Facility needs, school safety among hot topics in DeKalb District 428 school board race

Seven candidates, including three write-ins, vie for four seats in April 4 election.

Shaw Local 2021 file photo - Voters enter and leave the DeKalb County Legislative Center in Sycamore in April 2021, taking advantage of the last day of early voting before Tuesday's election.

DeKALB – With the April 4 election a week away, candidates vying for four seats on the DeKalb School District 428 board outlined their priorities and expressed their views on facility needs and school safety.

The race features incumbent Samantha McDavid, Vanta Bynum, Steve Byers and Christopher Boyes. Also in the race are Eric Larsen, incumbent David Seymour and Howard Solomon, all of whom are write-in candidates.

Board members Sarah Moses and Jeromy Olson are not seeking reelection to the board. Boyes could not be reached for comment.

For Byers, a former Huntley Middle School teacher now co-owner of Byers Brewing Company, his focus, if elected, will be building and maintaining bonds between the school board, the district and the community.

“I think maintaining a working relationship with all the parties involved really trying to make it so that I can be approachable for the people and the staff in the district, so that way we can work out the issues,” Byers said. “I think that’s my main thing is just to try to be there as somebody who can bring everybody’s opinions together.”

For Solomon, who served on the school board from 2015 to 2019, his main priorities, if elected, are education and helping people realize that success isn’t always defined by collegiate pathways but trade schools.

“It’s often demonstrated by those students who will become college-bound, and it’s a nice thing to say that 80% of students leaving a building at graduation are college-bound, but we don’t have to do that,” Solomon said. “I will care that they come out smart and respectful.”

Bynum, who is a former paraprofessional, said it’s all about bringing change to the school board and ensuring equal rights.

A majority of the candidates thought the district should maintain the number of school resource officers in DeKalb District 428 schools as opposed to seeking a reduction or an increase in personnel.

“I think I’d want to really just really talk to the teachers and say, ‘How are they feeling? Are they feeling that there’s a safe environment for the students that they lead and teach?’ I really go on their recommendation. The teachers, they’re the ones on the frontlines. They should have a significant voice in that.”

—  Eric Larson, DeKalb District 428 school board candidate

The district now employs five SROs thanks, in part, to a contract approved last fall with the city of DeKalb allowing for two at the high school, one at each of the middle schools and one rotating between the elementary schools that are in city limits. The board’s decision at the time came in response to citing student behavioral issues and wanting to promote a more safe learning environment.

Heading into next school year, the district is expected to weigh whether to amend the intergovernmental agreement between the district and the city to account for any changes needed to the number of SROs.

McDavid, who’s on her second stint as board president, said she is supportive of maintaining the current SRO staffing levels.

“I do not think we need to increase SROs,” she said. “I can’t say that we are where we will want to be to decrease.”

Seymour agreed.

“I was a part of that decision and I’m going to continue to stand behind the decision that we made,” Seymour said. “I remain with the decision to keep it the way it is, but open to [having] the conversation to see if we need to maintain or decrease. [I] don’t necessarily want to increase. One of the conversations that we had that was just about a year ago is to explore other options outside of SROs, but we decided to go the SRO route. [I] want to see how effective it is.”

Byers suggested that increasing the number of security assistants and social workers in the district is worth exploring more than adding additional SROs.

“They’re all there to support the kids’ needs,” Byers said. “When we see things like violence in schools and fights, most often kids are not getting their needs met.”

At the same time, Byers said having SROs in the school buildings doesn’t have to be a negative thing.

“They’re adults who care about our kids and are there for our kids,” Byers said. “It’s definitely more expensive than having teachers, so I think it would be more effective and more cost-effective especially to have smaller class sizes with more teachers. But I think SROs, they’re wonderful human beings. Many of them are great people. All of the ones I’ve worked with are awesome, and they really care about our community and our kids.”

Larsen said he believes the school board made the right call this past fall by increasing the number of SROs from three to five, but he would turn to the district’s teachers for further direction on the matter.

