Regional Superintendent Race
By Mike Kroll
It is a sad fact that voters are frequently asked to elect people to obscure or unfamiliar offices, and all too often both the candidates and their campaigns failed to garner much media coverage, yet the duties and impact of the office itself can have a profound impact on our lives. Such is the case with the office of Regional Superintendent of Schools, one of the few elected positions that mandates that candidates must possess professional credentials to qualify for candidacy. The Illinois Board of Education has divided the state into 46 “regional offices of education” or ROEs (excluding Chicago) and all but 16 of these are composed of multiple counties. Knox county is one of those 16 single-county ROEs and among the ten smallest in the state. There is a long list of responsibilities assigned to these offices but in essence they function as local representatives of the state board of education and are responsible for carrying out state mandates.
Bonnie Harris (D) of Galesburg currently is seeking reelection as regional superintendent and is being challenged by Matthew LeClere (R), also of Galesburg and currently principal of Nielson School. Before first being elected to this position four years ago Harris had spent more than three decades as a Kindergarten teacher in Galesburg. LeClere has 15 years of education experience, initially as a special education teacher in a Des Moines junior high school and later as an assistant principal in Vandalia before spending the last 5 years as Nielson principal.
I have known Bonnie Harris for some time but only just met Matt LeClere as I interviewed him for this article. There are very real differences between these two candidates. Not only has their professional experience been very different: Harris is a career-long teacher who only sought out this administrative role late in her long career while LeClere opted to become a school administrator after 8 years of teaching. In many respects Harris still retains the goals and world view of a Kindergarten teacher as she approaches her current administrative duties while LeClere has fully made the transition to an administrative world view.
For example, asked about the most important responsibilities of the job Harris answered:
“Education is number one. Teachers and administrators are the primary people we serve. The ROE website is a communication tool to help keep educators informed of the different opportunities available to them personally and in the classroom. My job is to help insure the best possible education for our students by maintaining quality teachers, safe buildings and an educational atmosphere that places the student as our first priority.”
Contrast this with LeClere's answer. “Given the extensive list of responsibilities prescribed by the State of Illinois for this office, it is difficult to distinguish between the most important aspects. If, however, asked to prioritize the responsibilities, I would assert that providing professional development for teachers, interpreting, disseminating, and assisting local districts with mandates from the state and federal government, and providing for the health and safety of the schools would be paramount.”
The essence of their answer is the same but very different in approach and tone. LeClere brought up the many legislative and administrative dictates that are passed down to local schools through the ROEs while Harris only acknowledged them when asked a direct question. Throughout the interview LeClere emphasized his training and experience as a school administrator and went so far as to state that despite more than 30 years as a teacher and four years as regional superintendent Harris is not as qualified for this job as he. Harris preferred to speak of her community involvement and demonstrated compassion for young people.
Currently the Knox County ROE is among the state's smallest in terms of both staffing and the number of students served and this is reflected in a staff of only seven. I suggested to both candidates that perhaps this wasn't the most cost efficient or effective arrangement. Not surprisingly both disagreed.
“This office provides a lot of service directly to the citizens of Knox County,” explained Harris. “If it wasn’t here, the duties and responsibilities probably would not change. The level of service most probably would decrease. We would have to do a lot more with the same or less staff.”
“The answer to whether the office is effective and efficient lies with the perspective of who is asking,” said LeClere. “ From the standpoint of the average taxpayer, one might suggest that to combine the office with another county or two would decrease the expenses needed for each office and could save money. From the viewpoint of an educator the answer would likely be different. I would assert that the smaller office would offer more individualized programs. It has the ability to focus its efforts on the schools of Knox County and not be overly concerned with the needs of others who may have different priorities. The challenges faced by our local districts in Knox County are different than those faced even in neighboring counties and really must be addressed separately. The specific efficiency of the office would in large part depend upon its leadership.”
One of the most visible duties of the ROE is to handle the certification/recertification of local teachers. This role involves not only shuffling paperwork but also administering continuing education opportunities for area teachers. Many teachers are skeptical of the present system that they see as poorly reflecting skills and experiences that make a real difference in a teacher's success in the classroom. Some outside observers believe the current system protects bad or lazy teachers while simultaneously making it difficult for potential teachers with promise.
