A coalition of community members from the four municipalities that comprise Thornton Fractional High School District 215, located south of Chicago, are calling for a change to the way the district’s school board is elected.
Citing years of unequal representation — the 93% minority district is represented by a nearly all-white board — the group of Calumet City, Lynwood, Burnham and Lansing residents proposes that each community has representation on the board proportionate to its population within the district.
The proposal, which proponents are asking school board members to place on the November ballot so it can be put to a community vote, would allot three seats to Lansing residents, two to Calumet City residents and one each to Lynwood and Burnham residents.
Residents of each municipality would vote only for candidates running to represent their community’s seat or seats on the board.
Historically, board members have been elected at-large, meaning all voters can choose any of the candidates, and that candidates may live anywhere in the district.
Opponents of the current at-large arrangement argue that it perpetuates an unequal system where Black and Hispanic candidates rarely win seats on the board and contributes to a cultural disconnect between the district’s elected leadership and the students and families they serve.
“Unfortunately, people do come to the table with their own biases,” said Sheryl Black, who had been the board’s only Black member before being unseated last year.
“If you don’t have relationships or really understand a different culture because that’s just not who you’ve been raised around, you can’t understand what the issues really are that impact that community you serve.”
The current seven-member board, which has six white members from Lansing and one black member from Burnham, illustrates the inequity of the system, said Tonya Reed, a Calumet City resident.
“I have nothing against anyone on that school board, they’re great people, but I don’t think the majority of the board should be from one city,” said Reed, a Hoover-Schrum School District 157 board member. “All cities have a diverse culture. We care about different things.”
Proponents of the electoral change said the lack of diverse board leadership over the years has created a school environment that can feel inhospitable to Black and Hispanic families, whose children make up about 90% of District 215 students.
Perhaps the best illustration of the board’s historic blind spot regarding racial issues is the Confederate flag that served as Thornton Fractional South High School’s official banner and waved from the Lansing building’s roof well into the 1990s, black community members said.
The school’s nickname, Rebels, which was chosen as a nod to Confederate soldiers, remains in place — for now.
The district’s only two former African-American board members, Black and Miacole Nelson said they felt silenced and dismissed by their colleagues when they tried to raise concerns about racial inequities in hiring and disciplinary actions taken against students and staff.
“When you have a group that doesn’t want to acknowledge there’s a race equity problem, that’s when you run into problems,” said Black, who served on the District 215 board from 2011 to 2019.
Nelson, a board member from 2013 to 2017, said serving as a Black woman was a challenging experience that left her emotionally drained and defeated.
“After a while, you just want to give up,” she said. “It was just me and Sheryl fighting a whole town.”
Both women said they felt like Black students and faculty were treated differently and disciplined more severely than their white counterparts.
State data on exclusionary discipline bear out their claims.
District 215 has suspended students at one of the highest rates in the state for years, and done so in a racially disproportionate manner, according to Illinois State Board of Education data.
All but five of the 476 Thornton Fractional students suspended or expelled in the past two years were students of color.
The district ranked seventh out of more than 400 Illinois districts last year in what ISBE calls “racial disproportionality rate,” a measure that compares the racial inequality of exclusionary discipline while controlling for size and demographic differences between districts.
District 215 Board President Michael Bolz, who is white, said he and his colleagues care deeply about the students at all four of the district’s schools, but acknowledged that, in his opinion, the school board could use more diverse representation.
He denied that past Black board members were mistreated or discounted and said the board had regularly discussed and tried to tackle racial equity issues head on.
Bolz pointed to the formation of an equity committee to right historic injustices, the adoption of restorative justice practices to address racial disparities in discipline and a push to get more minority students enrolled in Advanced Placement classes as examples of the board’s recent initiatives around racial equity.
The equity committee, chaired by the board’s lone current Black member, has helped revise District 215′s vision statement and spawned subcommittees that focus on the recruitment and retention of minority staff, among other things, Superintendent Sophia Jones said.
Jones, who is Black, said in a statement that she had requested the creation of an equity club for students that is tentatively expected to launch this fall.
She also pointed to a school board statement released last month, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, declaring its solidarity with students and staff members of color.
In its statement, which is posted on the district’s website, the board committed to work tirelessly to ensure that students have an educational environment free from racist acts, words and policies; invited faculty and staff of color to make their voices heard at board meetings; and called on white employees to act as allies to Black and Hispanic students and colleagues.
“We have an obligation to hold ourselves accountable, and we also have an obligation to promptly and unapologetically confront the overt and subtle racism encountered in our families, neighborhoods, community gatherings, and social media,” the statement reads.
Supporters of the push to diversify representation on the board said if its members really want to live up to their statement, they should pass a resolution putting the question of the board’s composition to voters.
“What’s wrong with letting the people decide?” said Reed, the District 157 board member.
Bolz said he thought the proposal to diversify representation on the board was a good idea that merited further discussion, but could not speak for his colleagues.
He raised concerns, however, about its potential to thin the pool of prospective board candidates.
Bolz said the board had appointed Black members in the past, including Nelson, to fill vacancies, but that it sometimes was difficult to find interested candidates.
Backers of the ballot referendum said a variety of obstacles have kept diverse candidates from running in the past, but expressed confidence they could find qualified candidates from each of the communities that comprise the district.
They said the challenges to finding prospective candidates include residents’ lack of awareness about what school boards do and who can serve on them, and a general mistrust and disillusionment with the electoral process.
When diverse candidates have run or have wanted to run for the District 215 board, the cost of doing so has also proved an impediment, Nelson said.
She said the slate she ran with in last year’s election lacked the financial resources to compete with the incumbent-backed slate and was forced to spend nearly $2,000 just to defend the validity of signatures they’d collected after a supporter of their opponents challenged them.
“We were out-funded,” said Black, who ran with Nelson and another African-American candidate.
Bolz denied that the man who disputed the slate’s signatures was affiliated with or known by the incumbents.
Black said she was hopeful that her former colleagues would support putting the question of town-specific representation to District 215 voters — the deadline for filing a ballot question is Aug. 3 — but that she and her allies were prepared to collect the signatures necessary to bypass the board and get the item placed on April’s ballot, if necessary.
“They shouldn’t fight anything if what they said in their solidarity statement is true,” she said.