Last month emails were flying among people desperately looking for candidates to challenge the incumbent members of the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education who are running for reelection this spring. Finally, at nearly the last minute, three candidates emerged.
Chris Robling and Jerry Buttimer, who have heretofore focused mostly on Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 school board races, played important roles, along with others, in helping recruit and get on the ballot the three non-incumbent candidates — Randy Brockway, Mary Rose Mangia and Rachel Marrello, who are running together as a slate for seats on the District 96 school board.
Robling and Buttimer gathered signatures for their nominating petitions, combining to get 100 signatures split among the three challengers.
The impetus for the efforts by Robling, Buttimer and others including Mary Lescher, Joanne Rogers and Shelia Daily was outrage over the school board’s handling of the removal of an Ames School teacher last year and the actions of Ames School Principal Colleen Lieggi.
After the Landmark published a story about the matter, many members of the community have been upset about its handling by the district and school board. Some believe that Lieggi should have been removed from Ames School for this and other allegations that she reported or made.
Robling has publicly called for Lieggi to be removed from Ames School and has also publicly called on District 96 school board President Mary Ellen Meindl, who is running for re-election, to resign.
“I have expressed my outrage at the board’s handling of the Colleen Lieggi matter,” Robling said. “I do not think any of us should allow the injustice … done in our name to stand. I said that I would support non-incumbents, and I’m proud to have done so.”
Robling says that his role in recruiting candidates and helping them get signatures is not important.
“These three people surfaced,” Robling said. “I barely know Mary Rose. I don’t know Rachel and I don’t know Randy, and I supported them. The issue is not how these people got on the ballot, the issue is what they going to do if they get elected.”
Buttimer and Robling have been actively involved in District 208 school board elections since 2007 when Robling ran unsuccessfully, finishing seventh in an eight-person field. In subsequent elections, Buttimer and Robling have supported five of the current members of the seven-person District 208 school board.
The three District 96 candidates describe the help they received from Robling and Buttimer as merely procedural. They say that as first-time candidates they were not familiar with the mechanics of getting on the ballot.
On Dec. 23, three days before the filing deadline, Brockway and Mangia took their nominating petition sheets to Buttimer’s house to have them reviewed and to make sure everything was in order. Rogers took Marrello’s petitions to Buttimer’s to be reviewed.
“We were making sure they were correct,” Mangia said. “It was mostly mechanical. We were not all there at the same time. In fact, Rachel was not there at all. But basically they, I mean Jerry, supplied a lot of help — the mechanics of getting on the ballot.”
More than half of the petition sheets of the three challengers were notarized by Don Farnham, a notary public who has worked with Buttimer and Robling in various District 208 efforts. Farnham notarized seven of Mangia’s eight pages of signatures; six of Brockway’s eight and two of Marrello’s 12 pages.
The candidates say they made their decisions to run independently after being urged to run by many different people.
“If anybody gave me undue influence it was my wife,” Brockway said.
Buttimer says that he decided to get involved in the District 96 race after attending the Dec. 18 District 96 school board meeting.
“The meeting told me the board has problems and I’m willing to help,” Buttimer said. “If someone is honest and they’re willing to serve, I’ll help them get on the ballot. We’ve only done it because there used to be caucuses in 96 and 208 and they evaporated.”
On Dec. 10, Robling sent out an email, copied to nearly 100 people, criticizing the District 96 school board and encouraging people to run for the school board. In the email Robling also forwarded the police report that details the Riverside police department’s investigation into allegations reported or made by Lieggi.
“I’m very proud to have forwarded a public document to folks in Riverside so that they can put the actions of the board in context,” Robling said.
Robling said he considered running for a seat on the District 96 board. However, he decided against doing that when he thought that four non-incumbent candidates were going to run.
“Running is a family decision and we hadn’t gotten close to it,” Robling said. “We thought there were four candidates who were terrific and so we did not get there.”
Marrello said that she had been thinking about running for the school board since the middle of 2011 when Mary Stimming left the board to move to Georgia. But she says that Rogers, whom she has known for a long time, along with Robling and Buttimer gave her the final push that she needed.
“I think it was a combination of the three of them, Joanne, Chris and Jerry, talking me into it, literally a week before the documents were due,” Marrello said. “I’ve been seriously thinking about it for a while.”
Marrello said that she appreciates the willingness of Robling and Buttimer to get involved and challenge the status quo.
“I think this community needs more people like Chris and Jerry to challenge the administration that’s there,” Marrello said. “That’s part of what the democratic process is about.”