News Local/State

Don Owen Resigns From Urbana School District 116

Don Owen

Former Urbana School District 116 Superintendent Don Owen speaks during 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

Former Urbana District 116 superintendent Don Owen is resigning from his high school teaching position over his concerns about how black and brown students, their families and district staff have been treated by the district's Board of Education. 

Owen's resignation letter, dated Aug. 26, states that "the actions of the Board of Education related to its treatment of Black and Brown students, families, teachers, administrators, and educational support staff is the primary reason for my decision." 

In an interview following the submission of his resignation, Owen said he is leaving the district because he believes the school board is more focused on safety and security than on eliminating racial disparities in educational outcomes.

“I think that that safety and security is at the expense of students who struggle with trauma and at the expense of students who have been historically marginalized because of individual, institutional, systemic racism," he said. 

A spokesperson for the district, Kameron Williams, confirmed in an email that the district had received Owen's resignation letter.  Williams wrote that the board plans to approve Owen's resignation, effective Aug. 30, at their next regularly scheduled meeting on Sept. 3. 

Over the past decade, Owen said the vast majority of students expelled from the district are black. He said the board did not share his sense of urgency or willingness to eradicate racial disparities in school discipline.

Williams did not address Owen's stated reason for resigning. 

It's very clear the district was essentially creating a work environment that wasn't collaborative or welcoming to me."Don Owen

Owen had been assigned a teaching position for students sent to in-school suspension at Urbana High School for the current school year. He said at one point his district email was turned off without warning, and he wasn't given a schedule or any information at the start of the school year. 

"It's very clear the district was essentially creating a work environment that wasn't collaborative or welcoming to me," Owen said. "That combined with the overall philosophy of the board made it so that I felt that my continued employment with the Urbana school district wasn't in anyone's best interest."

Owen served as superintendent of the district until the Urbana school board ousted him from that role late last year.  He was suspended from the district for the remainder of the last school year.

As superintendent, Owen faced criticism for a rocky roll out of a new restorative discipline policy at the district. The approach was an effort to eradicate racial disparities in discipline. Several other administrators who worked with Owen were also removed their positions, including Samuel Byndom, Urbana school's former Assistant Superintendent of Learning and Instruction. Byndom was charged last fall with felony eavesdropping after he allegedly attempted to surreptitiously record a closed dooring meeting of the school board. 

The district and school board also came under fire after Illinois Public Media reported on the existence of an audit ordered by Urbana's Board of Education. The audit targeted the hiring practices involved in positions almost entirely held by black staff members. The audit identified problems with the district's hiring practices.  

In an interview, Owen also criticized the board for not allowing him a public hearing in which he could question board members and share his perspective with the community.

Owen has worked in the Urbana school district for thirty years, according to his resignation letter.  In his letter, he writes that he plans to continue "to promote racial equity" and "dismantle practices and policies that intentionally or unintentionally marginalize and alienate students and families."

This story was updated at 11:15 p.m. on Aug. 27 to include comments from Owen.

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines