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BBCHS board meeting becomes forum for critical race theory

BRADLEY — More than 50 community members packed the Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School Board of Education meeting Monday, with several speaking out against critical race theory and about a dozen holding anti-CRT signs, despite the topic not being an agenda item.

The board heard an update on a new page on the district’s website chronicling the school’s equity efforts since 2014, as well as an informational item about a company the school might use to measure social-emotional learning.

Audience members vocally interjected when an administrator gave the proposal for use of the company, seeming to object to it equating to a critical race theory curriculum; however, school officials say it is only a data-gathering tool and has nothing to do with CRT.

“I don’t know exactly what they were here to protest because there was no action related to what they were protesting on the agenda,” Board President Justin Caldwell said.

Audience members filled all of the provided seating and stood in back and along the side of the BBCHS library, as the meeting was moved from the auditorium due to a play rehearsal.

Critical race theory in education has become a hot-button issue nationally, as several state legislatures have been debating bills seeking to ban its use in K-12 classrooms.

But what is it, exactly?

Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old, the core idea being that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies, according to the education news site EdWeek.org.

The contentiousness of the subject was evident by the heated debate parents engaged in during public comment.

Parents sound off

One parent in the audience voiced her disagreement with the opinions shared by the protesting parents.

“I heard both of [my adopted daughters] tell me that racism is real,” said parent Julie Smith, a retired local pastor. “My daughters were born in China, so race matters to me.”

“CRT has not been taught in schools,” she continued. “History has been taught in schools. History. Our country, whether you like it or not, has racist foundations.”

Audience members interjected over Smith’s comments, arguing that “this isn’t the answer.”

“What’s the answer then?” Smith responded. “Don’t teach our kids the reality of the world they live in?”

At this point, a woman in the audience stood up and walked over to a row of standing audience members and said “I love you as a person,” as she hugged individuals, starting with a man and woman who appeared to be the only people of color in attendance.

Caldwell reminded the room of the rules of public comment as audience members continued talking over Smith.

“I think the public participation was fine; we welcome it all,” Caldwell noted after the meeting. “I just would encourage everybody to be respectful of everybody’s opinion and thoughts when they are giving their public comments. Everybody has a voice and needs to be heard, and that’s the forum we set forth for it.”

Parent Jim Byrne, a former Kankakee County Board member who took to Facebook to ask concerned parents to protest critical race theory at BBCHS, urged school board members to vote against any “ideological curriculum.”

“Instead of focusing on what makes us separate, we should be focusing on what makes them successful, no matter their heritage, in a positive way working to their strengths,” he said.

Parent Neelie Panozzo said that she believes critical race theory “promotes hate and division” and “teaches kids to hate each other.”

“When we teach students of color they are oppressed, this sends a message to those students essentially saying, why bother striving to be the best that you can be, because you don’t have a chance to be successful. … There is only one race; that’s the human race.”

Parent Eric Lotz said he finds critical race theory to be both “very disturbing” and “very complex.”

“It is bringing us to a point where everything has a baseline of talking about race,” Lotz said. “Those conversations are very divisive.”

Lotz said he feels the concepts behind critical race theory discourage Black students from reaching their potential.

“I will tell you right now, there is not a Black child that I’ve met who looks at themselves as a victim,” he said. “They are capable of doing great things.”

Parent Dawn Coburn said the school should be focusing on “unity” rather than “equity.”

After this comment was made, a man in the audience interjected, “How about equality? Equity is [expletive].”

Admin report

When presenting on a potential partnership with Panorama Education, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Tiffany Kohl was met with interjections from the audience questioning the item.

Principal Brian Wright could be heard talking to audience members on the sidelines about the rules of meeting participation.

Kohl said administrators are looking into the services of Panorama Education to gather data on social-emotional learning competencies and school culture and climate.

She also noted that the company does not offer a curriculum.

“It is being investigated because it was brought to the attention of the district by the school board that there was no data to show improvements in these areas of the strategic plan,” she said.

This proposal was brought to the board’s learning success and culture committee for discussion, and it was being presented Monday night to the full board as an informational item, Kohl said, noting that no action was scheduled.

“Using Panorama, or any progress monitor, would allow for measures to be taken and analyzed during the school year in order to be more actionable in strategy,” Kohl said.

According to the company’s website, Panorama Education, “is an independent education technology company that partners with schools and districts to support student literacy and social-emotional learning (SEL).”

On the FAQ page of the company’s website, the company clarifies it is not affiliated with any particular academic or legal philosophy, including critical race theory, and it does not sell CRT to schools.

“Panorama is not connected to CRT and it is not a tool for teaching CRT,” the website states.

Equity work

Director of Communications Callie Kant talked about a revamp in the works on the district’s website with the goal of improving transparency and communication.

Using Blackboard software, which the board approved last year, new pages will be added to the website throughout the year informing the community of different goals and elements of the district’s strategic plan, Kant said.

