News Local/State

Don Owen Out As Urbana Schools Superintendent

Urbana District 116 Superintendent Don Owen and Urbana High School Principal Deloris Brown stand in the cafeteria of Urbana High School.

Urbana District 116 Superintendent Don Owen and Urbana High School Principal Deloris Brown hosted a town hall at the high school on Sept. 25, 2018 to discuss the school's new discipline system. Lee V. Gaines/ Illinois Public Media

Urbana District 116 Superintendent Don Owen will be leaving his job, according to a press release from the school district’s Board of Education.

The school board announced late in the day on Friday that, pending board action at its Dec. 4 meeting, Owen would be replaced temporarily by former District 116 superintendent Preston Williams while the board searches for a permanent replacement. District 116 Assistant Superintendent of Learning, Samuel Byndom, will also be replaced by Jean Korder — the district’s former Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment — while a former head of human resources for the district, Gayle Jeffries, will replace Katherine Barbour as interim Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources and Professional Development, according to the release from the board. The board states that Owen and Barbour will remain with the district through the remainder of the current school year to assist with the administrative transition.

Owen wrote in an email to Illinois Public Media that he was "shocked and saddened" by the board's announcement. 

"I have served the board, educators, students, and families for almost 30 years, and I have yet to be given a written reason, explanation or plan for their action. I am honestly confused about the BOE's statement," he wrote.

Owen has served as the district's superintendent since 2013. He cited the district's high graduation rates and the work they've done to address racial disaparities and challenge racial biases, in addition to "dismantling inequitable policies, practices, and systems."

"I have served with honesty, integrity, fiscal responsibility, and compassion. I am proud of the work we have done and the direction we are headed," he wrote.

All three outgoing administrators have been swept up in controversy over the last six months. Owen has faced criticism from the board, teachers and families in the district after a rocky rollout of a new restorative-based discipline system in the middle and high schools. The initiative is intended to reduce racial disparities in discipline practices. Many district principals and some teachers, however, have expressed continued support for the administrator.

Meanwhile, Byndom was charged this month with felony eavesdropping for allegedly trying to secretly record a closed door meeting of the school board in late October.

Illinois Public Media also broke the news this month that the Urbana Board of Education had requested an audit of the hiring process for a handful of positions held mostly by people of color. The audit report concluded that district staff failed to follow the hiring policies, as explained to the board, on several occasions, and that the district would be hard-pressed to defend those hires if a legal challenge were made.

Several district staff members condemned the board at a meeting after Illinois Public Media made the news of the audit public. They said the audit is commonly referred to by district employees as a “black list” given that most of the positions reviewed are held by African-Americans. They also questioned the board’s commitment to ensuring its staff more closely reflect the racial and ethnic backgrounds of Urbana’s student body.

In the release sent out Friday, the board wrote that “these changes will in no way lessen the school board’s unwavering commitment to achieving academic success for all its students.”

“Dr. Williams and the incoming administrative team support continuing the work begun by Dr. Owen that is grounded in that commitment,” the release states.

The board also states that they will begin a search for the district’s next superintendent in the “near future,” and will seek input from District 116 administrators, teachers, other staff members, students, their families and community members in the process.

The board concluded the release by stating that they “will have no further comment on these changes.”

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines.