October 4, 2020

Jill Fennessy

School DistrictTri County Area Schools
City:Howard City

How long have you lived in your district?

35 years

Have you received any endorsements?

I am not seeking endorsements.

Are you an incumbent?


Why do you want to be a school board member?

It’s a wonderful opportunity to be an advocate for the students in our district, be a voice for those who elected you, ensure that the policies adequately reflect the culture of our district and are equitable. Being elected to serve also allows you oversight of the budget with your fellow board members to direct precious resources to the areas of greatest need, while remaining fiscally accountable to the taxpayers.

What does education justice mean to you? What does it mean specifically in the context of your school district?

To me, education justice means to provide for educational equity for all students. For our district, it means identifying student needs and allocating resources to support those needs, as well as aligning budgets and policies to eliminate inequitable outcomes.

If you could completely reimagine the way schools look after this public health crisis, what would they look like?

The current pandemic has made us more aware of shortcomings in the educational process. Going forward I would hope to see all students with devices in hand and access to adequate internet service, more support of social and emotional well-being, and a focus on providing safe buildings and environments that support learning. We may want to reevaluate the way education is delivered and possibly create a more individualized learning model with flexibility in the calendar, days and hours. It’s critical for our students that we are able to attract and retain high quality teachers, and my hope would be that current funding shortfalls can be addressed.

Describe how you think parents, students, and families should be involved in making decisions within your school district?

I believe input from parents, students, and families is important to the decision-making process. We have done surveys, community forums on important issues, and always welcome input at board meetings. We are very aware that it can be intimidating for people to get up to speak during public comment, so our board created an initiative called “Conversations with Community”. Before the pandemic, board members volunteered to attend several community events for people to stop by the ‘board table’ and speak with us in a more comfortable environment. We know there are lots of great thoughts and ideas out there, so we wanted to be more accessible. We plan to resume this activity when it is safe to do so.

Who (if any) are your top financial supporters for your campaign?

My spouse!

What are your top 3 educational priorities/goals within your school district?

1. Keeping quality educational programs that are accessible to all students
2. Providing a safe & healthy learning environment for students and staff.
3. To have the resources to attract and retain excellent educators.

What are your top 3 educational priorities/goals at a state level?

1. That the state provides for mental health services and providers in schools.
2. That Michigan legislators use the data from the School Finance Research Collaborative in their decisions regarding public school funding, as well as work to fulfill the mission of the group “Launch Michigan”, and to seek collaboration with teaching professionals on education policy.
3. Access to broadband for every student in Michigan by investing in our infrastructure across the state.

What challenges do you anticipate this school year to COVID and what do you think your school district must do to keep students & staff safe?

There are so many challenges for schools this year due to COVID-19. Budgeting for, and procuring, enough PPE, cleaning supplies, hiring extra staff because of smaller class sizes and mentoring virtual learners, switching to a 1:1 device initiative for students as well as buying hot spots to provide internet. In addition to configuring current spaces to allow for social distancing, training for students and staff, and the list goes on. Our district is following all state guidelines for a safe return to school. We offer either virtual or in-person learning based on parent preference, and high risk staff have been provided the opportunity to move into our virtual space. There are no easy answers, and everyone here is working hard to provide the safest environment possible while meeting the needs of our families.

What should be your school district’s top spending priorities in their budget? Alternatively, what should not be prioritized your district’s budget?

Our board and administrators prioritize budget spending to areas of greatest need as we did to provide every student with a Chromebook and we also provided hot spots to those who needed one. We are in a rural area, and connectivity is a challenge for many families. We have prioritized spending to provide for a social worker in each of our buildings, and have partnered with a local health service to offer remote counseling during the week to meet with an in-person counselor 2 days a week. This service is available for both students and staff. Another spending priority has been to provide a safe teaching and learning environment by investing in PPE and our buildings.
Honestly, I cannot think of any spending our district does that is not a priority or near-priority. We have a very tight budget and our district works hard to allocate these precious resources equitably.

What role do you think standardized tests should play in your school district?

Standardized tests certainly have their pros and cons. They can be a valuable tool for our teachers when the results are provided in a timely manner allowing them to make adjustments to their curriculum and teaching practices. Unfortunately, the current high stakes testing do not provide this instant feedback for educators. We also must remember these tests only reflect a snapshot of a student’s abilities at that moment in time, on that day, during that hour. Not every student is great at test-taking and many have circumstances or stressors preventing them from dong their best.

If you could have an impact on your school district’s curriculum , what changes would you make? What, if anything, would you keep the same?

Our curriculum is evolving every year and is always being evaluated and upgraded based on available student data and teacher input. I wouldn’t really want to change anything, but I would like to see more programs added when budget allows.

What responsibility do you believe your school district has in supporting students’ and staffs’ mental and emotional health/wellbeing?

Our district has several initiatives to support mental and emotional health. We participate in suicide prevention programs, the Be Kind initiative, OK2Say, Orange Frog, and we’re always evaluating available programs. Also, please see my answer above under “Spending Priorities”.

How do you think your school district should handle student discipline/and make schools a safe place for students and staff?

Our district leaders have attended ACEs seminars as well as increased their understanding of Restorative Justice programs. Many of our board members have participated in these learning opportunities as well. The number of students brought before the board for suspension and expulsion hearings have dropped dramatically over several years, and we believe in the importance of keeping students in school. Supporting a positive culture in our buildings is a priority.

What are your top priorities around special education in your district?

I was appointed to and served three years on the Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) in Lansing. This was a wonderful opportunity to look at Special Education in our state, hear from a diverse group of committee members, and to support for successful outcomes for all students. Our district has a wonderful and supportive special education team, and we believe in equity and inclusion for our students, with the goal of helping them to achieve their full potential.

What is your perspective on working towards achieving equity within your school district?

We must first work to identify what our student’s needs are, use data to make informed decisions, then allocate resources to remove barriers and allow for equitable opportunities.

Any other information you want to include or share?