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Thursday, May 4, 2006 10:10 pm

The Wise Choice

What lies ahead for District 186 and its new school board president

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When she became president of the District 186 Board of Education, Cheryl Wise shifted her seat three spaces to the right. Her old seat, at the end of the board table, is now occupied by outgoing board President Judy Johnson. Now, whether she or anyone else likes it, Wise is front and center — and both she and Johnson will have to get used to the change. Johnson, a straight-talking board veteran, has often used her position to speak her mind on such controversial issues as racial profiling. But where Johnson has made some uneasy in her outspokenness, Wise plays her cards closer to the vest. She’s tougher to read — and that scares people. In 2004, Wise offered up the idea of ending Springfield’s busing program, which had been the district’s solution to a mandate to desegregate its schools. At the time, members of the school board, as well as people in the community, said that Wise should have discussed her idea with others before floating it at a public meeting, creating a brief public-relations nightmare for the district.  Wise again ruffled feathers last month when she decided to run for the school-board presidency. She brokered a deal with Republicans on the officially unpartisan board whereby they’d support Wise for president if she took on board member Cindy Tate as vice president. At that meeting, several audience members, including Springfield NAACP president Ken Page, called Wise a racist. It was all the buzz for about a day and a half. Now that the dust has settled — or so Wise hopes — still very little is known about the new board president. One on one, she is relaxed and articulate, even congenial. When she’s in the spotlight — be it on a morning radio talk show or in front of a newspaper photographer — she falters and has difficulty expressing herself. Most who have worked alongside her believe Wise to be well intentioned. Cinda Klickna, secretary-treasurer of the Illinois Education Association, worked briefly with Wise. “Her heart is in the right place, she cares about students, and, with her background in finances, she is always looking for money-saving options,” Klickna says, “so she often asks some tough questions and ones that may cause controversy if they aren’t understood in their context.”
The 47-year-old board president last week allowed Illinois Times pick her brain, talking candidly about her plans for the District 186 school board.
Bridging the gap
In 1976, a federal court ordered the desegregation of Springfield’s District 186, a ruling that led to district-wide busing. Two years ago, Wise broached the idea of ending the busing program in the district of 14,000 students, saying that children might benefit from attending schools in their neighborhoods. Her rationale: Ending busing could also help close the so-called academic-achievement gap between black and white students and students of varying economic backgrounds. Since her proposal, Springfield’s black student population has grown to 38 percent. Meanwhile, the number of white students in Springfield schools continues to fall. Wise’s opinion, at least with regard to a community-based approach, hasn’t changed much. Though Wise is no longer calling for an end to busing, she believes that Springfield’s communities are more diverse now than they were in the ’70s.
She clarifies her side of the conversation with former board president Johnson, who has said that Wise told her that during her tenure she focused too much on minority issues: “I don’t think [Johnson] focused too much, but I am starting to worry about students who are already achieving, so to speak — whether they’re being challenged, whether they’re moving along. “There’s a misperception out there that I’m for segregation, and that’s not true at all,” she says. Wise points to her own Washington Park neighborhood as proof, saying that if Springfield’s African-American population is 12 to 15 percent, “I would say that we’re pretty close to that, so maybe where I live is just a little bit different from everywhere else in town and there’s a lot more diversity in our neighborhoods now than there was 30 years ago — there was practically none. “The areas where I drive regularly — to work, to the grocery store, down MacArthur — there are plenty of black people I see all the time, so I don’t feel that there’s a segregation of neighborhoods like there used to be, but I truly believe that a community needs to get around its students, its children to help them achieve. “It hasn’t helped the community to support its children by packing them on a bus and sending them across town. I don’t think it supports families that way.”
Would it be acceptable, then, if schools were racially segregated yet meeting adequate yearly progress standards set forth by the No Child Left Behind Act? Wise, who was one of an experimental group of white students bused to Southeast High School, says that the experience was great for her. “I had never been around black people, so it’s great for people like me. I don’t know if just going to school with a white person makes a black person automatically smarter. “It depends on who are you are, if that’s an issue for you.”

