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Thursday, March 31, 2005 06:46 pm

Class acts

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Erin Conley has the support of Mayor Tim Davlin and other Democrats.
PHOTO BY TODD SPIVAK

The lone contested race for the Springfield School Board features two North Side residents with professional backgrounds in science and records of community service. Both vow to work as advocates for the most troubled schools in District 186.

Even the candidates, Erin Conley and Brad Mills, admit that there isn’t much to distinguish them.

“There’s no need for a debate,” Mills says. “Our platforms are similar; our goals are the same.”

As a result, the aim for each nominee has been simply to knock on as many doors and shake as many hands as possible before Tuesday.

That’s no easy feat.

Subdistrict 2 is the most geographically vast of the board’s seven. It extends north-south from beyond the airport to Mason Street and east-west from Hazlett Lane to Granger Drive.

“I really should have a pedometer,” Conley says.

The two candidates are vying for the open seat left by Tom Blasko, who is stepping down from the school board after 16 years.

Both Conley and Mills — who have each raised roughly $5,000 for the contest — promise to be accessible to constituents and emphasize the importance of building maintenance and school safety.

“We’ve seen some catastrophes happen in schools that we don’t want to ever see in District 186,” says Mills, who advocates having a uniformed security guard at every public high school.

Though the winner will represent the entire school district, both candidates say that they will keep a special focus on the performance of North End schools, which include Addams, Enos, Fairview, McClernand, Ridgely, and Wilcox elementary schools.

“These schools need extra attention because they have very high poverty and mobility rates,” says Conley, who wants to increase mentoring and tutoring programs throughout the district.

Conley, 33, was born in St. Louis and grew up in Peoria, where she attended a Catholic high school. She earned a bachelor’s degree in plant biology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and moved to Springfield nearly eight years ago.

Conley has worked for five years as a rules coordinator for the Illinois Pollution Control Board. She also serves as vice president of the Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association. Two of her three children attend public schools.

This marks Conley’s first bid for elective office, though she helped ex-husband Joe Keck in his unsuccessful campaigns for the school board and mayor’s office.

Mills, 45, is a Springfield native and graduate of Lanphier High School. He attended Lincoln Land Community College, then graduated from Penn State University’s College of Technology.

He has worked for nine years as a stationary engineer for the Illinois secretary of state. He is also a past member of Knights of Columbus Council 4175, as well as a former board member of the social-service agency MERCY Communities. All four of his children have attended public schools.

This marks the second time Mills has run for elective office. A longtime precinct worker, he once made an unsuccessful bid for precinct committeeman.

The school-board position is unpaid and nonpartisan, though that has not deterred local party officials from getting involved.

Conley, a Democrat, has received the backing of Democratic leaders such as Mayor Tim Davlin, who hosted a recent fundraiser for her at Chantilly Lace.

Mills, a Republican, has received support from local Republican Party leaders. Earlier this month Mills gained the endorsement of the Springfield Education Association, the local teachers’ union.

Sangamon County Democratic Party Chairman Patrick “Tim” Timoney says that precinct workers from both parties will be “out in full force” for the election, which, he predicts, will draw fewer than 25 percent of registered voters to the polls.

Two incumbent board members will also be on the April 5 ballot: Melinda LaBarre (subdistrict 4) and Judy Johnson (subdistrict 6) are running unopposed.

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