Superintendent Devon Horton at staff convocation on Monday.

District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton is apologizing for a minister’s prayer at an employee staff event Monday.

The back-to-school convocation, attended by more than 1,000 teachers and other district employees, was intended to be part pep rally, and part thank-you, to help kick off the academic year.

However, in an email to all employees, Horton acknowledged that some of those who heard the prayer thought it was inappropriate and offensive to have a religious overtone at a secular, public school program.

In the email, Horton said the convocation’s goal was to “show gratitude and appreciation” to district employees for all of their hard work in challenging times.

The superintendent stated that “we had no intention of offering official prayer calling for the presence of a deity.”

The original plan, Horton added, was to have the Rev. Michael Nabors, president of the local NAACP chapter (and pastor of the Second Baptist Church), give a welcoming statement.

Horton said that “Pastor Nabors is well known in our community and he typically gives greetings and invocations that are secular and non-denominational.”

However, Nabors was not able to attend, and so sent his daughter, Minister Spencer Nabors, to take his place.

Some of those angered by a prayer being offered were also upset that the speaker referenced J.K. Rowling, the well-known author of the “Harry Potter” books, because, as Horton noted, Rowling “is not known to support LGBTQ+ individuals.”

Horton acknowledged that this portion of the program “did not feel in line with the personal liberty and inclusion that D65 is committed to,” and he apologized for “those remarks that were offensive.”

In the future, he said, every attempt will be made to review presentation materials in advance.

Horton thanked the staff “for sharing your concerns in a manner that honors respect, dignity, [and] professionalism” in a way that is courteous and “humanizing.”

The superintendent also mentioned the District 65 statement of academic objectives, called the “MIRACLES” program.

Each letter in “MIRACLES” stands for a specific educational goal, although, of course, miracles play a major role in many religions.

Horton said the District 65 staff is engaged in helping students achieve the “MIRACLES” targets, and “there is no religious connotation intended” with the term, nor with any of the words each letter represents.

He also added that a common definition of “miracles” is “an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment,” which is how District 65 uses the word.

Horton concluded by thanking those “who reached out to hold us accountable for the unintended impact of this portion of our day, [because] holding each other accountable for missteps is how we excel together.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Join the Conversation

14 Comments

  1. Pretty lame that Horton throws Spencer under the bus and implies she isn’t as good as her father.

    Who knows what Michael Nabors would have said–but that is beside the point.

    The key lapse in judgment is Horton’s decision to invite a cleric to give an “invocation” in the first place. Horton uses the word “invocation” in his apology. “Invocation” literally means a prayer to a higher authority. Why would you expect anything OTHER than a Christian prayer if you are inviting pastors to address your employees at a mandatory meeting?

    And then his bringing up the “MIRACLES” business. This “MIRACLES framework” is a ridiculous bit of vacuous gimmickry that Horton uses to boost up his consultancy side-gig.

    Somehow people (like the fellow consultant class who make up the D65 school board) are impressed when someone comes up with a pithy acronym. As we’ve seen with everything coming out of the District since his arrival, the substance of actually improving the educational outcomes of the students are continually put behind symbolic and unsubstantive actions. You can just look to something like the 5th ward school decision where Horton and the board didn’t even bother to look at the literature indicating that more segregated schools result in poorer educational outcomes for lower income kids.

    As they say in Texas (where a school board recently gave Horton thousands of dollars to run a “MIRACLES” seminar and where the Kennedy v. Bremerton case originated that just allowed public school employees to push religion on students and fellow employees): “All hat and no cattle.”

    1. Do you have more information on his “sidegigs”? Is he giving seminars and talks during the school year or in the summer? Is there an incorporated company for this? Genuinely curious to know more. Where can I find documentation on this?

  2. Tom, We know that he has at least two side gigs. One is his consultancy for “Leadership Coaching.” It is called “Altering The Education Xpectation.” (You read that right. I guess “Xpectation” is some sensational spelling meant to be expectation? I would think if you were an educator you would prioritize literacy and avoid gimmickry, but, hey? What do I know).

    If you just do a google search for the consultancy you will see that he was hired by school districts in both Texas and Virginia in the past year or so. We don’t know when he is doing the work for these districts–although he did give a presentation to the Virginia district during last school year under the banner of the consultancy.

    Since there is no mechanism of transparency put in place by the Board and Horton doesn’t disclose the finances of his LLC, we have no idea how much time he is spending on Altering The Education Xpectation work.

    The second (known) side gig is called St. Chi Enterprises. It is a real estate investment firm he incorporated in Missouri six weeks after he started working for District 65. There is not a lot of information about their portfolio publicly available, and I have never seen the Board or superintendent explain how much time he is devoting to it and how it may impact his contract.

    Again, just google the company and you will find out what is publicly available (not much).

    It should also be said that the only reason we know about St. Chi Enterprises is because Missouri happens to make business filings easily accessibly on the web. There could be other businesses incorporated in other states that we don’t know about. One wonders why he has an LLC in Missouri of all places.

    I have no problem with Horton doing what he wants to do on his own time. But given that NBC news reported in 2013 that he owed the city of Chicago $63,000 in unpaid fines and fees for property standards violations related to his real estate investments, it makes you wonder if he has other liabilities.