School bored
Board meetings are usually not very interesting for the average person, Wise admits. They’re also long. For those who’ve never attended one, the public meeting begins at 6:45 with comments from the president of the board and special recognitions, followed by acronym-heavy presentations, approval of new district policies, and reports from the board president, superintendent, and business manager. On a good night, the meeting is adjourned around 8 p.m. Before that, board members have already batted around personnel and student-discipline issues during a closed executive session. Wise, who works part-time as an accountant and has two sons — one in grade school, the other in high school — with her husband, Peter, thinks the agenda can be streamlined to make meetings run more efficiently. “We’re there from 5:30, so by 8:30 or 9 we’re ready to go — or, at least, I am. It makes for a very long day. I’m just trying to make it so that our volunteer efforts are as efficient as can be.”
One solution she will propose is to have “board salutes,” where board members give special recognition, once a month instead of at every meeting. She also wants to skip roll-call votes on every issue and use unanimous consent more. “Right now our meetings are business meetings and there’s no real opportunity to interact with constituents, and it would be nice to give people an opportunity to come in and say, ‘This is really good’ or ‘No, we don’t like this.’
“I think it would be really great,” she says, to hear the voices of students and parents. To that end, she proposes adding a student-advisor position, likely a high-schooler, to the board and holding quarterly town-hall-style meetings with parents. On Tuesday, the board got on board with Wise’s proposals for streamlining the meetings. Next Wise will introduce her ideas for improving student achievement, which the six remaining members of the board would have to agree to before they can be implemented. “This is how I see it; I’m not the consensus of the board,” Wise says. Rudy Davenport, president of the Springfield NAACP during Wise’s controversial busing proposal, isn’t sure the board can now reach a consensus. In his view, Wise’s credibility both on the board as well as in the community is ruined. “Everyone I have talked to seems to think that bringing the issue up two years ago didn’t do any good and it wasn’t any good how [Wise] became president of the board,” Davenport says. Although it may have helped solidify her decision, attending a Sunday-school class, as the State Journal-Register reported recently, wasn’t the catalyst for her choosing to run for school-board president, Wise says.
“No, no, no,” she says. “I never — well, I shouldn’t say that I don’t ever — but it’s not very often that I make a rash decision. I’d given it some serious thought last year, when I became vice president. Typically, that’s the path.”
Though it was not a “great aspiration” of hers to even serve on the school board, Wise says, three years ago, when she did run, she won 65 percent of the vote in a four-way race. “‘You earned the most votes out of all of us — would you like to be president?’ ” Wise says a fellow board member asked. “I did not want to be school-board president then, not as a brand-new school-board member.”
As time passed, Wise decided to work toward achieving a comfort level with what she knew would be a sizable learning curve serving on the school board.
“If you’re just a person off the street like me, you don’t know the ins and outs of the running of a school district, and so there’s a lot to learn. I thought, ‘After the first year I’ll feel comfortable in this position,’ and really it took two years to really learn what to expect and how the system works.”
In fact, running for board president involved a lot of thought, Wise says because she knew that overcoming her fears would be a challenge. “I don’t really like to get up in front of people and talk, so that’s going to be a challenge for me — so I had concerns about that.”
Then Wise’s mother died, and Wise wondered about the wisdom of taking on the responsibility of running board meetings: “I didn’t know if I was ready for that, because her death was quite unexpected.”
To be sure, she’ll have to grow out of her shyness as the new public face of the District 186 school board, where she views the board’s role as a conduit for voices of the community. She says that she and other members of the education community are just hoping to remain focused and knuckle-down to get as much accomplished as possible in the next month, before the school year ends. Robin Ehrhart, president of the Springfield Education Association, wants the board to take a team approach and work on building relationships with each other, as well as the district. The community, Ehrhart says, is certainly part of the team. As a somewhat controversial figure, Wise isn’t sure whether her serving as a board president will translate into increased attendance by members of the community. Sheila Stocks-Smith, education liaison to Mayor Tim Davlin and the organizer of recent local education seminars, expects Wise’s presence to reinvigorate the discussion of student achievement. “Members of the community are concerned and will be paying closer attention. I’m optimistic that these issues will be highlighted. Stocks-Smith says the district has to move past Wise’s election and move forward. However, there was one more change at this week’s meeting. According to District 186 Superintendent Diane Rutledge, several board and community members requested that a Springfield police officer provide security at the meetings.
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