She highlighted a new page that was created with the school’s equity team showing equity work since the 2014-15 school year.

The timeline chronicles racial equity book studies and diversity training with administration and staff, a partnership with Equal Opportunity Schools and the creation of a student organization called Students Organized Against Racism.

The information can be viewed at bbchs.org under the “district” and “about us” tabs.

“I think ultimately, our goal is to make sure that all of our students feel supported,” Superintendent Matt Vosberg said. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure all of our students are academically successful and prepared for life beyond high school.”

A dogwalker passes by on the trails at Perry Farm Park on a sunny fall day. The warmer temps that have lingered may be some of the last ahead of this weekend’s cold front, which brings a chance of flurries and below freezing nights. The first day of winter this year is Dec. 21.

A runner in a green jacket blends in along a trail of yellowing leaves at Perry Farm Park.

County board votes to not reconsider redistricting map

KANKAKEE — The Kankakee County Board voted 19-4 at Tuesday’s meeting to not reconsider the board’s previous approval of a 2021 redistricting map.

Robert Ellington-Snipes, who represents District 18, filed the motion to reconsider with a second from Janis Peters, District 8’s representative.

Days after the last board meeting, Snipes told the Daily Journal the map would disproportionately shrink minority representation because it would pit six incumbents, five of which are women or African-Americans, against each other in three districts if they run for reelection.

Other members of the board argued the map was drawn through a democratic process that was not focused on protecting the seats of incumbents.

A vote for reconsideration would have rescinded the previously approved map and left the board to produce a new map by Nov. 17. If they did not meet the time frame, a new map would be drawn by a committee overseen by County Clerk Dan Hendrickson, Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe said.

At the Oct. 12 meeting, board members present voted unanimously in favor of the second map proposed by the redistricting committee, which was developed after the 2020 census data was released.

“The map we passed on Oct. 12 showed only the percentages and not the boundary changes,” Snipes said on Tuesday. “This map stands in stark contrast to the fundamental integrity across gender, across culture, across ethnic equality and the fundamental principles of justice. We need a fair and equitable map for minorities that serve on this board,” he said.

According to the redistricting map, the board will retain 28 seats but six current board members will now be in three of the new districts.

Tinker Parker, who represents District 5, and Peters will both be in District 5 for next year’s primary election. Snipes and Kimberly Hudson, who represents District 15, will both be in District 15. Larry Kerkstra, who represents District 21, will be in the same district as Heather Bryan in District 23.

All districts will have elections for representatives in 2022. Because of redistricting, District 8, District 18 and District 21 will have no incumbents on the ballot.

Board Chairman Andy Wheeler of District 26 said that a motion to reconsider should happen within the same meeting as the vote, but allowed it after a motion to suspend the rules was filed.

“I would say we should go ahead and vote on this reconsideration because I don’t want anybody to say we tried to shut something down,” Wheeler said.

He said submitted maps were displayed and available for months.

“It was participation between three political parties to have an open and fair political process that was live, recorded, and could’ve been viewed by any board member,” he said.

Colton Ekhoff, who represents District 2, disagreed with Snipes on boundary changes.

“We all see the boundaries right here,” he said, referencing the map posters Wheeler retrieved during the discussion.

Stephen Liehr of District 28 commented on Snipes’ concern that the map violated civil rights protections.

“There’s nothing in this map that would prevent any group or even any protected class by law from having a candidate run in the districts that have been established, districts that meet the requirements of both the state and in terms of any civil rights legislation at the federal level.”

Rowe, when questioned by Steven Hunter, D-17, said he believed the map to be in compliance with civil rights law.

Peters, who voted against the approval of the first redistricting map and was absent for the second map vote, questioned District 5 extending from the Will County line to Aroma Park.

Rowe said District 5 was redrawn to not split up Pembroke Township, a community with a majority of minority residents.

“Then you diminish minority representation, you diminish the ability of a minority to get elected from a majority minority district, and then you run afoul of the Voting Rights Act,” he said.

Kankakee was also impacted by redrawing because it had low census turnout and its population dropped by 3,000 people, Rowe said. Roger Hess, District 1 representative and chairman of the redistricting committee, added the committee could have removed a district from Kankakee but chose to keep 28 districts.

Snipes said the map was “fundamentally unfair” and asked why the east Kankakee districts were changed but the west side was not. He also said that having no redistricting committee meetings in the evening limited the public’s chance for input.

“Where were those recommendations during the process?” Rowe asked.

Snipes, Peters, Kerkstra and Hudson voted in favor of the reconsideration.

Two members of the public commented in favor of making the map more inclusive toward minority representation at the beginning of the meeting before any motion was filed.

Chris Tholen, R-10, Joseph Swanson, R-14, Erik Rayman, R-20, and Kenneth Smith, R-27, were absent. Parker, R-5, left before the vote on the reconsideration was called.

A tree’s leaves mimic the golden hue of the tallgrass prairie at Perry Farm Park. MORE FALL PHOTOS