Election 2023: Crystal Lake District 47 candidates talk teacher retention, school culture

Four seats open in Crystal Lake School District 47, nine candidates in race

Crystal Lake School District 47 School Board candidates, from left, top row: Devon Tessmer, Laura Stanton and Emily Smith. From left, bottom row: PaTrice Dewey and Lisa Messinger.  Jonathan Norquist and Kerri Johnson did not provide a photo.

Hiring and retaining teachers were high on the priority list for several candidates running for the four open seats on the Crystal Lake District 47 school board.

Incumbents Emily Smith and Devon Tessmer and challengers PaTrice Dewey, Kerri Johnson, Lisa Messinger, Will Schroeder and Laura Stanton are running for three four-year terms. Two candidates, Courtney Hand and Jonathan Norquist, are vying to fill a two-year seat.

The two-year seat was last held by Tessmer, who was appointed to the school board in July following a resignation. Tessmer is running for one of the full four-year terms.

Seven of the candidates spoke with the Northwest Herald about their candidacy. Hand and Schroeder declined an interview citing time constraints: Hand because of spring break, Schroeder for a family illness.

Johnson, a mother with children in the district who works in finance and marketing, said while transparency is high on her agenda, “I hope we do everything in our power to not mask our children again.”

It is the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic that drove her to run. “COVID did a number on us,” she said. “I watched my own children wrestle with ... getting through those 2 1/2 years.”

If elected, she plans to ask questions and push for greater transparency, Johnson said. Recently, she met with District 47 administration with questions about the health curriculum in her child’s class. She declined to say what part of the health curriculum she questioned.

“We have the right to go and review [curriculum], meet with administration and ask these tough questions,” Johnson said.

Norquist works as a user experience engineer, designing digital applications. His young child is not in the district yet but will be, Norquist said.

As an app developer, Norquist said he is aware of the amount of data collected by tech companies. While there is legislation that “deals with privacy and the data collected on students” he does not believe those laws go far enough to protect students, Norquist said.

By vetting the software and contracts used by the school district, he will “try to protect the kids’ data from being collected and tracked to help my son and his peers have a better future,” Norquist said.

For other candidates interviewed, hiring teachers and retaining those already employed by improving school cultures were high on their priority list for the next board term.

District residents “can have all of the opinions they want with what is going on in our schools, but if we don’t have teachers, it doesn’t matter what our opinions are,” Stanton said. A teacher in Lake Zurich, Stanton is a mother with four children in Crystal Lake schools.

She decided to run after being approached by current board members after attending meetings in early 2022 to thank teachers for their work, Stanton said. “I felt there needed to be some appreciation and positivity when what I felt was all pretty negative.”

Messinger, a pediatrician, is also a mother with children in the district running for the first time. She also began attending meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I was advocating for following public health recommendations ... to get kids back into school,” she said.

Disagreements that started with how to address COVID-19 guidelines have “turned into groups in our community who are complaining about curriculum and things that are simply not happening in our school” that undermine teachers and staff, Messinger said.

Listening to teachers and discovering what they need to help them enjoy coming to work each day should be part of the board’s function, Messinger said. What makes most people want to go to work “is the people you teach with and the culture of the school. When talking about teacher retention, you assume teachers don’t make enough money. I don’t think that is necessarily the case.”

Smith, who works in commercial real estate, is an incumbent who was appointed in 2022 following a resignation. It was her second appointment to the board, having served in from 2019 to 2021. She did not win the seat in that year’s election.

Respecting the teaching profession and supporting teachers can help retain them, Smith said. The board needs to find “unique ways to increase morale ... with professional development on district institute days” to help create a positive learning environment.

Finding ways to compensate teachers in ways not tied to a salary can help as well, Dewey said. She is also a district parent running for office for the first time and works in customer relations.

“Our teachers do a lot when not in the classroom,” and finding ways to increase their work-life balance and personal workloads can counteract potential burn out, she said.

Summers may seem a break, she said, but many educators work second jobs or take additional professional development courses during that time, Dewey said.

“They do deserve the time off. It is a hard, intensive job, and they don’t take their summer off,” she said.

Tessmer, a district mother now working in human resources, said a culture of “listening and support” has created a culture in District 47 schools that speaks for itself. What can help with teacher retention, for some schools, might be new attendance boundaries to ensure an equitable distribution of students to teachers.

If one school has a larger class size than others in the same grade, that is not equitable across the district, Tessmer said. Those students and teachers “are not getting the same resources and attention. There needs to balance, so there is equity.”

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