According to LeClere, “I don’t believe the blame for problems with [teacher] tenure can be assumed by the Regional Offices of Education, nor can it fully fall on school district administrators, the State of Illinois, nor the teachers union. Instead, I would hold that there is plenty of room to share that burden amongst all those involved. A system that protects those whom have lost the spark of teaching based solely on the idea that they have been around long enough to gain tenure is ludicrous. As is a system that monetarily rewards teachers based on merit. Both systems are flawed by design and innately bias.”
“In order for professional development to be most successful, it must be more than just a one time, quick fix. Professional development should be on-going endeavors, connected to the curriculum being taught as well as the districts’ and schools’ improvement plans. High quality, well planned, timely, and relevant professional development is imperative to the success of teachers beginning their careers and the continued success of veteran teachers. Continuing education offerings through the Regional Office should be coordinated with the curriculum offices of local districts to ensure the components of effective professional development are being met.”
Harris' take seems to differ only slightly. “I am sure there are teachers who are not good for children as well as those who feel some of the educational offerings are not relevant to them. I don’t think anyone can say with certainty that professional development does make a bad teacher better. I do think that the many teachers are always ready and willing to learn something new to help the children they teach. Good teachers tweak the lessons and methods they are taught and make it work for them and their students. Application is the key! Teachers are always from one year to the next changing things. They learn something new and they use it to become a better teacher.”
No issue in this campaign better distinguishes between these two candidates than the approach each takes to problem students. Whether we are speaking of those who drop out or who are forced out of school for discipline reasons failure to complete a high school education will have a negative ripple effect throughout the rest of that child's life. Many of the problems we face as adults can be traced back to failed or missed opportunities in our youth and the level of support we received from family and community that surrounded us.
In Knox County when a student leaves school one way or another and later wants to complete his/her high school education as an adolescent they have the opportunity to attend the Knox County Academy. The KCA offers a day session for those students who enroll there as an alternative to being expelled. This relatively small day program is funded by the state and offers a high school diploma to those students who complete all of the state graduation requirements. While some question the increasing rate of disciplinary suspensions and expulsions in area schools there is little disputing the value of this day program to the affected students and the ever-growing need.
LeClere firmly believes that the increased emphasis on school discipline is both necessary and justified. “The primary goal of any administrator in any district is first and foremost the safety of the students in their charge. Principals don’t enjoy suspending children. I, personally, find it absolutely the most distasteful aspect of the job. However, when a child comes to school he/she is expected to be in an environment that is safe and orderly, where they can learn. If another person is disrupting that environment through their actions, that person should expect be excluded for a certain amount of time. When a person hurts another person in school, they should expect a consequence that would exclude them from school for a time. We would expect nothing less walking down the street or going to work. If a coworker struck you in the face while you were walking to the water cooler, you would expect there to be consequences for their actions. If you struck one of your coworkers you would expect to lose your job. Why would we expect anything less of students in a school building? If a child brings drugs or a weapon into a school, they absolutely should be escorted to the door and led away in handcuffs never to return. We can afford to do nothing less. That is not eagerness; that is prudence.”
Harris won't come out and say directly that local school boards are too eager to expel students but she laments the shortsightedness of this process. “Throwing a kid out of school amounts to us giving up on that kid and I hate to give up on any kid. Too many adults seem to have forgotten what it was like to be an adolescent and the missteps and mistakes they made then. There are many behaviors that are inappropriate in our schools but the true test of teachers and administrators is how we handle problem behavior and the students involved. Excluding a child from school is the most serious penalty we can impose and one where the consequences can be devastating. The most important role of any educator is to work toward the education of all our students, not just those who make the task easy.”
