April 4th School Board Races Rife with Contention
Not long ago, school board candidates were few and far between; often there wouldn’t be enough of them running to fill the number of seats open in any given election year. But, that seems to be changing of late, and the upcoming races that will be determined in the Illinois Consolidated Election on April 4th are more active and controversial than in the past. Across the state, from Antioch and Evanston to Naperville and Normal, the number of candidates running for school board are reaching double-digits and the campaigns seem more contentious than ever.
“It’s a different landscape,” said Kari Dillon, Lyons Township School Board President, who was elected in 2019, became president in May of 2021, and is running for re-election next month. There are two incumbents and five newcomers vying for the three open spots that are up this term.
“It’s really critical that board members remain impartial and uphold their duty to the district,” Dillon remarked, adding, “the job of a school board member isn’t to get into the weeds, but to inform policy.” Dillon says the school board’s work is not controversial, but there are individuals and groups out there trying to make it out to be. “This narrative,” she adds, “harms our communities and undermines the achievements of our amazing students.”
Tim Vlcek, a 60-year resident of the district, and father of four children, who were raised and educated there, said he is running because, “I care about the community.” Though he has volunteered in and around the community over the years, including as a hockey coach, Vlcek has not served on the school board previously.
“I’ve attended meetings, and there has been some controversy, and most of that is because the board has not been very transparent,” according to Vlcek. “And, I care about the kids and think they aren’t getting what they need, which is more structure.”
For example, Vlcek believes chronic absenteeism, which he pegs at 28% percent at Lyons Township, isn’t being addressed by current policies and that the students need to “take some ownership” to help solve the problem. Vlcek also notes that the district’s scores on the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) Report Card are dropping as is the overall performance of the school.
“What we are doing is a real disservice; the real world won’t accept that,” Vlcek points out, concluding, “The next step is the school, families and the community working together for the best interest of the kids.”
“As an incumbent, I am proud of the work we’ve accomplished at LT. Among those are our equity initiatives” asserted School Board President Dillon. “Unfortunately, some believe inclusion and SEL efforts have replaced academic rigor. That simply isn’t true.” Dillion points out that evidence shows that all students benefit from a culture of belonging and it increases overall academic performance, strategic thinking, and collaboration skills.
Vlcek can attest to the increased attention to the race, saying, “I’ve been getting slammed on social media – it’s almost to the point of cyberbullying.” And, late last month, a local newspaper printed an article about Vlcek attending a school board workshop sponsored byAwake Illinois, a group who describes themselves as a grassroots organization launched by everyday parents and citizens who’ve awakened to issues affecting their communities, children and liberties.
“During the pandemic, groups like Awake Illinois formed to discredit teachers, staff, school boards, and communities across Illinois,” according to Dillon. “And these groups are trying to influence the election.”
Candidate Vlcek disavows any affiliation with the Awake advocacy group, saying, “I have not accepted any endorsement from them; I am self funding my campaign, and I’m running on my own.”
School Board Endorsements
Endorsements haven’t been a big part of school board elections because they are non-partisan, meaning there is no declaration or designation of political party in these races. Indeed, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) notes in its Qualifications and Characteristics of a School Board Member that effective members have the “ability to represent the entire community and not special interest or partisan political groups.”
Awake Illinois chartered the first chapter in Naperville, Ill., and currently boasts 30-plus chapters across the state. According to a February 22 Awake_IL tweet, the organization states, “our statewide list of pro-parent, pro-literacy, and pro-freedom candidates has grown to over 70.”
On a local level, the Democratic Party of Evanston announced endorsements for the Consolidated Election, including a slate of school board members on its website. Most voters are used to seeing complete candidate profiles in local newspapers or media outlets, but now political parties and advocacy groups are increasingly getting vocal about these candidates and the issues at stake. Some are lobbying for single issues, while others are trying to consolidate a broader coalition, but their focus on school board elections presents a twist.
For those wondering if organizations are doing more than endorsing candidates, like helping fund them, checking in with the Illinois State Board of Elections’ website can be one avenue to explore.
Though school boards are non-partisan, school board candidates are subject to the same campaign disclosure rules as political candidates. According to Matt Dietrich, Public Information Information Officer at the State Board of Elections, “If they raise or spend $5,000 or more in a 12-month period, they are required to register a candidate committee with us and file all required reports.” That means they must file quarterly reports containing itemization of contributions and expenditures of $150 and more, in addition to other requirements.
“I can tell you that there does appear to be more fundraising committees registered by candidates this year, compared to the last two consolidated election years,” Dietrich continued. “So far in 2023, we have had 55 candidate committees registered with us. In 2021, it was 35 and in 2019 it was 40.” This shows that more committees in recent years appear to have met the $5,000 filing requirement this year.
The Growing Divide
In some communities, the divisions within them spark long and contentious school board meetings that spill over into controversial elections. In Antioch, where they’ve had law enforcement at recent meetings to help tamp down on incidents, there are 13 people running for six seats, and six of them are incumbents. Several of the incumbents are pooling together as a slate. There are about a dozen social media accounts for various viewpoints in the election (some of them are private), community-wide meet the candidates nights aren’t fully attended by all the candidates, and groups of candidates are hosting their own events without invites to all those running.
Antioch District 34 School Board President Mary Beth Hulting, who is running for re-election, said, “One group, who began bringing the issues of masking to the school board later seemed to devolve into issues like CRT, books, and equity.”
For their part, according to Hulting, the board has “looked at everything we do through the lens of all the students in this district and make sure they are served.”
Not all the candidates in the Antioch race attended the recent Teachers Meet and Greet, which was an open-house setting and ran for two hours. Hulting said, “Maybe they don’t want to answer questions, but whatever the reason, it was astounding to me.” She noted it was disrespectful to the teachers and support staff that organized the event as well.
Hulting also noted personal attacks this election cycle. She pointed out that she and other candidates have been subjected to hundreds of inflammatory online comments, but that if re-elected, she is determined to focus on students and fiscal responsibilities first.
Parents/Community Growing Weary?
Some factors that are contributing to the increased attention to school boards include frustrations over past COVID mitigations and the resulting learning loss from the Pandemic, the seemingly general decline in the tone and tenor of community debate, and a sense of disenfranchisement that leads to an increase in local focus. Still, whatever the factors, schools and communities are feeling it.
Earlier this month, the Illinois Education Association (IEA) released a portion of its bipartisan annual State of Education poll, which found that one in five Illinoisians report fighting, yelling, or contention at school board meetings, 44 percent have heard of this happening, and a majority, or 66 percent of those surveyed, do not approve of this conduct.
“These disruptions distract from the real issue: providing the best education for all our students. This has got to stop,” IEA President Kathi Griffin said. “We are strongly encouraging all Illinoisans to get involved, educate themselves about their local candidates and vote for those who support our students and public education.” And that is what a lot of residents are doing.
Evanston resident Amy Boyle said she will support candidates who echo her concerns about schools, such as “effective investments that make achievement more equitable across all students, especially racial and socioeconomic characteristics.”
Boyle, a parent of two ETHS recent graduates, said she might not be as up-to-date on the school board as she was when her children attended school, but she has friends who are, others who serve on the board, and she is satisfied with Evanston schools. In many communities, the general public is keeping abreast of what is happening and aren’t being overly swayed by controversy, outside groups, and social media.
These recent contentious elections may be a recent phenomenon, but whether they continue or not will likely depend on the election results from April 4th – because they will serve as a good indication on what might be coming next.
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