All seven candidates for Dixon school board discuss CRT, sex ed, other issues

Discover Dixon organizes candidates forum held at Dixon Theatre

Moderator Dave Hellmich runs the Dixon candidates forum held on Thursday, March 16, 2023 at the Dixon Historic Theatre.

DIXON – Seven candidates up for three seats on the Dixon Public Schools Board answered voter questions on a range of subjects, including their views of critical race theory and the role of sex education, in a forum Thursday at the Dixon Theatre.

It was an opportunity for the candidates to introduce themselves – most are running for the first time – and to make points that distinguished each from another in a large field.

The consolidated election for school boards and municipal offices is April 4.

Sauk Valley Community College President David Hellmich served as moderator for the event, which was organized by Discover Dixon.

Critical race theory

On critical race theory, Hellmich presented the Encyclopedia Britannica definition of the subject – that racism creates and maintains social, economic and political inequality between whites and nonwhites – and asked whether it should be part of school curriculum.

Kathleen Schaefer, a children’s activity coordinator at the Dixon Public Library who is serving the remainder of an unexpired term, said she’s read up on the subject and “my understanding is it’s a college-level course, so I do not feel it is appropriate to teach it.”

That point was echoed by others, including Matthew Lenox, a marketer with Discover Dixon, who said, “I wouldn’t expect our kids to be learning college-level algebra in the first grade, so I wouldn’t expect them to be learning critical race theory at the same time.”

Demaris Martinez, a former legal secretary now employed by the Young Americas Foundation at the Reagan Boyhood Home, said CRT has no place in any school.

“We need to be focusing on academics right now,” he said.

Victoria Bowers, a preschool instructor at Woodlawn Arts in Sterling, said Dixon’s current curriculum is appropriate, but she broadened the discussion.

“I think it’s important to recognize the role that racism has played throughout American history in our evolution as a country. I also think it’s important for a district curriculum to use culturally relevant content so that students of color feel safe and supported,” she said.

Sex education

The subject shifted to sex education, in light of developments last year, when the district joined most others in the region in rejecting the comprehensive curriculum based on national standards that the state was recommending.

“This was a long-debated topic with our school board,” said Melissa Gates, a clinical mental health professional seeking her second four-year term.

She said the district should keep local control on this as long as it can.

“Dixon has made a very strong stand, and we will continue to do that,” Gates said.

David Fritts, a former public defender and judge, said gaining parental input is vital.

Taylor Payne, who works for Allied Locke, stands with the current board’s position and the need to keep local control.

For Martinez, “we should go back to the way sex ed was taught in basic biology” and leave the subject to the parents to instruct at home.

Lenox considered it an important topic but said it should be “thoughtful” and must be age-appropriate.

Schaefer said she is comfortable with the district’s current stance and also noted that she was thankful decision-making was kept local.

Bowers stressed that materials must be age-appropriate and that parents should always have the option to opt out, but said offering access to sex ed reduces the rates of sexual activity and teen pregnancy.

“I will always, always advocate for sex education in schools,” she said.


The subject of the appropriate use of technology elicited several responses.

Fritts acknowledged its growing importance but stressed keeping classrooms human-directed.

Lenox shared his experience experimenting with artificial intelligence and his concerns over the rapid rate of change and its effect on middle school students.

Schaefer, who runs a coding opportunity for school-age children at the library, said it is great to see how kids who don’t learn in the traditional way have benefited from the program.

Payne then commended Schaefer on having that class, noting that he’s seen its benefits in his own children.

Gates said that during the COVID-19 lockdown she was “proud to be a part of a board that was so responsive in providing Chromebooks” so that the community and families not only were able to survive but also thrive during that time.

It also was mentioned that new tools have improved communication between parents and teachers on student progress.

Martinez called technology a double-edged sword, contrasting its utility for information but noting research that shows adverse effects of social media interactions on the health and well-being of teens.

“I think social media has been incredibly harmful to our youth,” she said.

Safety and security

There was little variance in acceptable approaches to safety and security: hardening of entrances to schools, identifying bullying and red flags, comprehensive response plans and commending local law enforcement for long-standing partnerships.

As the youngest candidates, Lenox and Payne both shared the perspective of having grown up knowing school shooting concerns.

“This community has done a lot on this in the last few years,” Payne said, “getting to the root of it before it’s anything serious,” adding that community engagement and getting feedback from students is important.

Lenox was part of that first generation of students subjected to active shooter drills.

“I always thought that our teachers and administration did a great job of explaining these things to us in a way that was appropriate and effective. … That is how you should be able to engage the community,” Lenox said.

Societal problems

Societal woes such as poverty and a district’s role also were discussed.

Payne said schools should take a lead role in collaborating with outside agencies.

Fritts said, “We need to deal with these issues … bring in other agencies … not lose the focus that a good education is the best way to deal with these issues.”

Lenox said the district works best as a facilitator and touted the 2-1-1 information line run by United Way.

Schaefer called dealing with these issues important because they are “barriers to our children’s education.”

Gates said schools must collaborate with existing entities that provide counseling, educational programs, food programs and physical health opportunities.

Special education

Gates, who has been on the district’s special education committee for four years after running on a pledge to be an advocate in the area, said staffing remains a challenge.

She said it was correct to extend to the special ed staff the ability to get paid for extended work hours to meet those needs.

Schaefer said she is encouraged by the board’s recent discussions to replace the outplacing of special ed students at other schools and establish a therapeutic day school within the district.

Lenox shared his story of an older sister requiring special education and how that district designed ways to be inclusive.

Martinez said she’s had discussions with parents of special ed students who express that their children’s needs are not being addressed.

Other topics

Staffing problems, which are being felt nationwide, also were discussed.

All of the candidates affirmed that the quality of education in Dixon had advantages over larger communities, including extracurricular activities, even when the district can’t afford a broader range of electives.

There was general agreement that the role of a board member is to listen to day-to-day concerns but direct those issues related to school operations to the appropriate teacher, staffer or administrator while reserving board member responsibilities to the governance of the district itself.

All of the candidates pledged to make themselves available and to be visible at district functions.

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Troy Taylor

Troy E. Taylor

Was named editor for and the Gazette and Telegraph in 2021. An Illinois native, he has been a reporter or editor in daily newspapers since 1989.