A message of fiscal restraint appears to have been a key to victory for Ed Jepson, Matt Sinde and Mike Welch in the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 board race.
“I think we won because the message of sustainable excellence with fiscal responsibility rang true to voters,” said Jepson, who led the field with 2,334 votes.
Welch won his second term on the school board, finishing a close second just 25 votes behind Jepson. Sinde, the District 208 board president, claimed the final spot finishing third with 2,155 votes, 296 votes ahead of fourth place finisher James Landahl, the president of the LaGrange Park-Brookfield Elementary District 95 school board.
Newcomer Joe Wanner, who waged an aggressive campaign, finished fifth with 1,799 votes and Chuck Snyder, a well-liked, 12-year veteran of the District 95 school board, brought up the rear with 1,561 votes, according to unofficial results from the Cook County Clerk.
Turnout was quite low with only 23.39 percent of registered voters casting ballots in the race.
Jepson, Sinde and Welch polled well throughout the district, with Jepson finishing among the top three in 24 of the district’s 28 precincts. Welch finished in the top three in 23 precincts and Sinde finished in the top three in 20 precincts.
Landahl finished strong in his home base of Brookfield, making it into the top three in 10 precincts, but came up short in Riverside. Wanner was strong in his hometown of Riverside, getting the most votes of any candidate in Riverside’s 8th precinct and finishing among the top three in six others. Snyder finished in the top three in just four precincts.
Incumbents Sinde and Welch were re-elected despite voting to make unpopular budget cuts and imposing high fees on students to participate in sports and many extracurricular activities. Class sizes have also increased as the school cut its teaching staff. Sinde and Welch were accused by some of ruining the school.
Although it was hard to see a great deal of difference between what the candidates were saying publicly, behind the scenes there was a fierce, unrelenting and often bitter battle going on between the most avid supporters of the different candidates.
The morning after the election many of those who supported the losing candidates were stunned by the results. Many thought strong, experienced candidates like Landahl and Snyder, with proven records of accomplishment, and a hard-charging newcomer like Wanner could defeat Welch and Sinde, who were attacked as divisive and portrayed as unconcerned with education.
“I was surprised,” said Lisa Aulerich-Marciniak who was strong supporter of Wanner, Landahl and Snyder. “My friends are saying, ‘How did that happen?’ My friends must not think like everybody else does.”
The victory for Jepson, Sinde, and Welch makes it the third straight District 208 school board race where candidates backed by former District 208 school board candidate Chris Robling and former Riverside Village Trustee Jerry Buttimer have triumphed.
The candidates backed by Buttimer and Robling have been more successful than the two themselves. In 2007 Robling finished a distant seventh in an eight-candidate field in his race for the District 208 school board.
In 1995 Buttimer was elected to the Riverside Village Board but was defeated when he ran for re-election four years later.
The key to success for Jepson, Welch and Sinde this year was a strong campaign featuring lots of shoe leather and face-to-face voter contact and, perhaps most importantly, a message that resonated with financially hard-pressed voters.
Six days before Election Day the Jepson, Sinde and Welch team mailed out a simple two sided black and white post card to about voters. While the design wasn’t much to speak of, the message, crafted by Robling, was powerful.
“We will keep RB’s costs and your taxes down,” the postcard said. “We know how tough these years have been for District 208 families. We respect RB’s teachers and we appreciate their contribution, but District 208 families can no longer fund contracts that raise compensation by more than 60 percent over eight years. It’s not fair. … We will not propose a referendum until every other alternative has been exhausted.”
The back of the post mailer, which cost about $1,300 to mail to 5,500 households, listed what it said were eight examples of cumulative raises that teachers received over the last two contracts. The mailer says the figures were taken from RBHS pay grids.
“Their message resonated with voters,” Landahl said.
Some who backed the losing candidates blamed the low voter turnout, below 24 percent, lower than in previous elections.
“Community apathy,” said former District 208 school board President Jim Marciniak who ran on a slate with Robling in 2007, but has since parted ways and has become a harsh critic of Robling, Buttimer, Sinde and Welch.
His wife, Lisa, said that the Robling and Buttimer-backed candidates win because of clever and misleading campaigns that touch the hot buttons of voters.
“The Robling/Buttimer machine continues to win despite not having the most qualified, most experienced or most knowledgeable candidates,” Aulerich-Marciniak wrote in an email. “They cultivate and then prey on residents’ financial fears. It’s all about the money. They convince the fearful that past boards were wasteful and probably even criminal, but that their candidates are concentrated on making sure every economy is realized.”
They marginalize their opponents with unfair attacks and bully their opponents, Aulerich-Marciniak said.
“They discredit anyone who would actually have working knowledge of the school,” said Aulerich-Marciniak, a former teacher. “They ‘prove’ their points with links to anonymously posted videos, documents, half-truths and outright falsehoods that smear everyone whom they feel is at odds with them, then associate rival candidates to these individuals any way they can.”
Some accuse Robling and Buttimer of carrying out a right-wing ideological attempt to weaken unions, public employees and public education.
“It’s a tired, misleading claim,” said Robling who is and has been a Republican activist and commentator. “People who have nothing to say substantively fall back on personal vitriol. … Fiscal sustainability is not an ideological objective, it’s a practical requirement. I think there just is a group in town that’s dedicated to the proposition that everything was always peaches and cream at RB.”
Robling says that his national politics have little to do with local school board races. He said that he has attempted to recruit ideological liberals to run for the school board. Randy Brockway, whom Robling backed in the District 96 race this year, is a liberal who volunteered in President Obama’s re-election campaign.
Some believe that the Robling-Buttimer-backed candidates get much of their support from people who do not have children attending RBHS. Landahl, Wanner and Snyder all have children who are currently attending the school.
Of the winners only Jepson has a child at the school, although Welch and Sinde’s kids have graduated from RBHS.
“I would hope that we would have more representation of parents who have children attending the school,” Landahl said.
Even though the election is over the debate, and the sniping, continues.
As of Monday evening there had been more than 200 comments on the Landmark’s election night story.