Filling Out the Oak Leaves Newspaper

Oh, this is what I do at 11:30 p.m. on a Friday night, filling out another candidate questionnaire, this one from the Oak Leaves newspaper. Mostly the same questions as other questionnaires, although with a few differences:

> Why are you running for election to the board?

I’m finishing up a four-year term on the Oak Park library board, and I hope that my extensive educational experience (as both a long-time student and a professor) can offer some helpful perspectives on the D200 board.

> What are the biggest challenges currently facing District 200 and what can the school board do to address them?

• adapting to the pandemic and its consequences will necessarily impact both the budget and day-to-day logistical planning; although we can hope that much of the community will be vaccinated before fall semester starts, masking will almost certainly need to continue through the fall, and I’d be looking to science and evidenced-based research to guide the board on appropriate actions

• as we continue to implement the IMAGINE plan at OPRF, I expect that each new phase will bring its own challenges along with concerns from the community; the board will need to be ready to explain its decisions (and possibly revise plans if needed by changing circumstances)

• keeping a focus on equity and a level playing field for all our students will require balancing complex needs and demands from various stakeholders, listening thoughtfully to community concerns, and working together to craft concrete and measurable steps towards improved equity

> What is most in need of change or improvement in the district and what do you think the board can do to facilitate this?

There are significant barriers along racial, ethnic, class, and gender lines that make it impossible for our students to work to their full potential; given the wider society we live in, this isn’t surprising, but in Oak Park & River Forest, we have an opportunity to increase educational opportunities for all of our students. The prior board and our outgoing superintendent have put some ambitious racial equity policies in place that will help to address some of these issues; the incoming board and superintendent will have the opportunity to support those initiatives and expand upon them.

> Should the board vote on education plans when it comes to how many hours or days per week students learn remotely?

Typically, I’d expect that the superintendent and staff would present a plan to the board, and that the board would respond to that plan, in a back-and-forth until all were in reasonable agreement. In a pandemic when the situation was changing rapidly and we were all learning on the job (building the plane as we tried to fly it, as many educators were saying last spring), I’d expect the board to give clear guidance to the staff on general expectations, and then let the staff bring their expertise to the actual day-to-day curricular and logistical plans. So no, the fine details of how many hours or days students learn remotely don’t seem appropriate matters for a board vote.

> When should full-time in-person learning resume at the school?

In general, I’m always going to say to follow the science and used evidence-based decision making. Every week, we learn more about this disease (and its variants), and how to best contain and treat it. Given current CDC guidelines for social distancing, I’m expecting that we’ll be in hybrid mode in the fall; I teach at UIC, and that’s what they communicated to us this past week. But the situation could change, and change again, depending on how quickly the vaccines roll out (with the J&J vaccine just approved this past week, for example, that will change availability for the better), how quickly pediatric vaccines are developed and approved, etc.

> Should the school district commit to further campus renovations at this time?

Yes — we should continue with the facilities plan.

> Are there cost savings you believe the board should be pursuing for the district? If so, in what areas?

I’m still fairly immersed in the library budget; I’m looking forward to looking at the D200 budget in more detail if elected. But that said, my experience on the library board was that there really weren’t a lot of obvious cost savings that hadn’t already been addressed — previous boards had already picked all the low-hanging fruit in that regard. We have been able to build in some savings, but it’s generally through things like technology improvements — switching to LED lights, for example, which will save us a lot of money in the long run.

> How would you rate how the district has addressed equity and inclusion amongst its diverse population of students. Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the district’s work?

This is a pretty special place — there’s a reason why my husband and I chose to come here to raise our mixed-race kids. Historically, this community has been working on these issues for decades, and in many ways, are ahead of neighboring communities and the country. But that said, this is a long road, and we still have quite a ways to go. It’s not the time to rest on our laurels, but rather to take the initiative and push forward, so that all of our students can achieve to their full potential and thrive in the school environment, and beyond.

> What is your profession?

I’m a writer and English professor at the University of Illinois.

> What town do you live in?

Oak Park.

> What else would you like voters to know?

Here are a few useful links:

My candidate web page: http://mohanrajforoakpark.com

My Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Anne_Mohanraj

My personal website: http://www.maryannemohanraj.com

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