Kankakee school board hopefuls back superintendent

March 14, 2019

KANKAKEE — Kankakee school board candidates said during a forum Tuesday they would vote to keep Genevra Walters as superintendent. And they said they would avoid engaging with school district critics on social media.

Seven candidates are vying for three seats on the school board in the April 2 election.

The candidates are incumbents Barbara Wells and Chris Bohlen and challengers Roy Bernard, Deborah Johnston, Patricia Santoyo-Marin, Pedro Solis and Linh Williams.

Tuesday’s event was sponsored by the Kankakee County Branch of the NAACP, the only organization that is holding public candidate forums in Kankakee this election season.

A couple of the questions:

Would you keep the superintendent, who started five years ago?

Bohlen: “Unequivocally yes. She has done an incredible job of causing change to happen in our community.” He said the district’s schools were failing before. “I’ve been on boards where we fired CEOs. That destroys the stability of an organization.”

Bernard: “I will depend on the knowledge of the superintendent. She has done many very good things.”

Solis: He said he hadn’t met Walters but heard her speak when he was in high school, where he graduated four years ago.”I support her at the moment,” he said. “Some policies I strongly disagree with.” He said he wouldn’t hesitate to dismiss a superintendent if that person works against the district’s interests.

Williams: She said she supports the superintendent, noting Walters is a Kankakee native. “Wonderful things are happening at the schools.”

Wells: Before Walters arrived, the district was “stagnant and sliding back.” Walters saw students weren’t being treated equitably and worked to change that, Wells said. “We have made a lot of progress as a school district,” she said. “The state knows the good things we are doing.”

Santoyo-Marin: She said she would support Walters to carry out best practices, so teachers would be empowered.

Johnston: “Loaded question,” she said in response. She said the district is moving in a “proper” direction under Walters. “She appears to know exactly what she is doing. She’s more visible than other superintendents I’ve worked with, and I’ve worked with a lot of them,” said Johnston, a retired Kankakee teacher and coach.

If you read something you know is derogatory or untrue about the school district on social media, how would you respond?

Wells: “Sometimes I’ve put my foot in it. I’ve said things. I’ve become more disciplined over time,” said Wells, the board’s president. “It’s an echo chamber of people who agree with each other. ... We need to put down the devices and talk to each other.”

Williams: She said she tends not to engage on social media when the discussion is negative. “Social media is not a great place to air our grievances. I’ve managed to keep myself clear and away from the negativity,” she said.

Bernard: He said he would not respond to things he sees as derogatory and untrue on social media, where he said discussions often “escalate problems and don’t solve anything.”

Bohlen: Citing school board policy, he said public communications should go through the superintendent or board president. “It would be helpful if the newspaper and the radio didn’t uncritically rely on social media without verification. That happens. It can be very damaging. We need to check out what’s true. There has to be a real responsibility,” he said.

Johnston: She said she doesn’t engage with negativity on social media. “I would never respond as a board member. It’s a no-win situation. No matter what you say, it’ll be wrong in someone’s eyes.”

Santoyo-Marin: “For some of us, social media is a way of being,” she said, noting she was a millennial. She said she would work through the proper channels to get out information.

Solis: He said the best way to handle social media criticism is not to avoid it. “Fight fire with fire,” he said. If people are saying untrue things about the district, officials should reach out to the critics and private message them. “Rather than running away or hiding, do something about it,” he said.