Jessica Mandra

District 102 School Board Candidate

Age: 46


Why are you running to be on the school board? What motivates you and what experience and perspectives would you bring to the job? How would those be valuable as an elected official? 

I have proudly worked in public education for the past 12 years. I believe deeply in public education’s power to lift up individuals, communities and our society. I would like to contribute my experience, skills and passion towards forwarding D102’s vision and mission as it works towards the goals outlined in the strategic plan. I believe my strengths include a deep understanding of the challenges facing D102 and other educational institutions today, from my own experience in the classroom, master’s degree in education management and working on my institution’s equity committee. 

I have over 20 years of experience in communication and community outreach which I believe would be an important contribution to the board. Recently, I was able to contribute my skills to help launch D102’s saliva testing program. Working with several D102 board members, superintendent, staff and professionals within the community, we were able to launch D102’s saliva testing prior to the start of school as an additional measure of safety during this pandemic. I am proud of our collective effort and enjoyed working with the multiple D102 stakeholders. 

My experience of having worked in higher education for over 12 years, including teaching as adjunct faculty and having my master’s degree in education management would be valuable as a school board member. I have a deep understanding of how planning, instruction and assessment work together to educate and support our students. Our district, like our students, is constantly learning and growing to improve as we collectively strive for excellence. I have been actively participating in the parent advisory committee (PAC) and volunteered through the PTO and within my daughter’s classroom. 

Furthermore, I have been elected Vice-Chair of my institution’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Shared Governance Committee for two consecutive years. While in this position, I have co-led the process of reviewing, amending and approving diversity and equity statements for the college. Furthermore, I spearheaded an institution-wide book club on Equity Talk to Equity Walk by Tia Brown McNair. As facilitator, I led discussion groups with all levels of employees from administration to faculty on strategy and tactics for how our institution could become more equitable. I believe my leadership experience as a vice-chair would be helpful as D102 implements the equity policy it approved in the fall.

I have been endorsed by the Delegate Assembly, a community organization that interviews and endorses D102 school board candidates. As a board member, I would champion D102’s mission to developing creative, innovative, problem-solvers with a passion for learning and empathy.

As a school board member you will be asked to balance what’s best for the district as a whole with what might be in the interest of specific groups. How will you do that? When have you had occasion to do something similar in the past and how did you accomplish that?

I think the key to managing these situations is to listen with an open mind but always keep the mission of the institution and the role of a board member in mind. In D102’s case, our mission is to educate all our children to the best of our ability and as a board member, all our decisions should support that mission. I think my experience in a leadership role has prepared me for listening to all parties with an open mind, exploring possible solutions that may satisfy all parties but should that not be possible to also move forward with the decision that best serves D102’s mission.

As Vice-Chair of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Shared Governance Committee at my institution we have had several instances of special interest groups making requests of the committee. Again, we refer to our charter to understand the scope of the committee’s work and engage in initiatives that move our mission forward. We also refer people to other institutional or community organizations that may be able to move their initiative forward.  

There will be specific group interests that qualify within our mission, such as special education and there will be areas that overlap with other institutions or government agencies, such as helping students with food insecurity. Where these needs are outside the district’s mission or the district is not able to serve these students’ needs within its own resources, we should look to create partnerships with other institutions and organizations to help meet the need as

The past year has been a challenge from the perspective of balancing the social, emotional and academic needs of students with the need to ensure the health and safety of all in the extended school family. What could the school district have done better to achieve that balance and what succeeded? What planning is needed to respond more quickly to any future disruptions in the traditional learning environment?

I think we have a lot to be proud of in D102. This year in particular, I have been pleased to see the remote education module, while not perfect, is demonstrably better than the remote experience from the spring. I feel that the administration and board members listened to their community in the fall and worked overtime to provide families with a choice for hybrid or fully remote learning. I also appreciate the board’s initiative and willingness to think outside the box and pilot saliva testing which has added another layer of safety during the pandemic.  And last but not least, I want to share my gratitude to our wonderful teachers this year who have also gone above and beyond learning a totally new way of teaching and courageously being there for our kids. I think every parent learned this year how hard being a teacher actually is. 

So I think the district got it right in providing choice for families between hybrid and remote and also in creating two models that have proven to be sustainable despite the surges of the pandemic. The fact that our students have been able to stay consistently in their learning model and that it is consistent day to day has been very beneficial. Other districts have gone back and forth from remote to in-person and that has shown to be disruptive and hard for students to adjust to. The district and board were very thoughtful about safety and providing the resources for safety measures such as 6 feet distancing, reduced class size, air purifiers, N95 masks, hand sanitizers as well as thinking through all the procedures for the in-person portion of learning.

