COLUMBIA — Her son calls it “the strainer” — a metaphorical object that Jeannine Craig is supposed to place over her mouth to stop her from rambling or going off on a tangent. Craig introduced the public to “the strainer” at a League of Women Voters candidates forum on Feb. 5.
“This is where I get into trouble,” she told the crowd, laughing. “One of my children suggested bringing a strainer to put over my mouth and muffle my words.”
Craig then outlined what she thinks makes her unique among the field of nine candidates running for two seats on the Columbia School Board in the April 7 election:
- She served for 12 years on a school board in northern Illinois some 20 years ago, 11 of those years as board president.
- She sees herself as an outsider, having moved to the community five years ago, and says she can make tough decisions on a local school board level objectively.
- Craig, 72, has no children in Columbia schools, though she does have great-grandchildren in them.
Craig was the first to file for one of the seats being vacated by Steve Calloway, board vice president, and board President Michelle Gadbois. Craig had read in the news media of challenges in the district and thought back to her time in Cary, Ill., where the school district had budget problems and a new superintendent, too.
Cary, about 45 miles northwest of Chicago, is a community of about 15,000 now, though it was smaller when Craig and her husband, Norm, lived there in the 1980s. Currently, Cary Community Consolidated School District 26 oversees about 3,465 children.
Although the Cary School District was smaller than Columbia, Craig thinks the lessons she learned as a former board president are universal — among them, the need for honesty and the support of the community you serve.
Her ability to listen and compromise helped Craig deal with a potential teacher strike in Cary, said Eligio Marcheschi, who was then a teacher at Briargate Elementary School and who later became principal there during Craig’s board tenure.
"There were a couple of situations where teachers were close to going on strike, and I was one of them,” Marcheschi recalled. “We (the teachers) wanted more money, but the board did not have money to give us. But when she (Craig) came to the table, she wouldn't have her mind made up. She would listen to you and then make up her mind."
Craig recalled the strained relations from the near-strike.
"Those on one side think you have all this money to spend, and those on this side say, 'No, we don't have this money to spend,' and then there becomes this conflict," she said. "You sit and you talk and you hope to become reasonable. But, too often, it's friend against friend, and it can get pretty rough."
She said she learned to make decisions based on the facts, removed from relationships and emotion.
"I learned that you don't get irritated; you don't take it personally," she said. "I've learned to do that — you take facts; you analyze them. You only take the facts you need to deal with so you can make decisions."
Jacklyn Crosby, a former superintendent for the Cary School District, was the curriculum coordinator during Craig’s tenure. Crosby said she appreciated Craig's understanding of the students in debates over curriculum.
"When she went to make decisions, she kept the students in mind," Crosby said. "That was always important to me; that’s what the schools are for."
In Columbia, the biggest curriculum debate is over how to teach mathematics. In essence, it’s step-by-step traditional math versus what’s generally known as integrated math, which seeks real-life context for problem-solving. Craig is drawing from her great-grandson's experience with it.
"I talked to the great-grandchildren about new math, and the little one, he works that way," Craig said. "I don't have an argument; I just feel we need to be consistent."
Crosby said Craig made good communication a priority with the people of the Cary School District. "At forums, there was always a time for people to ask questions or make a statement of something they liked or didn’t like," Crosby said. "She was always so willing to listen."
Crosby also credited Craig with taking the entirety of the Cary School District into account. "Some people are elected because they are really upset about one issue," Crosby said. "But even if she is upset about one issue, she still sees the whole picture."
Craig said one way to improve communication is to cut out the jargon associated with the problems facing the Columbia School District.
"I'm continually amazed at the language used," she said. "They use words I don’t know, terms that are new to me, and expect me to understand what’s going on in the school district."
One of Craig's chief concerns as a candidate is to help troubled students from falling through the cracks. She feels it keenly because of a tragedy with her son Dan.
"Dan was a bad kid, probably the smartest of our kids, but he was bad," Craig said. Because of this, he was put in what she called a "tracking system" and was grouped with other troubled students. She said that by the time Dan was 16, school administrators suggested he drop out of high school because he was a nuisance, and he did.
"Over the years, this happened and this happened, and he eventually died of a drug overdose. Somewhere, he wasn't served," Craig said. "That may be one of the things that is more important to me than anything: to service the kids down there because they need more help than anything."
Craig often talks about her family. She says she was a "Susie homemaker" while her children grew up. Now, she is the head of three generations: five children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, though not all of them are in Columbia. She and Norm, who have been married 57 years, stay active: Norm participates in a wood-carving club, and together they go to the Activity and Recreation Center for walks and to take the great-grandchildren swimming.
After Norm retired from his job at Commonwealth Edison, an Illinois-area electric utility company, after 39 years, they spent five years traveling North America in an RV. "We'd see signs, and we'd just head there," Craig said.
After traveling to Florida, they enjoyed it so much that they settled there for five years until Norm had a stroke. They moved to Columbia to be closer to family. Now, Craig says she has the experience and time to work on a school board. She is not interested in campaigning or "adding to her public service resume," she said, just in helping her new hometown.