D86 candidate TJ Edwards' questionnaire

Tamakia “TJ” Edwards

Attendance area: Darien

Years in District: 4 years

Age: 42

Education: BS, Architectural Engineering, Illinois Institute of Technology / MBA, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

Occupation: Chief of Staff, State of Illinois Capital Development Board

Community service: Member, Hinsdale Township District 86 Board of Education; Member, Hinsdale District Joint Facilities & Special Committee; Member, Hinsdale District Culture and Equity Leadership Team (CELT); Mentor, Growing & Empowering Myself Successfully (GEMS); EMBA Legacy Project, Green Apple Day, MLK Day of Service. I also pack care bags of toiletries to pass out to the homeless for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Board experience: Member, Hinsdale Township District 86 Board of Education; former Wells Temple of Deliverance (WTOD) Board Member

Why are you running for this particular seat at this particular time? I joined the board in August 2020, filling a vacancy from a former member. I wanted to help out by being as effective as I can for the 10 months left of the term. I have been involved in serving on the Hinsdale District Joint Facilities & Special Committee since September 2020 and I bring that experience with me as a board member. I joined the board right at the point where the semester was starting and, like everyone else, was under the impression that students would soon be fully back to in-person learning - something very important to me, as my family experienced first hand the early impacts of the pandemic having a class of 2020 senior at Hinsdale South. Immediately, the gravity of everything that was on the table was realized; the pandemic was no longer seen as a 4-5 month impact. There is so much work to do. I would like to continue to contribute and assist the District by responsibly returning the students to full-time, in-person learning; participating in important discussions around District curriculum initiatives; ensuring open and transparent dialogue between the community, board and District; and supporting the facilities special committee in delivering the referendum funded facility updates.

What in your personal or professional experience has prepared you to be an effective board member?

Overall, my work experience with mission driven focus and collaboration with stakeholders is my greatest asset to the BOE. My professional success is very much tied to consensus building among my stakeholders and establishing expectations and metrics. At the General Services Administration (GSA), I led an effort to evaluate costs to maintain, operate and renovate federal space compared to the cost of maintaining a lease. In this evaluation, my team conducted a feasibility study to determine if the proposed expenses to modernize the federal space would be cost effective in comparison to a lease agreement. This type of critical data evaluation is important as a member of the board as I consider long term financial, and other, impacts of decisions.

In my role as a Program Manager, I worked daily to build a bridge between expectations and results by finding the nuance between what is requested, truly desired and executable. Similar to my BOE role, this requires multiple skills – finance, organization, strong interpersonal skills, and making tradeoffs to maximize outputs. These types of experiences are helpful as I engage in my role as a board member for D86 because respecting differing views and building consensus is the only way to ensure we are acting in the best interest of the students and community.

At St. Vincent de Paul Center (SVDPC), a not-for-profit organization in Chicago focused on community engagement and partnership, I have used these skills to drive successful outcomes. I interacted with donors and community leaders and assisted SVDPC’s leadership in determining strategic ways to provide resources to the families they serve. I focused on engaging with stakeholders, while staying true to the organization’s mission.

While serving at WTOD, a church located in the Garfield Park area, a need to improve their surrounding land was identified. I led an effort working with the Garfield Park Conservatory to partner and procure a lot and create a beautification garden for community use. This garden helped eliminate a vacant lot used for dumping trash and turned it into a garden with colorful plantings, a water fountain and sitting area for the community to enjoy together.

What in your opinion are the board’s three most important responsibilities?

1. Ensure students safely return to in-person learning and address any learning gaps that have occurred due to the pandemic: The District is now up to 50% of students participating in in-person learning. As a District, we must continue to work with the Dupage County Health Department and Illinois Department of Public Health to ensure we are trending in the right direction. We do so by meeting the state and county’s requirements, and continuing to increase in-person participation . The partnership and continued dialogue between our administration, other school districts, local colleges and universities must also remain a major focus. This supports our sharing of the student’s experiences and concerns with future institutions, as well as aids the District in determining ways to mitigate stress and ensure future success as we continue to understand the global impacts this pandemic has had on our students.

