School Board discusses racism and fall reopening

By Kendra Hennis 
The regular session of the Tuscola School Board was called to order at 7:07 p.m. on June 22 following the board retreat. Marx was absent from the meeting.

The board began by opening up the floor to visitors. The first was Karen Patterson, she said, “I’d like to talk tonight about racism, not only in our town but in our schools as well. These are schools that voters like myself have entrusted you all to lead. Many people here have been flabbergasted to hear the things that have been said recently to your Black students. They say things like, “you heard that here? In Tuscola?! I can’t imagine that happening here.” She presented the disturbing comments that had been said to students in the community as they were protesting at the Black Lives Matter rally. She then went on to say, “I am going to share with you some specific examples from the Tuscola schools. My younger daughter, who is in Middle School, in her first semester here in Tuscola, had a boy threaten to call her the N word if she didn’t give him a basketball. Obviously he knew the N word was wrong because he didn’t say the word, because he felt comfortable enough in your schools to threaten her that way. My older daughter came home crying because she had a classmate who said she was going to cut her because “she needed black for her art project”. Both my older daughter, and our dear friend Alyssa, have been asked for n cards, and for those of you who don’t know what that is, it is when a non-black person asks a Black person for permission to call them the N word. Now imagine being a young Black person and your choices being, give up my self respect and say sure, or face the humiliation and harassment that comes in standing up for yourself. That is not a choice that children should have to make. Part of the reason I am sharing these stories of the school, is because we, my husband and I, have been told that by more than one school administrator that racism doesn’t happen in our schools. Guys and gals, we’ve got to do better. When we tried to address something earlier this year that made us as parents of Black children worry about the safety, or at least the felt safety of our children, because they have the right to feel safe, not only was the confidentiality of that meeting broken, but lies were told about us to our family and another family in town. Now, why do I tell you this story? I am a white woman, who is a Pastor’s wife and works in your school district, if that’s the response I got, and that’s the retaliation that was put against me, imagine a child of color trying to feel comfortable coming to that same administrator with those concerns, it is no wonder your students haven’t told you about the racism that takes place. So, I would like to encourage you all that these adults in this community and this school district must do better. All children deserve not only to be safe, but to feel safe. No child should have to worry about standing up to themselves, or for themselves, or facing retaliation or harassment, none of them. Our job as adults, and specifically as educators, is to meet the needs of all students, educate all students, and to be leaders in our community. Let’s help lead the change in our community.”

The next comment came from TCHS Junior, Alyssa Williams. She said, “Everyone knows All Lives Matter, it’s like saying racism is bad, people know that and no one is disputing that. You don’t see firefighters spraying water on every house in the neighbourhood when one’s on fire. It’s a simple concept based around the idea of dealing with present issues when they arise before they get worse. Many of you sitting here were born, raised and will remain in Tuscola your whole life. It’s a quiet little slice of Americana, good ole leather boots, apple pie and Friday Night Football. For a long time I was in denial that racism was a problem or that it even existed here. I thought it ironic I never experienced overt racism until I took a stand against it. I suppose it caught me off guard at first. After a couple days in summer for some reason fully grown adults felt the need to use explicit insults and racial slurs as they passed me by. These people are spineless cowards hurling insults from their cars. You can’t tell racism doesn’t exist here. Most of the time it’s not conscious, some don’t even know it. As a freshman one of my peers genuinely did not know the difference between Blacks and Latinos. To a great deal of them I was a different Black celebrity every day. They told me how to feel about being called the N word. I was even called a gorilla. But to them it was okay because they were just “joking”. For a while I was convinced it was just that, a joke.  It’s not just when a murder makes the news for many of us it’s a part of daily life. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation to educate someone. I think it’s something everyone should discuss. Because it is an issue and like many it starts in the home. And just like that house fire, ignoring it only makes it worse until there is nothing left to save. The current state of the world, of Tuscola has given to many a voice and courage they never had before. And for anyone who’s asking what this will change, it’s not up to me but you who sit before me. You are the change of lack thereof. Thank You”

The final comment came from Brian Patterson who also talked to the board about racism and he and his family’s experience dealing with it throughout his life. He says that, “I don’t come to talk to you tonight as somebody who has it all figured out. I’m learning, and I want you to come along with me.” Patterson talks about he and his wife’s experience in adopting their daughter from Haiti and the unconscious racism that happened as he and his wife were the only white people in the room. He said, “Nobody was mean to us, nobody said anything mean to us, nobody called us any names, no one refused any type of service to us, but the vibe of ‘why are you here’ was unmistakable. It was the only time that I was ever on the receiving side of that, and I still remember that all these years later, it’s been twelve or thirteen years later and I still remember this. And it was the beginning of the rethinking of what the concept of racism looks like. There’s something really huge about racism that I have learned recently that we have to be aware of. If I were to say to everyone in this room, ‘do you consider yourself to be a stupid person?’ You would say no, I would say no. Now, if i said ‘have you ever said or done a stupid thing?’ We’ve all done that. You don’t have to be a stupid person to say or do a stupid thing. Racism works very similarly, you don’t have to be a racist person, to say or do a racist thing. I wasn’t raised to think that way, I was raised to think that there were two types of people in the world. People who are racist and those who are not. But, it’s not like that, it’s not like gingivitis where you have it or you don’t. I think that is one of the reasons that conversations about racism get so defensive and heated because we operate in that mindset. We think that if we are going to talk about racism in the community, well you can’t talk about racism in a community without suggesting that there are people who are racist, and that’s insulting when you think of it like you are either racist or you’re not, because that’s not how racism works. You do not have to be a racist person to say or do a racist thing. When we’re talking about racism we’re not talking about who’s a good person and who’s not a good person, we’re talking about areas where we as people all need to grow. There are areas where all of us need to grow, and we need to do it together.” 

In their new buisness, the board began a conversation about racism at Tuscola schools. Mannen said that it is important for the board to talk about this because, “This has been a very prominent issue in our community and in our schools. There is no community that is immune to racism. In my opinion, we have a responsibility to teach our children not just to be non-racist, but to be anti-racist, and what that means. We all have to be willing to sit in the discomfort of the conversation. We have a responsibility to all of our students, particularity to our students of color in our district, to ensure that we have an educational environment that is anti-racist, and we have got to figure out how to do that.”

Spillman continued that he has had parents come forward to him with issues of racism in the schools and the fact that the administration did not handle it. He said that they asked him not to speak on it because the parents feared that the students would recieve retaliation if they spoke out. He said, “I think we as a school need to have a conversation about what racism is and how we want to deal with it.” He noted that it is important that the board puts policies in place for these situations. Alexander noted that there is a policy in place to handle these issues. Spillman also said that it is important that we begin teaching students about racism and begin implementing other ideas to promote diversity and other cultures throughout the schools. 

Williams said that she did have an idea for the board about what they could do, and the board chose to allow her to come back up and give her suggestions. Williams presented the idea of an assembly highlighting a local successful or influential Black person during Black History Month. This would allow them to tell their story and provide antidotes about things like racism, while giving the students a different perspective from someone that they could look up to. Fiscus expressed that he thought this was a wonderful idea and he hoped they could continue the conversation about it. Alexander agreed and said that it was very important for students to reach out to their school board and administrators. He encouraged all students to email their ideas for ways to improve the school. 

Beginning the principal reports, high school principal Steve Fiscus began with talking about TCHS’s drive-thru prom on June 13, where juniors and seniors could dress up and come to the school for prom pictures. Fiscus said that the event was pretty well attended, with about sixty total students coming. The school was also able to hold prom coronation, and crowned Emma Zimmer and Cameron Homann as the 2020 prom queen and king. He expressed his thank you to Mrs. Hoel and Mrs. Voyles for making the event possible. 