The criticism of the KCA has been directed at its evening program. This program isn't funded by the state and Harris unabashedly says, “I am very proud of the evening classes at the Knox County Academy. The students who were dropouts are now trying to turn their lives around. The majority are working very hard to earn enough credits to receive an Illinois State Diploma. Most of our night students have specific deficiencies that need to be met so that they can earn a high school diploma and our programs are individualized to meet the needs and circumstances of individual students. Our critics have claimed that a degree earned at the KCA is somehow substandard to that earned at a traditional high school but I challenge that assumption. Additionally, I point out that these are almost universally kids the regular schools gave up on. I won't give up on students who have the determination not to give up on themselves. This program is producing some educated citizens.”
“The breadth and depth of knowledge presented in the shortened time frame at the KCA cannot compare to that which is presented in a full day at the high school,” counters LeClere. “The teachers in this program do not have to fit the definition of a highly qualified teacher and consequently most don’t. The day program at the KCA is designed to serve children whom, for whatever reason, may not return to their local high schools. This program should be staffed with people that are instructionally prepared for this reality. The teachers should have a training background in special education, preferably BD, so they may help these students be ready to return to their home school when allowable. There needs to be a system of strong discipline in place to make sure that appropriate learning can take place in the classrooms. Teachers that work in this program should be paid at a competitive rate and offered some form of health insurance benefits as to attract the best people available.”
Harris acknowledges that her teachers are not compensated the same as most other area teachers but says that this is due to limited resources and the nature of grant funded programs such as this. “I would say that the salaries we pay our teachers are comparable to beginning school district pay but we do not offer health insurance or benefits and they have no more job security than any other grant funded program. These aren't choices I have made but simply a function of doing as much as we can with the available resources.”
I asked each candidate what they felt made them the best choice and what changes they'd like to see if elected.
“People don't realize that an administrator has a very different perspective than a teacher and this is an administrative position,” noted LeClere. “My opponent does not have any experience as a principal and that is reflected in her approach to administering the ROE. I also have management experience outside of the school. For 9 years, while teaching in Des Moines Public Schools, I was the shift manager at Tait’s Foods. My responsibilities included reconciling cash drawers, opening and closing the books (for which I wrote a manual when I left), scheduling, payroll, supervision of a store full of employees, hiring, firing, and customer service. I am a very organized person and know this office and the responsibilities expected distinctly. I will surround myself with the best, most talented people to serve the citizen and schools of Knox County and implement the programs to the best of my ability. I am confident enough to do the job well, have the ethics to do the right thing, and have the humility to listen and ask for help if needed.”
“In order for this office to run in the most efficient and productive way possible, more and better collaboration is absolutely essential. The KCA needs to have some improvements made in the way that it serves our community. The day program needs to be administered with a stiff hand and the perception of the night school program needs to be addressed. We should be making the night program inviting to not only people who have dropped out of school but also to nontraditional students, who are looking to finish their high school course work and earn a diploma after having some time away for whatever reason.”
“The Regional Superintendent’s Office must make every effort to work closely with the curriculum directors of local districts to offer quality, timely, and relevant professional development opportunities. These offerings should be aligned with state standards and support the districts’ and schools’ improvement plans. By making these types of offerings available at reasonable or no cost to districts and participants, these opportunities can be beneficial to the teacher, to the district, and to all of the children that they serve. I would like to develop a Lending Library for the teachers of Knox County. A library of this type would include a number of resources that teachers could check out on a regular basis for use in their classrooms.”
Harris' reply was predictably more succinct. “I am a very caring, energetic, innovative, positive person. I didn't just teach kindergarten, but I also worked closely with young parents and over my career I have mentored many fellow teachers. Teaching is my passion and seeing my students grow into successful adults is my chief reward. I am a very good listener. I know I can’t solve all of the problems that come before me but I do know how to listen and ask for help when I need it. I have truly enjoyed all of the challenges of this office. It is great to help people solve their problems. This office has afforded me many privileges and opportunities that I would not have had. What a privilege and honor to shake the hand of a student who has just received their high school diploma.”
“I really don’t like to make a campaign promises. I will continue to seek out new and innovative programs and services. We evaluate all of the programs and classes that we offer. We are seeking to get the best people to provide the best educational opportunities available to us with our limited resources.”