Contested School Board Elections: Covid is the Issue
There isn’t much that COVID-19 hasn’t disrupted. Now add Illinois’ usually sleepy school board elections to the list.
With school closings and remote learning among the pandemic’s most contentious issues, school boards in many communities are bearing the brunt of residents’ anger. Community members - whether demanding a return to full-time in-person learning or calling for continued remote classes as a way to ensure safety - have called and emailed board members, duked it out on social media, marched in protests, spoken at board meetings and are even running for school board seats in April 6’s Consolidated Election.
“It’s like the new kids against the incumbents,” said Jan Dorner, vice president for voter service for the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Illinois and co-president of LWV in Elmhurst.
Contentious school board races are not happening everywhere. Back in December, Premier Broadcasting reported that only one school district in Downstate Effingham County had enough candidates to fill all the open seats in this election. But in northwest suburban Barrington, 11 candidates are running for four seats on the District 220 Board. In Lake County’s Libertyville, nine candidates are running for five seats on the Elementary District 70 Board and 11 candidates are running for four seats on the board for Indian Prairie District 204, which serves Naperville, Aurora, Bolingbrook and Plainfield.
With early voting underway, it’s unclear how much disruption is ahead for the nearly 6,000 people on boards for the state's 850 school districts. Voter turnout in school board elections is usually light and it’s a guess whether pandemic education issues are hot enough to get all voters to the polls. Further muddying the waters is that some school board candidates are running together as a slate as is done in Lake Forest District 115. Other candidates are running as independents.
But one measure of the surge are LWV’s forums, an election staple. LWV holds forums only for contested races. This year, there were more school board forums and more first-time candidates than usual, said Dorner, speaking anecdotally. She moderated several livestreamed forums including for Naperville Community Unit School District 203 and Lake Forest School District 115, where eight candidates are running for four seats.
Forums were civil, Dorner said. But anger has flashed on social media — over kids’ social and emotional well-being and learning gaps — and in protests, including at the Cross District Rally to Reopen, which drew residents from nine school districts to downtown Naperville last month. Marchers chanted “five days a week” before candidates spoke. “Time is up for any incumbent running for their school board,” Shannon Adcock, who is running for the 204 Board, told the crowd.
That’s not the case in Maine Township High School District 207 where four incumbents are running for re-election along with one challenger. Board member Jin Lee, who is seeking his third term, credits that to the board’s community partnership during this unprecedented time and to the steps the district has taken to ensure safety for students and staff. The district, which mainly serves Park Ridge and Des Plaines, is currently in a hybrid learning model and aiming for a full return to campus soon, he said.
Lee said board members got emails from angry parents. But they also got messages of support. As a parent, he said, he can empathize with parents’ concerns. There has been a lot of recognition, he said, that the pandemic has been a hardship, but the community and the district together “will get through this.”
Anger directed at boards has been a surprise to some. “Schools are the heart of communities and local boards of education hear from community members on a range of issues,” said Kara Kienzler, the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) associate executive director for communications and production services. “It’s certainly understandable in this health crisis that emotions are intensified. I think the pandemic brought more attention to some of the challenging decisions that boards of education are tasked with.”
Even in non-pandemic times, school board members, whom Kienzler noted “are volunteers who want what’s best for their community and the education of students," have a daunting job with long meetings, frequently tense teacher contract negotiations and difficult budgeting choices.
With all of that, Lee said, he has immense respect for anyone running for any public office.
Some are calling the new wave of candidates one-issue voters. But Dorner said she has not observed any cases of “Yeah, I’m just going to get students back in the classroom and then I’m going to quit.”
“Most candidates are really serious about being a school board member,” she said. “They’ve done their homework or realized there’s more homework to do. I don’t think they’re doing it on a whim.”
And looking ahead, she said, “I am hopeful that this is something that will encourage even more participation.”
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