Education

Debate Over Reopenings Has Become a Campaign Issue in School Board Races

By Karen Ann Cullotta and Rafael Guerrero, Chicago Tribune — March 29, 2021 7 min read
Heather Lockhart and her daughter, Cora, 7, maneuver through political signs outside Arlington Heights Village Hall in Arlington Heights, Ill. on March 25, 2021, where Lockhart was heading for early voting.

Lenny Walker was standing in line at a grocery store in Buffalo Grove recently when he heard someone behind him call out, “Hey, aren’t you with the District 214 school board?”

“I turned around and smiled at him and said, ‘Yes, I am,’ and he replied, ‘Why don’t you open the fricking schools? You’re destroying my kid,’ ” recalled Walker, a father of four from Wheeling.

“As I was leaving the store, and kind of looking over my shoulder, another guy approached me and asked, ‘Do you get that a lot?’ and I answered, ‘Yes, all of the time,’ and he told me, ‘Stay strong,’ ” Walker said.

Despite such jarring encounters, Walker is running for reelection in an unusually heated race of eight candidates seeking four seats. And COVID-19 has left its imprint on school board contests throughout the suburbs, with parents’ frustration over school closings and remote learning driving more attention, and new candidates, to many races — possibly with consequences that last well beyond the pandemic.

The election is April 6, with early voting underway.

Pre-pandemic, suburban school board contests were often no-drama affairs, in some cases, failing to attract enough candidates to fill open seats. But this election arrives in the wake of a tumultuous 2020 campaign season that was punctuated by parents protesting for reopened schools, marathon school board meetings and even lawsuits, including one filed this month against school board members in Naperville- and Aurora-based Indian Prairie School District 204 by a group of parents who allege a coordinated “cover-up of COVID-19 planning.”

“Time is up for any incumbent running for their school board—and forget casting a vote for any candidate aligning with existing failing leadership,” Shannon Adcock, one of 11 candidates running for four seats on the District 204 board, told a large crowd at a recent rally in Naperville.

Adcock was one of several school board challengers who spoke at the rally, which attracted hundreds of parents, urging officials at nine suburban districts to reopen their schools full time.

Nick Giannasi, who’s running for the Plainfield District 202 board, told the crowd that April 6 would usher in what he described as a “community-changing” election.

“This is a lot bigger than COVID. This shows us the power that we have on these boards and we’ve gotten our community and parents to be more involved going forward,” Giannasi said.

The heightened interest in—and divisiveness of—this year’s school board elections is not a surprise to Ben Silver, an attorney with the nonpartisan Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst, which has been busy in recent months helping parent groups “on all sides of the issue” navigate public records requests and answer questions on First Amendment rights.

“Parents and the public in general are as involved as ever in school board meetings, and trying to have a voice,” Silver said. “It’s been pretty unprecedented when it comes to the level of public comment, and these virtual school board meetings have been going on for hours and hours.”

And while school board races are technically nonpartisan, Silver said that doesn’t mean politics haven’t seeped in.

“The people running school districts and school board members are in a tough spot, because no matter what they decide, they are going to have people upset with them,” Silver said, noting the frustration among voters could give an edge to ballot challengers.

But Silver said it’s tough to predict if the brighter spotlight on school boards will equate to an uptick in participation in the local elections, which typically have abysmal voter turnouts.

While the pandemic has intensified the job of school board members, which are voluntary positions, the soaring numbers of first-time candidates in heated races is not unique to the Chicago area, said National School Board Association Chief Transformation Officer Verjeana Jacobs.

“We have seen a shift in the last couple of years of younger people running for the school board, as across the country, tensions have been high,” Jacobs said. “And now COVID has put many communities on heightened alert of school boards and their role.”

But Jacobs warns that newcomer school board candidates should understand the demands of the job if they are elected—in particular if their sole reason for running was frustration over a district’s handling of pandemic-related school closures.

“Unfortunately, if you’re running on one issue, and you get elected, you’re going to get to your first meeting and realize, ‘Oh my goodness, I need to understand the budget, curriculum and the legislative process,’” she said. “The role of the school board is critically important, and members can often be faced with constant battles on decisions that directly impact students.”

For incumbents such as District 204′s Laurie Donahue, the decision to seek another term took careful consideration. She said some people told her she was “brave” to be running again.

“My calling to give back and apply my knowledge to help the district and move it forward like we have the past four years is compelling to me,” Donahue said.

Unlike other campaigns, Donahue said this time around some voters have asked whom she backed in last year’s presidential race—a question she declines to answer, she said, as “this is supposed to be a nonpartisan race.”

“People want to hear more, and read more about the candidates’ positions, which is good,” Donahue said, adding that she has encountered voters who mistakenly believe the school board seat is a paid position.

Many first-time board contenders come from groups of parents who pushed for the reopening of schools during the pandemic. They insist they’re not one-issue candidates but were galvanized to run by what they view as poor leadership by longtime elected officials.

James D’Angelo, an attorney and father of three, is seeking a seat on the Deerfield District 109 board with a slate of three other challengers known as ABC Deerfield.

He said his and other parents’ efforts to expand in-person classes “were successful, and our kids our back in school.” He also credited the district with doing “a lot of great things to make people safe.”

Yet he said that while “the pandemic issue of reopening schools is behind us” that’s not what motivated him to run.

“It just shined a spotlight on underlying issues that have been around for years, like high turnover of district administrators, and the community’s distrust of the current school board, which does not appear to be listening to teachers and parents,” D’Angelo said.

The school board campaign season has also drawn extra attention from teachers unions, many of which have formally announced their “support” for candidates they consider best suited to serve their members and students.

On Saturday, the teachers union for Fenton High School in Bensenville planned to talk to shoppers outside a Wood Dale Target and canvass local neighborhoods to raise awareness about the election and the candidates they’re recommending.

“Being a member of the Fenton school board requires working well with a broad variety of groups, all of whom have a unique stake and perspective in how a school runs,” Fenton Education Association President Patrick Escobedo said last week in a statement.

Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association, said members of the state’s largest teachers union are recommending candidates because “it’s imperative that, as educators, we are involved in local school board elections.”

“Nearly everything that happens in our schools is decided by an elected official,” Griffin said. “We strongly encourage our members to voice their recommendations for school board elections so community members hear the voice of trusted educators on this very important issue.”

Not all school board races are getting this much attention from teachers unions, and few have attracted the abundance of contenders as Barrington School District 220, where 11 candidates, including nine newcomers, are vying for four open seats.

Statewide, the added stresses of COVID-19 appear to have had the disparate effects of either inspiring or intimidating prospective candidates, said Thomas Bertrand, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.

While Bertrand said he’s noticed contentious races surfacing in many suburban school districts, he has also heard of school boards in Illinois where “no one is interested in stepping up.”

“It’s a difficult job under normal circumstances, and then you layer on a global pandemic, which we’ve all been dealing with for the past year, and you have to credit anyone who wants to serve,” Bertrand said.

“It’s a terribly uncertain time, and you have so many parents who are frustrated by decisions being made by school boards and administrations, and I understand their frustrations. ... We have to remember that every person right now is dealing with grief or loss of some type,” he said. “Communities have been divided, and school board members who are making the best decisions they can are caught right in the middle.”

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