For D202: Livingston, Holt, Bezaitis, Graham

[note: this is a personal blog entry and not the opinion or position of the Central Street Neighbors Association, which has made no endorsements].

Unlike one recent election where not enough candidates even filed to fill the slots, this year's District 202 [ETHS] school board matchup is the marquee attraction in Evanston, with eight contenders for four seats. This largely reflects the ongoing dustup over changes made and proposed to the school's storied Honors program, but there's more at stake than that.

I had the honor to moderate a forum between all the candidates a few months ago, and have had more than average opportunity to examine their views. The community is fortunate in that all eight candidates are intelligent and passionate about wanting children to learn, and are committed to our schools, and to every student achieving. Any suggestion to the contrary is nonsense.

As a result, we have the luxury of making choices based on ideas and approaches. On these, the candidates have some differences.

One is governance. The model in Evanston schools and municipal government is that staff, including top management, are unelected. An upside to this "professional" approach is some insulation from political pressure. Administration can administer day-to-day without having to face voters or run campaigns. The flipside can be a lack of accountability, tone-deafness to concerns of constituents, whether pockets of the unrepresented, or the community as a whole.

Any institution's management can become, consciously or otherwise, its own primary filter of reference or even primary stakeholder. As such, one critical duty of a board of trustees, the community's only check and balance, is to examine and to question. A board or council that merely applauds and rubberstamps does a public disservice.

Another is courage to speak out. Historically, Evanston school board elections encourage a regression toward a mean (which is a kinder way of saying a retreat toward mush). Typically not well-funded, often the province of non-politicians worried about offending anyone, these elections often feature hard-to-distinguish competing aspirations to foster "excellence" and "equity" (as if anyone is a proponent of mediocrity or unfairness), all framed in blue and orange. The resultant devolution into little more than a schoolyard popularity contest leaves voters attempting to parse differences using yard signs and lengthy supporter lists as guideposts, buttressed by whisperings (or, these days, anonymous posts) from vested interests or the small percentage of residents who bother to attend the many community forums.

Being a squeaky wheel on a Board so chosen can be rough. However, I respect those who speak their minds, even if I disagree. All things being equal, Board collegiality is preferable to Board discord, but parents, students, and taxpayers should be more concerned with outcomes. We face tough choices from Washington to the most local levels in part because elected officials paint too-rosy landscapes or compromise for political expediency. I'll take a hard-fought but smart and principled decision over an uninformed, overrated consensus any day.

A third differentiator is fiscal sense. Will a candidate simply OK every big round-number proposal, or will he or she scrutinize budget the way they might shop for their own car or mortgage, especially in tough economic times? This election occurs with the stock market at record levels while instability haunts European banks and regions from Africa to Afghanistan raise red flags. Is there any suggestion in candidates' literature or answers to questions that they're at all prepared for economic stagnation or downturn? Does a candidate have any inkling that school decisions impact markets, which in turn impact district bottom lines? Taxpayers and property owners are enormous stakeholders in community's schools but rarely is that acknowledged.

It's also fair to ask if a board member will fairly represent, or contribute to fair representation. The candidate's demographics are one factor to consider, but because open-mindedness and intellect come in all sizes and shapes, ultimately matter less than their philosophical and personal approach to problem-solving.

Gretchen Livingston at the forum I moderated demonstrated the greatest grasp of District facts and programs. There is some value to continuity and incumbency on a Board, short of entrenchment, and Gretchen has shown willingness and aptitude to see nuance and to question. I'm not sure how she'll vote on some issues I care about, but I'm pretty sure it would be a shame not to give her another term.

Former Peace Corps volunteer-turned-banker Doug Holt combines idealism with some sense of economic limitations. I am hopeful that the wall of books behind his family in his campaign literature is meant to signify commitment to the world of ideas. I trust him to bring more common sense than dogma to the Board.

School boards draw heavily from the social sciences, law, and academia. Considering both the fiscal challenges and the nation's demand for math and science skills, school districts could use the occasional techie. Engineer Andy Bezaitis is also called a great guy by a lot of folks I respect. While that's not a distinguishing characteristic in a field where I don't see any "bad guys," it counts for something.

My final vote will be to re-elect incumbent Deborah Graham. I understand Deborah has encountered some storms at the Board. I don't know if she steered into them. But challenging comfort zones is a needed albeit punishing role whenever you aspire to sail to more than mediocrity. And advocating for ETHS graduates who can write with "flair and grace" shows that Deborah reaches for more than platitudes.

I've got nothing negative to say about the other four individual candidates. In particular, I'm impressed that anyone who peered into the heart of darkness called the Iran-contra scandal, as Casey Miller did, still has enough belief in the system to run for office, even at so local a level. It's a shame that the entire District 65 ballot is unopposed, because running, itself, serves a public purpose, and that might have been an easier race for some.

There's been talk of "slates," and some grouped endorsements suggest that the four I'm not voting for are jointly running to further "de-tracking" at the high school. I'm looking at what all the candidates bring to the table besides their stance on one issue. If there is such a slate, and especially if it's staff-driven, it's unfortunate because a major initial misstep of the Freshman Honors initiative and its rollout was its resemblance to a political power play more than the product of reason and inquiry.

Schools need to be accommodating, welcoming, and not one size fits all. Fairness and justice are important, not just to teach but to practice. Equally important is that we hold our schools to standards of intellectual and financial rigor, candor, and respect for all stakeholders.

I am just one citizen and understand that others will arrive at different conclusions. I'm hopeful that regardless of results, folks will work to pull together. In the meantime, all the candidates deserve our thanks for offering the community a choice. All the candidates' CSNA questionnaires appear elsewhere on this site, and in fairness to all, their websites are linked to below.

Candidate web pages:

Gretchen Livingston

Doug Holt

Andy Bezaitis

Deborah Graham

Elena Garcia Ansani

Casey Miller

Patricia Savage-Williams

Bill Geiger


A note on Oakton Community College: I arrive at the same conclusion as the Daily Herald for much the same reasons. Two of the incumbents, Joan DiLeonardi and Ann Tennes, take the time to thoroughly explain their background, their positions, and the school's challenges. As much as I'd like to say the same for incumbent organic farmer Eric Staley, newcomer Neil Meccia has articulated a stronger case. The fifth candidate Kyle Frank, recently unsuccessful GOP candidate for state representative, seems to be running primarily on an anti-tax platform, but OCC has managed to keep tuition relatively low in tough times.


Also on the ballot is Evanston Township Supervisor, a contest between two great guys for an office most Evanston voters think should be eliminated. I really like Keith Banks and respect both his talents and his work for several nonprofits. However, Gary Gaspard has been much more visible in this election at reaching out to all segments of the community. He asked me for my support at least five times. Working hard at getting elected is no guarantee of hard (or successful) work in office, but Gaspard evinces a genuine passion for what he believes the Township can do.