After election, three new District 161 board members eye change

Change is coming to Flossmoor District 161 after voters decided April 4 that Carolyn Griggs, Cameron Nelson and Misha Blackman will be new school board members. Voters also retained incumbent Stephen Paredes, the current board president.

“People were looking for change and there was a lot of community support for that. They desire a fresh perspective,” Griggs said. “I think it helped that I have a background in education. I know I spent a lot of time listening to residents about their concerns in the district.”

These change agents were selected from a field of nine candidates seeking to fill the four positions. 

Unofficial results from the Cook County Clerk’s Office showed Griggs was the top vote-getter with 2,371 or 18.99 percent of the total. Nelson was next with 2,092 votes for 16.75 percent. Paredes tallied 1,825 votes for 14.26 percent. Blackman was fourth with 1,535 votes at 12.29 percent.

The candidates who fell shy of election and their vote totals are: Isaac D. Harris, 1,027 votes; Melissa Stilts, 958 votes; LaCael Palmer Pratt, 908 votes; Jadey Ryndak, 907 votes; and Kelli Bentley, 863 votes.

School board members Lisa Harrell, Christine Marks and Timijanel Boyd Odom opted not to seek re-election.

Griggs believes her background in education helped boost her campaign. She has an Ed.D. degree in curriculum and instruction from Loyola University and is associate professor and chair of the Department of Teaching, Learning and Diversity, College of Graduate Studies at Concordia University in Chicago.

Numerous candidates in the District 161 race talked about change, Griggs stated, noting the district needs to improve its communications.

“Communication to all stakeholders needs to improve. My priorities are curriculum, communication and the district’s culture and finances,” Griggs explained.

Nelson, an attorney with Greenberg Traurig LLP, previously ran for the school board in 2015. He was involved with a group of parents and residents who petitioned the board in fall 2016 for the ouster of then Superintendent Craig Doster.

The group presented a letter to the board last October asking for Doster’s removal and also expressed concern about declining test scores in the district and other issues. The current board placed Doster on a leave of absence in October and approved a separation agreement with him in November.

“We had nine great candidates for four spots on the board,” Nelson said. “Some of the candidates may have spent a little more time and had more experiences with the board in the past. I think that was a factor in how the election turned out.”

Nelson reached out to the five unsuccessful candidates.

“I hope those not elected will help us in moving forward. I will be happy to work with them,” he said.

Blackman is a financial services consultant with an M.A. in economics from Roosevelt University. She is a relative newcomer to the district, having moved to Flossmoor from Evergeen Park a year ago.

“I don’t have biases about the district. I am neutral and I am looking forward. I think that perspective resonated with the voters I spoke with,” Blackman explained. “I also reached out to residents in (areas of District 161 in) Chicago Heights, Olympia Fields and Hazel Crest who feel under-represented on the board and they want to move things forward, too.”

Blackman added, “I am a fresh pair of eyes and I want to bring a new energy to the district.”

Paredes said he believes the new board will bring positive outcomes to District 161.

“I am as excited as ever to be in Flossmoor. I think our board will be a fantastic, collaborative team that will work well together. I couldn’t be happier about the results. This is a win-win-win for the students, the board and the community,” Paredes said.

Another significant change in District 161 came on March 13 when the current board hired Dana Smith as the new superintendent. Smith will assume his new position on July 1. The fresh start represented by Smith’s hiring was cited by the newly-elected candidates.

“I look forward to working with our new superintendent,” Griggs said. “Also, finding a new principal for Parker is very important.”

The district is presently engaged with a search firm to land a new principal at Parker Junior High School.

Nelson said he seeks quantifiable progress in the district.

“I want to see major and measurable improvement for all students. I don’t want to be more specific than that now as I look forward to discussions with the new superintendent and in planning with the board,” Nelson explained.

Paredes said recent changes in the administration and now a new array of board members is creating positive change for the district.

“We have momentum. A lot of people in the district and on the board are all moving things forward,” Paredes said. “This is all great for the district and for the kids.”

Blackman characterized a new board and a new superintendent as a new start.

“It’s a do-over,” she said. “How many times in life do you get a chance to do things over?”

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