“I think I’d want to really just really talk to the teachers and say, ‘How are they feeling? Are they feeling that there’s a safe environment for the students that they lead and teach?’” Larsen said. “I really go on their recommendation. The teachers, they’re the ones on the frontlines. They should have a significant voice in that.”

Not everyone shared the same sentiment, however.

Bynum said she would support the district in decreasing the number of SROs in the schools.

“What we need to do is focus on the kids and have a connection or some type of communication with the kids,” Bynum said.

Bynum suggested that the district employ metal detectors, saying it would address the problems encountered by students in the schools.

One such challenge facing the district is facility needs and how to address class size and student programming needs. Not all the candidates shared the same views about how the school board recently decided to handle the matter by acquiring the School of Nursing building from Northern Illinois University.

Earlier this month, DeKalb School District 428 approved a $31.8 million plan to turn a Northern Illinois University building into a new elementary school by 2025 to accommodate north side families and reduce elementary classroom size.

The $1.86 million lease-to-purchase plan for NIU’s School of Nursing building, 1240 Normal Road, will renovate the space to open a three-section elementary school for the 2025-26 academic year. Costs to renovate the building will total about $28.5 million, according to district documents. Officials have said the plan won’t include a referendum.

McDavid said she feels she made the right decision to vote in support of the acquisition deal.

“The potential to open a building sooner and the potential to not have to go out to referendum according to school code – those were the two things that influenced the way that I voted on the decision as an individual,” McDavid said.

Seymour shared that sentiment.

“I absolutely do feel the right decision was made because in that specific area we have children in a community neighborhood being bused to five different schools throughout our district,” Seymour said. “This helps to alleviate so much travel and allows students to have a lot more efficient and convenient access to a school in the neighborhood.”

Solomon said he would not have supported the acquisition of the NIU nursing school building.

“I would have vote to delay,” Solomon said. “It’s a building. It’s not going anywhere.”

Solomon said he finds the nursing school building will prove to be more costly to convert into an elementary school than what the district has projected.

“The medical community has always left traces of stuff everywhere,” Solomon said. “I think the cleanup of that is going to be more expensive than anticipated because doing something with a hospital … it takes years to get it to be non-contaminated. So, I think we may have made a decision that we hadn’t thought through everything that needs to be thought through.”

Some candidates felt another facility proposal involving the former Camelot School building located off Sixth Street that was pitched by local businessman Jim Mason to the school board and the district’s administration for consideration wasn’t given a fair shake.

The matter did not come before the DeKalb School Board for a vote.

Solomon said he doesn’t believe Mason’s proposal was given serious consideration.

“One of the things I know about the board having been on it for four years is that the real decision-making is done ahead of the meeting,” Solomon said. “You don’t go to a meeting and expect to actually be involved in a lot of debate between people. People will raise points, all the individual members of the board. But it’s decided in the hour between 6 and 7 [p.m.] … Most decisions are made in the backroom. I am confident that’s the way it went.”

Larsen shared that sentiment.

“It appeared that the decision was made that they wanted to go with NIU nursing building no matter what and that was the decision that was made,” Larsen said. “That’s my observation. So, any other alternative really wasn’t really on the table for those that had already decided they really wanted the NIU building.”

McDavid disagreed, saying the board gave the proposal careful consideration. She acknowledged that Jim Mason’s original pitch differed from his latest but said it still didn’t make sense to move forward with it.

“It wasn’t a new proposal. It was an updated proposal from Jim Mason,” McDavid said. “He had already offered the building for a cost. With his new proposal from what I’m understanding, he was removing the cost as long as the district would in exchange for the district paying for the cost of a new school back to the taxpayers. While I think that that was considered, the building itself was not in the neighborhood that we were looking for and wouldn’t really suit the needs that we have at this time. For those reasons, it did not seem like a viable option.”

Megann Horstead

Megann Horstead

Megann Horstead covers local government for the Daily Chronicle.