Fiscus also announced that there were some openings available at TCHS. The school is looking for two student council sponsors, an assistant volleyball coach, an assistant boys’ basketball coach, and an assistant track coach. He also reported that the remote learning committee has been hard at work to get a plan developed for school in the fall. Fiscus also told the board that following the proper IHSA guidelines, that students have been able to begin practices for the fall. Students and coaches are screened before entering the building and sent home if they are sick. He also reported that the gym floors have been refinished and are looking nice, he is hopeful that they can be practiced on soon. Fiscus ended saying goodbye and thank you to Mrs. Munson as she moves to be the Villa Grove school Superintendent. 

In her report, East Prairie Principal Carol Munson reported that they were planning for next year with the guidance for what is best. She also noted that there is also summer cleaning happening according to the guidelines. She ended saying that they have been hard at work to make the transition into next year as smooth as possible.

North Ward Principal Jason Wallace then gave his report. He reported that the preschool screenings at North Ward have been rescheduled for July 23 and 24. He also noted that they have been making plans for next year, and that he has been using a lot of resources to find tools for next year. Wallace ended with his goodbye to Mrs. Munson, saying that “she has been a blessing to so many people, I’m going to miss her guidance.” 

Tuscola Superintendent Gary Alexander began his report with his goodbye to Mrs. Munson, and wishing her lots of luck in Villa Grove. Alexander said that the state’s budget has been passed with hopes that they would receive help from the federal government. There is still a lot of uncertainty with what will happen with the upcoming fiscal year, with some concerns about incoming revenue. 

For building facility updates, Alexander reported that the asbestos is being removed from East Prairie, as well as beginning demolition on some of the classrooms. He noted that they are still waiting on the doors and passerby window at the high school due to delays with the coronavirus pandemic. He also reported that the materials would be needed soon for what was needed at East Prairie. 

Alexander also reported that the registration for the annual board conference has been moved until July, with the possibility of being pushed back further. He also noted that Quinn and Marx would like to continue their spots on the EIASE Board, and will renew them for the upcoming year. He also presented that a special budget meeting would be held on Thursday, July 25 at 5 p.m. 

Looking at opening in the fall, Alexander would like to create a community survey to send out with different options pertaining to opening in the fall. He would like to wait a little longer on the new guidelines before moving forward. He is hopeful that we can recieve some guidance to move forward in the fall. Alexander also noted that the board may want to continue holding the upcoming July board meeting in the East Prairie cafeteria. Mannen also noted that Spillman had made some recommendations to improve the quality of meetings moving forward since things were going to stay this way for a while. They hope to improve the quality of the microphones to promote a dialogue between board members.

The board also: 

Approved a donation in the amount of $250 from Illinois FS, inc for FFA. 

Approved a donation in the amount of $1000 from TNB Bank for Help a Child. 

Approved Mr. Spillman’s minutes from the May 27 regular board meeting and the June 4 special board meeting. 

Approved the payment of bills in the amount of $751,518.72.

Approved the monthly treasurer and bookkeeper’s reports. 

Approved closing the Class of 2020 activity fund and the opening of the Class of 2024 fund on July 1, 2020. 

Approved the contract renewal agreement for food management services with Aramark. 

Approved renewing the District insurance for 2020-2021. 

Approved moving to closed session to discuss 5 ILCS 120/2 (c ) (1)(2) 

Approved the resignation of Kendra Buchanan as EP Paraprofessional. 

Approved the resignation of Stacy Leuth as a TCHS teacher. 

Approved the resignation of Stephanie Goodwin as the TCHS assistant softball coach.

Approved the hiring of Johanna Steffens as Musical Director. 

Approved the hiring of Hannah Church as Assistant Musical Director. 

Approved the hiring of Donna Dietrich as the District Treasurer for FY 2021. 

Approved the hiring of Jerri Quinn as District Bookkeeper for FY 2021. 

Approved hiring Kara Bosch as the NW Paraprofessional. 

Adjourned until the July 27 meeting at 7 p.m.

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