2. Implementation of the District's vision and goals by establishing priorities: This includes continued efforts to address curriculum issues and completing facility improvements. The board has a duty to continue the necessary business of running the District, including oversight of the referendum work that continues as new phases begin. Furthermore, we must also work with the administration to oversee the District’s strategic plan and ask necessary questions to ensure its successful implementation.

3. Work to build effective communication and collaboration with community stakeholders: Having a standard of open communication and representing why certain decisions are being made is imperative to creating a positive community culture.

What is the District’s greatest strength? Which area is most in need of attention?

In my opinion, the District’s greatest strength is the passion and resources of the community. Community members are passionate about ensuring D86 remains a top performing and driven District. Community members share their opinions, and whether I agree or disagree with everything being said, I appreciate the perspectives and consider them all as I weigh the decisions I need to make. Community members are also willing to fill in when we have gaps and have a need. For example, with the students now having in-person lunch at both schools, community volunteers are filling in to aid as lunch monitors, allowing the District to continue to move towards providing the students as much normalcy as we can.

The area in most need of attention is more community communication and engagement. In my opinion, addressing school related issues during the pandemic has highlighted, once again, the need to spend more time providing insight into how and why specific decisions are being made. The misunderstandings that result from this lack of communication lead to misconceptions and assumptions that may not be an accurate account of decision making. We also need to work to engage more voices within D86. I believe our District would benefit from more ways to engage with the board and administrative team through opportunities like zoom coffee chats and town halls.

What is the most pressing budgetary matter the District will face over the next four years?

While the District received $900K in the Cares Act Grant, the cost associated with the pandemic still provides significant challenges in how we assess our Districts budget and anticipated funds. For example, the State of Illinois budget shortfalls related to the COVID-19 pandemic could pose some challenges for our District. The Evidence-Based Funding for the Student Success Act of the State of Illinois classifies District 86 as a Tier 4 District. In this tier, we receive the lowest amount of state funding of approximately $3.2 Mil. If the state does not receive their anticipated federal funding related to the pandemic and are required to make cuts and adjustments, it is possible that our District would be financially impacted. This funding shortfall could require our District to make tough financial decisions regarding services and staffing patterns to meet the current operational demands.

In addition, the successful passing of the referendum last year allows the District to address a significant amount of our infrastructure modernization needs. However, there is still a need to continue to improve our technology, instructional and physical education equipment. Ensuring that future processes set aside funds for these needs without requiring a referendum is critical for the District’s financial health.

What will be your top three priorities if elected?

1. Responsibly and safely return students to full in person instruction and address any education gaps that occurred during the past year

2. Champion opportunities and growth for all students

3. Collaborative relationships with administration, staff and community

These priorities are important as we strive to provide the students some resemblance of normalcy. In doing so, we want to continue the work of collaboration, communication and being champions for students as they prepare to leave the District for college and careers, and as others prepare to assimilate back into their respective routines.

Please cite a recent board decision that you have agreed with and one that you have disagreed with and briefly explain your reason(s) why.

I agree with the board’s determination to address equity in the District by providing access and opportunity to every student while meeting them where they are. This is not an effort to give every student exactly the same experience, but an opportunity to provide students the resources they need to succeed in their unique future. It is also an opportunity to provide experiences, curriculum and role models that reflect our diverse community. Our District is committed to meet each student where they are and offer them opportunities to grow academically, socially, and beyond. I want to ensure that this remains our focus as we explore new initiatives across the board. Our District has to be a strong resource and guide for our students and their families to ensure they exceed their full potential.

As a board member, community member and parent I have struggled with the decision to move audience communication to the end of the meeting. While the decision was made to curb the anger and frustration and allow an opportunity for information to be shared prior to the communication portion, what occurred was the opposite: the community felt disrespected and silenced. They felt that their concerns were not a priority and by pushing audience communication to the end of the meeting, they saw their voices as no longer welcomed and encouraged. In fact, our role on the board is to serve our community. I was firmly in favor of returning public comment to the beginning of board meetings and am thrilled to see it back there. Now, we must focus on regaining the community’s trust and rebuilding the bridge.