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Peoria Public Schools District 2 candidates discuss school safety, parental involvement

The League of Women Voters Greater Peoria hosted the three District 2 candidates May 26 at the Peoria City/County Health Department.
Mike Rundle
The League of Women Voters Greater Peoria hosted the three District 2 candidates May 26 at the Peoria City/County Health Department.

With the election about one month away, three candidates vying for two spots on the Peoria Public Schools Board of Education gathered Thursday night to take questions regarding the current state of Peoria’s public school system.

Paris McConnell, Dan Walther and current Board President Gregory Wilson are on the ballot to represent District Two for Peoria Public Schools. Walther served on the Board from 2016 until being unseated in a tight race with current board member Mike Murphy last summer; Wilson has served on the Board since 2017, and was elected president in July of last year; McConnell is a newcomer to the arena, but was an active PTO member when her children attended Peoria Public Schools and has served on a number of local committees, including those with the Center for Prevention of Abuse and Court Appointed Special Advocates of Peoria County.

The forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters Greater Peoria, saw discussion on topics ranging from charter schools to superintendent evaluations. A particularly crucial topic, however, was the candidates’ responses to the May 24 elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas which resulted in the deaths of 19 children and two teachers.

Attorney John T. Brady moderated the forum, and began by asking the candidates what could be done in Peoria to help ensure local students would not be next.

McConnell emphasized the importance of locked-door policies, along with the need for mental health care following a traumatic event.

“I think every school, especially with the primary schools, they need to have intervention counselors. [The story] is on the news, children have heard about it, and we have to deal with the trauma of knowing that a student somewhere was killed innocently,” said McConnell. “Children should not have to go to school in fear, and parents should not have to send their children to a building under threat.”

Echoing ideas on securing access points, Wilson argued for the addition of metal detectors and buzz-in systems on all Peoria Public Schools properties.

“As soon as this situation happened…I wanted to see what we can do as a district to get metal detectors inside of all of our schools,” said Wilson. “That is something that we do have the funds for, however, we do not have the staff.”

Wilson also highlighted the importance of school resource officers and their continued training. Walther concurred, advocating for the addition of armed security officers on school grounds.

“The previous superintendent was able to have the guns taken away from our campus guards,” said Walther. “Through help from myself, Dr. Kherat, and some others, we have now three armed guards in the district. We have seven people who are entitled to carry firearms—I would like to see that expanded.”

The wellbeing of students continued to be a paramount topic throughout the forum, with candidates also discussing parental involvement in the classroom and students’ access to potentially controversial books in the library.

Wilson advocated for increased collaboration with parents, and said that he regularly visits his children who attend schools in the district.

“Parents should definitely have a huge role, they’re our students’ first heroes,” said Wilson. “Parents should be inside the classroom, I promote that fully.”

In contrast, Walther was more hesitant to give parental opinions too much weight, especially when considering curriculum.

“A parent could have their kid opt out of math, history, sex education, and then you’re going ‘What are you gonna do?’ so I think that we have to be very careful about the curriculum thing,” said Walther. ‘Transparency, I totally agree with…and I don’t have a problem with a parent coming in and observing, as long as they’re not disruptive.”

However, Walther took a more resolute stance on the idea of limiting access to certain books.

“[I am] adamantly opposed to book banning,” said Walther. “Ultimately, that will be up to the board members to review those recommendations…but I would be very opposed to that kind of removal.”

McConnell encouraged parents to pay heed to the “filtering” of history, pushing for a more direct manner of teaching.

“I think when we start safeguarding children and filtering [American history] to the point to where they don’t get the whole history—that is dangerous,” said McConnell. “As a board member, I would want us to be able to share with our children the truth of the matter, and sometimes the truth is not comfortable. Sometimes the truth can be hurtful, but I think we don’t need to coddle and hide truth from our children so that they don’t grow up naive to culture.”

Candidates also tackled questions regarding the renaming of schools, with some community members wondering if the project took focus away from more urgent issues.

Wilson, who spearheaded the initiative, asserted that it’s more about the big picture effects on students rather than short-term reactions.

“I think [the name changes] will really help build confidence in some of our students as well. To really understand where they come from, to understand that they can also become a doctor, they can also look up to someone and one day push the needle in our community and get rewarded for it,” said Wilson. “I think it’s a step in the right direction toward changing some of the issues we have in our communities.”

McConnell contended that, while school pride is important, it may have redirected attention to the outside of the buildings rather than what is going on in the classroom.

“If it’s going to build some morale, teach them history, and add some value to their education, then I am all for it,” said McConnell. “I don’t think it’s a major thing, neither do I think it’s a minor thing. I don’t think it’s that essential that’s [it’s] going to change what is happening in the building.”

The renaming proposal was voted on while Walter was still serving on the Board, and he was the only member to vote against the item. He says the way the vote was structured, if a member was opposed to one element, they had to vote “no” to the entire action.

“Some of the names that we picked—Thomas Jefferson, George Washington—became very controversial,” said Walther. “We have schools in this district that are named after a street. Renaming those schools to recognize people who have contributed to Peoria, I don’t have a problem with at all.”

Other topics covered in the forum included the teacher shortage, with Wilson and Walther advocating for the “Grow Your Own” program, and the switch to the modified calendar, with all candidates expressing cautious optimism about the change.

Election day for the District Two seats is June 28.

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Mike Rundle is a correspondent at WCBU. He joined the station in 2020.