    You would think that the fact that he is a public servant in charge of a $150 million budget that the Board would have demanded some sort of explanation for what was going on and set up a mechanisms for transparency and oversight.

    Of course his hiring was done in secrecy without any public meetings or even announcement of final candidates. Had the board conducted public meetings he undoubtedly would have been asked about the tens of thousands of dollars he owed the city of Chicago since it was in the news and maybe the public could have weighed in on the wisdom of hiring this guy. But, alas, Board President Tanyavutti didn’t think the public should have that opportunity.

    We should acknowledge just how unusual this is. He gets paid a quarter of a million taxpayer dollars.

    Did former superintendents Goren and Murphy have a bunch of side gigs?

    1. I’ve done a bunch of research and it seems like there is nothing there. His Altering The Education Xpectation LLC company isn’t even registered anymore, he let the state registration expire. Either way, I personally would be fine with the superintendent (any superintendent) giving talks to other districts. It will help with recruiting and attracting good people to Evanston. CEOs do this all the time. If he’s not doing it anymore and disclosed it to the board, I don’t see a problem.

      I don’t know anything about the real estate business but again, lots of wealthy people (especially politicians) do this and own a handful of real estate properties and put them in an LLC to protect them from liability. My landlord doesn’t actually own the property in his personal name. If Goren or Murphy owned a vacation property in Florida in an LLC, would you be complaining? I don’t think you’d even know because it would be such a non-issue.

      If he’s out there showing properties and running a full-on real estate business, that would be a real problem, though. That doesn’t appear to be the case.

      I don’t see a problem if that is what he is doing here. Also, it sounds like the debt to the City of Chicago has been handled and is a non-issue.

      1. Tom, that he let his consultancy’s LLC lapse is merely one step toward becoming a superintendent devoted to the students and community (“becoming” is the operative word). He formed the LLC in the middle of the pandemic, a clear indicator that he wasn’t focused on getting the district’s children back into school. He did not set metrics for return to school, he did not prepare the buildings for return to school, he did not prepare the teachers for online education, and he did not take the golden opportunity to move forward with implementing restorative practices before kids returned to school. He blames the current poor performance of the district on the pandemic, but he was the one who chose to develop his side gig rather than mitigate pandemic-related harm to the students.

        Students have never really been his top priority. For example, the 5th ward school isn’t about the students because there are so many more cost-effective ways to improve outcomes for marginalized students, yet the district considered none of them. (Significantly expanding free access to pre-K, redistricting the existing schools to eliminate bussing, and expanding classroom resources are cost-effective options that come to mind.) The 5th ward school is a symbolic gesture and a “look what I accomplished” feather in his cap. As another example, he continues to withhold the truth about the nooses from the community. Pushing the “Evanston is racist” rhetoric supports the narrative that he is the long-awaited savior of D65. His refusal to publicly acknowledge what he knows to be true shows that his priority is self-promotion, not the students or the community.

        I appreciate that you are giving him the benefit of the doubt. But at some point, doubt yields to truth.

        1. These things are issues with the Board, though. He works at the behest of the Board. His job is literally to carry out the Board’s priorities and he seems to be doing that and they seem pleased with his results. He is not perfect but he is doing the job the board asked him to do. Why all the hate on him, instead of the Board members who seem unwilling to criticize him at any cost. Your complaints about the fifth ward school should be on the Board, not him.

  3. Horton always has a sorry/not sorry excuse for whatever criticism is brought up. Sorry/not sorry for the “invocation” is yet another one. At this point it’s predictable behavior. We are stuck with him for now, but we are NOT stuck with the current school board who we unfortunately elected, and who unfortunately are made up of quite a few Horton sycophants. I wonder if he will figure out a way to passively penalize any staff who voiced their disappointment/concern about the invocation speech? Hmmm.

  4. Another day, another lapse in judgement from Horton followed by a response that just makes things worse and scapegoats someone else.

    At a certain point the collective weight of these mistakes might actually cave his support from the Board, right? Right? Right?

    1. I don’t think there is anything he could do that would impact his support from the board. Look at what happened in April and May. Haven parents complained to the Board in April and in the May meeting, Board Member Lindsay-Ryan was inferring that all the parents were just experiencing “white rage”

      This is part of the problem: the elected board and the administration are far too cushy. I’m not saying the relationship needs to be adversarial but the board’s job is to execute the will of the voters and Dr. Horton’s job is to execute the vision of the board. Currently, I think the Board Members are far too interested in their own personal business and political ambitions to be fair arbiters of what the voters want. For instance Anya Tanyavutti is running for alderman now or Biz Lindsay-Ryan using the district to promote her consulting business.

  5. As a staffer required to attend this event, I was offended that a prayer & blessing was offered at all, regardless of the specific wording. The JK Rowling quote just added more offense. Given that one of the reasons a board member fought for years to eliminate Camp Timberlee was because of its religious affiliations, this unforced error is ironic. As other commenters have noted, use your vote for a new board.

    1. Which board member went out of their way to eliminated Camp Timberlee? Can you provide more color on this? Thanks!

  6. Horton was the only Superintendent candidate that was willing to come for a visit — this according to one of the interims.

Leave a comment
The goal of our comment policy is to make the comments section a vibrant yet civil space. Treat each other with respect — even the people you disagree with. Whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims.

Your email address will not be published.