passion, and experiences of community members, built upon the foundation that Dr. Kelley and her team have established through Vision97 4All, and listened to students and our equity inquiry team of teachers as we drafted Policy.  The Policy owns our shortfalls with our students of color and holds the district accountable to provide high quality instruction, grade appropriate assignments, high expectations, and deep engagement going forward.  It explicitly establishes equity as the umbrella lens through which we must develop and implement all of our policies, practices, procedures and programming going forward and yes, it is necessary to have a Policy to ensure that race is not a predictor of student outcomes. 

For effective implementation, we need a community-wide planning process that is public and transparent. We need to ensure that we provide time and resources for professional development that is not limited to a day of training but involves ongoing support for our teachers and staff as they navigate and lead our cultural change in the classrooms and buildings.  We need to work with our partners in the school community and beyond to develop complementary supports for our students and families so that an equity lens becomes part of the evaluation of all of our programs and services.  In other words, this is "all hands on deck" work that has to be collaborative, consistent, and prioritized in resource allocation. 

Do you believe that the district's Gifted, Talented and Differentiation (GTD) program needs to be reformed? If so, what reforms do you have in mind for the program? 

We have made significant strides in changing GTD and we anticipate additional changes in the next year as the result of the work done by our GTD Committee of parents and staff.  In the next couple of weeks the GTD Committee will be releasing the results of its 2-year study of the program. It will include specific recommendations and I am very interested in learning more but in the meantime, I want to refrain from commenting on reforms when we have the opportunity to learn from a Committee that has dedicated countless hours studying the topic. 

I do want to comment on the strides made in recent school years as the Committee has been studying the programming.  The 2 primary changes implemented were (1) the launch of a push-in model in all of our elementary grades, and (2) the elimination of "walking up" our 3rd-5th graders for math. 

Our push-in model exposes all our kids to GTD enrichment work rather than limiting it to the handful of kids (mostly white) who tested in.  By increasing the push-in GTD services, all kids have access to and an opportunity to benefit from advanced learning activities.  This exposure to both the GTD instructor and GTD learning also allows classroom teachers and the GTD teachers to identify advanced learners who may not have "tested in".  Through push in, more diverse students are identified as needing differentiated, advanced opportunities and they are provided with those opportunities.

The "walk up" practice provided students who tested into GTD in 3rd grade with an opportunity to do math for the grade level above them.  While that was a sincere effort to challenge these kids, skipping an entire year of math meant that some kids struggled with concepts in later years.  It also did not capture the differentiated learning needs of our GTD students and instead just pushed them ahead a year in math.  In place of "walking up" our GTD teachers are providing advanced math to these students through enrichment activities that complement the grade level instruction and meet the needs of these differentiated learners. 

Do you believe that the D97 school board is a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars? If so, in what ways? If you don't believe this, what changes will you advocate on the board to make it so? 

I believe D97 is a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars.  I also believe it is a learning organization and that there is room for improvement.  D97 has been a responsible steward by maintaining a consistent cost per student and increasing expenditures based on increases in enrollment and gaps in state funding.  Conversations regarding expenditures are accompanied by conversations of tradeoffs and many decisions are cost-neutral.  Where there are increases in spending, it is the result of either our increased population or increased student needs, i.e. additional social workers and MTSS interventionists.  D97 works with a Financial Oversight Review Committee of community members who have expertise in finance and specifically in school finance/funding and seeks out their input on decisions related to its debt service and budgeting, among other topics.  We have also used debt abatement over the last year and a half to ensure that we are not collecting anymore taxes than were authorized by the referendum.  This has resulted in a reduction to taxpayers over this time period. 

If elected to another term, I will take what I have learned and advocate for improvements to our process, some of which are already underway.  First, we will use the Evidence Based Funding Formula as a guide when making staffing and other budgeting decisions.  We have started that process this year and we will continue to incorporate the recommendations that arise out of the funding formula with regard to staffing decisions.  Second, I would advocate for a line-by-line, equity review of our budget in conjunction with the implementation of the Equity Policy so that we use a racial equity tool to evaluate each expenditure and ensure that we are allocating funds consistent with our overarching equity commitments.  Once the review is complete and we have identified expenditures that are not consistent with our Policy, we would then need to consider if the program should be eliminated or if we can alter it in a way to make sure it is consistent.  This process ensures taxpayer funds are being used efficiently and aligned with the community's values.  Third, I would advocate for a budgeting policy that requires the administration team to bring budgets to the Board that is within CPI of the prior year's budget.  These three changes would increase our accountability to our fellow community members and be in addition to the work already being done at D97.

Do you believe that the D97 board adequately incorporates the voices of people most likely to be impacted by its decisions (i.e., students, teachers, faculty and staff) into its decision-making process? If not, what are some ways that the board can more adequately incorporate these voices into its decision-making process? 

While I think D97 attempts to gather community input, and when it successfully does so, we incorporate that input into our decision-making process, we have not reached all of the stakeholders effectively in some cases and I see this as an area for improvement.  One way we have successfully expanded our efforts to incorporate voices of people most impacted by decisions is our increased solicitation of student voice.  For example, the administration team started lunch and learns with students a couple of years ago.  They host a pizza lunch at each of the schools and talk to the students about a variety of topics. That student feedback is then used to inform decision making.  We also started town halls at the middle school. The town hall participants are representative of the student body and they are asked about specific topics, such as the bullying policy and the sexual harassment policy, and the building leadership also speaks with them generally about the culture and climate at the middle schools. These two initiatives have added value to our decision-making process and we will continue to identify more ways for students to be included. 

I think that the way to increase stakeholder engagement and improve incorporating all of the voices into decision-making is by making all of our students and families feel more welcome at our schools.  The equity policy work and culture shift we are seeking directly influences the ability of the district to gather input in a meaningful way from the families and students most impacted by decisions. That said, we don't want to lose valuable time during the planning and implementing phases of the equity policy, so we must continue to directly reach out to families, host in-person and subject-specific meetings (at a variety of times/days and provide childcare), solicit feedback online and widely publicize significant topics so that community members know when board discussions on those topics will occur.  We should also continue to partner with community organizations and think outside the box for new ways to connect to families and support efforts to gather input.  

Some school buildings in D97 are experiencing severe overcrowding. Do you believe that the board has adequately addressed this issue? If not, what ideas will you bring to the board to address this issue? 

I believe that expanding Lincoln, Longfellow and Holmes have adequately addressed the overcrowding at those three schools. The other schools are currently hovering at or around 90% capacity.  That said, enrollment is our biggest wild card – it drives our operating costs (i.e. classroom teachers, specials teachers, instructional supports, and social emotional supports) as well as our capital costs and the most recent Demographic Study provided to the Board in anticipation of our February 20th board meeting suggests that we could stabilize at our current enrollment or potentially increase by as much as 900 students in the next 10 years, with the most likely scenario being an increase of 400 students.

If we are faced with additional overcrowding at our schools, we should consider the two most widely used responses to overcrowding in schools, among others:  (1) establishing grade level centers, or (2) adjusting boundaries.  Historically these two options have not made sense in Oak Park for several reasons.  Grade centers would require increased busing (costs) because many students would have to travel 1.5 miles or more to school.  Moreover, our village is not equipped to handle the increased road traffic of car pools to schools that may be less than 1.5 miles but where walking would likely be replaced by driving.   Adjusting boundaries seems like an obvious solution but it presents a couple of challenges.  First, the other schools are 90-95% full.  Thus adjusting a boundary, even slightly, could create an overcrowding situation at the school that receives the influx of students.  Second, because of the location of the schools, the schools that are filled to capacity often share a border with each other. Thus there is no space for movement of a boundary between the two impacted buildings.  Moreover, to the extent that moving boundaries creates instability for those streets that are boundary boulevards, we could negatively impact the home values for residents who are on the border of two schools.  That said, we should continue to explore both avenues in conjunction with all conversations regarding school capacity and enrollment.  In addition to grade centers and boundary adjustments or additional school construction, we may consider centralizing kindergarten, using mobile classrooms, staggering school years/school days/start times, and online learning options. 

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