As for what it could have done better, I will share my thoughts with the caveat and understanding that none of us have gone through a pandemic like this before. As for improvements, a theme I kept hearing at board meetings is communication. I think an area of growth for the district will be to strengthen the communication with our stakeholders, in particular with our teachers. In order to react quickly and pivot to accommodate new safety conditions, both negative and positive trends, we need to be inclusive and have two-way communication as we move forward. Strong relationships and open communication lines with our stakeholders is key to being able to quickly adapt to new developments.

How do you define equity? How has your thinking around the subject of equity evolved and what should District 102 do to address that subject?

Institutions spend a lot of time defining terms such as equity because it is important to have a common understanding of the term and concept when discussing whether policy or procedures are equitable. The Committee for Equity and Minority Achievement (CEMA), which is a committee comprised of D102 administration, board members, teachers, staff, parents and community members worked together and very thoughtfully developed the following definition of equity for D102. “Equity is defined as the absence of avoidable or remediable differences among groups of people achieved by providing all with resources and opportunities that fit their circumstances.”

D102 is committed to equity work and along with CEMA are already working on various areas with an equity lens. This included developing an equity policy which was approved by the board this fall. For those who are not familiar, I encourage our community to review the policy here.

Another example of D102’s commitment to equity is the investment and deep equity work it is doing with the consultant group Corwin. Corwin’s approach is evidence-based and focuses on demonstrating significant positive impact on student outcomes. We’ve also heard how they use the train-the-trainer model so that the district staff will learn the material well enough to train others and continue the work after the contract Corwin expires. The work also focuses on changing culture and climate which is important understanding of how organizations effectively change. 

This is an important development in equity work as we see a shift in perception that the problem of inequity lies in our systems, our policies and cultural norms and not with the individual. If the system and policies are inequitable, not inclusive or diverse then the outcomes are going to be too. So as a board, we really have to be willing to look at everything from the top down and ask – is this policy, norm or way of doing things equitable? And if not, be willing to change it so it is.

Equity is also about what each individual needs to succeed so another important factor is two-way communication and understanding what a student needs to succeed is going to be different for different students. A key factor to the success of equity is to involve and dialogue with the student. 

We all need to be open to reassessing how we reach our goals – administrators, teachers as well as parents. If the goal is student comprehension of the material, there are many ways that can be accomplished and we should be open to exploring that with our students. 

Again I know that all of D102 is committed to this work and along with CEMA are already working on many of these areas with an equity lens. But there is more to do and as a school board member I think it is important to ask the question is this equitable when making decisions on resources and policy, be open-minded about doing things a new way and be a champion for equity in our district in all our decisions.

As a school board member you will play a role in budgeting. How will your values inform your approach to budgeting and fiscal planning?

The district is in a stable financial situation currently with an annual budget of $45 million and has worked hard to grow its fund balance. However, a significant issue for D102 will be how to financially prepare our district for potential shortages in state funding in the near future. Assistant Superintendent of Finance, Tonisha Sibley shared at the budget review that the state of Illinois is warning school districts not to rely on state funding for their budgets in the next few years. Currently the state contributes 9% of the approximately 45 million dollar budget so that is a potential $4 million shortfall. 

As a board member, my inclusive approach and the value I see in planning and effective communication to build strong relationships would inform my approach to budgeting. I think cost cutting is a mindset with no item too small and I think it’s something we can do collectively as a district. I would like to know where teachers think we could cut costs and where we’re getting the most bang for our buck, where staff think we could innovate our processes and procedures to save money such as maybe going paperless or how we could partner better with our community. I also think we need to start planning early as we consider contractual and financial obligations moving forward. 

What are the biggest challenges facing District 102 and how should the school board address them?

The district continues to work hard and assess how best to provide quality education safely during the COVID pandemic. At the various board meetings, we have heard how some schools in our district aren’t seeing large gaps in learning while others are. Although these gaps are not surprising and have been experienced world-wide, we also know that the impact of these gaps is tends to be disproportionately high in minority and low income student populations. Our top priority needs to be to help our students that are struggling. 

And that work will continue as we hopefully experience a more normalized school year start in Fall 2021. The core mission of D102 is to provide relevant, rigorous and integrated curriculum that is all equitable for all students. We have had successes but we haven’t brought every student with and we haven’t reached all our academic achievement goals. I think the priority of the board should be to focus on the goals of the strategic plan and continue to work on realizing them fully. 

Thirdly, a significant issue for D102 will be how to financially prepare our district for potential shortages in state funding in the near future. The Assistant Superintendent of Finance, Tonisha Sibley shared at the budget review that the state of Illinois is warning school districts not to rely on state funding for their budgets in the next few years. Currently the state contributes 9% of the approximately 45 million dollar budget so that is a potential $4 million shortfall. Granted, some of the cost increases for this year have been COVID related and shouldn’t need to be continued. The $300,000 investment for 1:1 technology is a onetime cost and hopefully the 40% increase in custodial supplies and cost of saliva testing will not be necessary in the near future. However, we need to start planning now for how we’re going to address potential budgetary shortfalls.