Earlier this year at a school board meeting in the south suburbs, Sheryl Black asked two fellow board members to withdraw their bid for reelection in Thornton Fractional High School District 215.
“If we’re serious about trying to make our board diverse,” she recalled saying, “would you two be willing to step down to allow some people from the other communities to have representation on the board?”
They didn’t do it — but she made her point.
The schools around Lansing have been shifting over the years from mostly white to mostly black with a growing Hispanic population. But the school board hasn’t been changing with it.
Black was the first person of color to be elected to that school board in 2011, making it six white members and one black member. The district includes four communities — Burnham, Calumet City, Lansing and Lynwood. But all members at the time of this meeting were from Lansing.
Like public schools across the country, many districts in the Chicago suburbs are becoming more diverse, but that change isn’t necessarily reflected on local school boards.
WBEZ asked about 140 school districts in Cook County to give the gender and racial breakdown of their boards. Of the districts where information was available, less than a quarter of boards truly mirror the racial demographics of the student population they serve.
This mirrors a national trend. According to a 2018 survey by the National School Boards Association, 78% of school boards that responded across the country identified as white. The latest numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics show about 49% of public school students are white.
“If the majority of the community is comprised of persons of color, for example, and none of them sitting on a school board, there can be a tendency to say well, ‘They don’t really understand where we’re coming from,’” said Thomas Gentzel, executive director and CEO of NSBA.
School board politics
Administrators don’t have control over who sits on a school board. It’s up to voters. But districts can play a key role in who is participating.
Black said the District 215 school board had been talking about how to include more people of color and people from the other towns in the school district. She said parents told her they felt ignored by the district.
“I think it’s important to have people on city council, school board and all of that to let you know that your voice matters,” she said. “You have people that have a voice that look like you.”
Current 215 board president Michael Bolz said representation and diversity is important, but he thought Black’s request during a public meeting was inappropriate. He said the spring election was divisive and did not lend itself to healthy discourse about race.
“It turned into the politics of race at a very local level,” Bolz said. “Voting for a white board member versus a black school board member instead of considering all the issues on the table and the qualifications of the candidates beyond just their race.”
Black got two other African American candidates to run with her during that election. They ran against a slate of two white incumbents and another African American woman. Black’s slate lost, and she had to give up her seat. The racial breakdown of the board remains the same; six white and one black member.
Gentzel of the National School Boards Association said he sees school boards becoming more diverse, but it’s still common to see a mismatch in demographics. He said there are a number of factors that can contribute, like the challenge of unseating a long-standing board member.
“It can be difficult even to find people willing to run for school board or to make that commitment,” he said. “The turnout at the election can be very low which can also allow certain interest groups on occasion to have undue influence on an election.”
He said getting people interested in becoming a candidate is difficult because the position is unpaid and time-consuming. Boards are also responsible for major decisions, like approving budgets and hiring a superintendent. So while representation matters, Gentzel said it’s more important that the board understands what’s best for students.
“They need to be responsive to those needs,” Gentzel said. “I think that’s probably the most important element in terms of making sure that we’re probably focused on student achievement and student success.”
Diversity broadly defined
Many Cook County school districts approached by WBEZ about the racial makeup of their school boards said they were not required to keep that data. Other said they felt uncomfortable asking for that information
But some districts responded with extra demographics, like District 91 in Forest Park, where the student population is about half black, a quarter white and a mix of Hispanic and biracial kids.
“As a person of color who has been a participant in many areas where I am the only person of color, I’ve come to recognize that the voice of the other is really important,” said Kyra Tyler, president of the District 91 school board. “But I also like to think about diversity a little more broadly.”
The west suburban school board is made up of five white and two black members, but Tyler said they consider other factors, like age, whether someone rents or owns, or even if parents are a different race from their kids. She said all those voices need to be heard.
Superintendent Louis Cavallo said with the help of the board, the district has gotten more serious about its diversity and equity initiatives. He said engagement is a key part of that, and the district has worked hard to connect with as many corners of the school community as possible.
Other districts said they have advisory boards and caucuses that help recruit and endorse candidates. Some have made a more conscious effort to reach out to diverse candidates.
Thornton Fractional High School District 215 has recently made those efforts, too. The south suburban school district has a new superintendent, Dr. Teresa Lance. She knows parents have felt ignored by the schools, so she’s beefing up the engagement. The district recently formed a parent advisory group, and the board is starting a new equity committee.
But Lance said board representation doesn’t necessarily mean students will be better off.
“There’s a lot of conversation around the board [about] their race and ethnicity mirroring the demographics of the district,” she said. “But you can see that there are districts where the demographics of the board and the student population mirror each other, but students still aren’t performing at a high level.
She said what matters most is that the board prioritizes students and listens to all parts of the community.
“The more folks can have their voices heard at board meetings, public comment and again, holding us accountable to doing what we said we were going to do, that’s more important than anything else,” she said.
This story is part of Changing Classrooms, an occasional series at WBEZ.org looking at how local schools are adjusting to growing student diversity in the Chicago suburbs.