With five seats at stake in April 2021 and three incumbents not running for re-election, the Lyons Township High School District 204 Board of Education is about to undergo a big change.
Eight candidates have filed for the five seats up for the grabs.
One of those races is for a two-year term on the board, which is open because Barbara Rosinsky, who was re-elected in 2019 to a four-year term, resigned earlier this year.
Her appointed replacement, Michael Thomas, is running for a full four-year term. The choice for the two-year term will be between first-time candidate Jill Beda Daniels and incumbent Jessica McLean.
Daniels, an attorney with her own practice is LaGrange focusing on collaborative divorce and mediation, has done more than anyone to put the issue of the race and equity on the front burner at LTHS by calling attention to the wide achievement gap between Black and white students.
She says that the school board and administration have not adequately addressed the issue and said that she filed for the two-year term hoping that she would face off against an incumbent.
“I’m running because I feel the board needs a fresh voice,” Daniels said. “I felt that I could make a difference better in the two-year term, because I might be running against an incumbent.”
Nearly a year ago Daniels paid to have an education expert prepare a lengthy report on the achievement gap at LTHS and how it could be addressed.
“I feel that LT needs to be a place for belonging and equity for all of its students, and this must be a forefront of every decision made,” said Daniels, a 47-year-old mother of four children including one LTHS graduate and a junior who was adopted from Ethiopia. “If the district was doing their job, I wouldn’t have had to commission a report.”
Daniels said LTHS officials have mostly ignored the report and have not adequately addressed the issue despite holding an open board meeting devoted to the subject this summer.
“I think it was just to humor people,” said Daniels of the meeting this summer. “I do question the motive of the board.”
McLean, who has served on the District 204 board since 2015, says she agrees that the achievement gap and equity are big issues, but she disputes the notion that the current board hasn’t dealt with them. She admits, however, that what has been done so far hasn’t been very effective.
“There’s definitely an opportunity or an achievement gap … they have tried to get after, but obviously what they have tried, it didn’t achieve what it’s supposed to do,” McLean said.
McLean, a LTHS graduate and the mother of three graduates, said she was horrified by some of the things she learned this year, including that some Black and Hispanic students at LTHS had heard racial slurs.
“That is completely unacceptable,” McLean said. “In the spring what I found out in a way that I was not aware of, the climate at LT seems to be less welcoming in a way that I think I was embarrassingly unaware of, and I think many people felt the same way.”
McLean, 56, a LaGrange resident, says decided to run for another term on the school board because there was going to be so much turnover. Three experienced incumbents, board President Tom Cushing, three-term incumbent George Dougherty and six-year incumbent Molly Murphy Bruton, all decided not to run for re-election.
The school board will also hire a new superintendent in 2021.
“This is kind of a big moment, and I feel like I would just like to see it through,” McLean said.
4-year candidates also eye equity
Equity and the achievement gap were issues mentioned by all six of the candidates running for the four four-year terms at stake.
Thomas, a 54-year-old LaGrange Park resident who works as a marketing manager for Dart Corp., was appointed to the school board in October to replace Rosinsky. He is a former LaGrange-Brookfield Elementary School District 102 board member and is likely the first Black person to ever serve on the LTHS school board.
Thomas said if he’s elected to a full four-year term, he wants to focus on equity and the issue of learning loss. Thomas said he needs more than a few months to work on the issues that the board and school face.
“I really see that the whole learning loss that is happening with our students is a really big issue,” Thomas said.
The other five candidates for four-year terms are Dawn Aubert, Tim Albores, Jill Grech, Ricardo Martinez and Julie Swinehart.
Aubert, 53, served on the District 102 school board from 2007 to 2015 before stepping aside to spend more time caring for her aging parents.
She believes her experience as a school board member is something that would be very valuable to a District 204 school board that won’t be very experienced. She said that if elected she would hit the ground running.
“I hope that my eight years of experience can provide some assistance and good energy towards a school district that obviously is going through an inordinate amount of issues right now with COVID and hiring a new superintendent who will start next year,” Aubert said. “Having done this previously, there’s a big learning curve.”
Martinez, 35, who ran a spirited, insurgent campaign in 2019 but finished last in a five-person field, is trying again.
“I am running again because I want to give a strong voice for equity and achievement and access to opportunity,” Martinez said. “I think I could be a unique voice for the board. I’m the father of two young boys. I’m a minority.”
Martinez, a Western Springs resident whose wife is a French teacher at LTHS, works as an analytics and insights manager for Breakthrough Beverage Group.
“I’m a data person,” Martinez said. “I know that there is a lot of law expertise on the school board right now. I just think it brings something different to have a background in analytics and be really comfortable looking at data and drivers.”
Two years ago, Martinez made air conditioning a major issue in his campaign, criticizing the slow pace of the expansion of air conditioning at both campuses. He also called for District 204 to sell a 70-acre parcel of land in Willow Springs purchased decades ago when District 204 believed it might need to open another high school.
While air conditioning is still important, Martinez it will not be as large a focus due to the pandemic and equity.
Albores, 46, lives in LaGrange Park and works as the director of student services for high schools and alternative programs for Plainfield School District 202, where he oversees about 80 social workers.
He has been a member of the LT Advisory Council (LTAC) and is the father of three children, two of whom are students at LTHS, a senior and a sophomore.
“I’ve always wanted to take my knowledge and expertise in education and give back to my local community,” Albores said.
Like the other candidates Albores says equity is an important issue.
“I believe it is important to continue to investigate how we can level the playing field for all kids: black, brown, male, female, disadvantaged, wealthy,” Albores said.
He says that while LTHS is an excellent school it can be better.
“I don’t think that LT is broken, but I do think we can always do better,” Albores said.
Grech, 45, works as digital marketing strategist for Loyola University of Chicago. She has lived in LaGrange for nearly 11 years and is the mother of three children, including a freshman at LTHS and child who will be a freshman next year.
“I think there’s a unique opportunity right now to add a lot of new voices to the table,” Grech said. “I love our community; I love these kids. I’m so enthusiastic about Lyons Township High School.”
Grech said District 204 is facing a structural budget deficit this year and must also focus on equity and the mental health of students who have become isolated during the pandemic.
“We just have to responsible stewards of finances,” Grech said.
Swinehart, 45, is a resident of LaGrange who grew up in Western Springs and graduated from LTHS in 1993. She has served on LTAC for the past four years.
“It really gave me a tremendous amount of insight as to how the school functions,” Swinehart said.
Swinehart is the mother of three children, a sophomore at LTHS and eighth-grade twins. She said she would bring expertise in finance to the school board. A certified public accountant, Swinehart works as the treasurer, chief financial officer and executive vice president for Retail Properties of America Inc., an Oak Brook-based company that owns about 105 shopping malls and strips around the country.
“I see myself as a consensus builder, see myself as someone who has experienced leading through crisis. If you can imagine being in retail through a pandemic, it hasn’t been easy,” Swinehart said. “Obviously, I think my finance expertise is something that could be a benefit and is something of a timeless need.”
Swinehart, who is a lesbian, said that she feels that she could also add additional diversity to the school board.
“I’m passionate about diversity and have witnessed firsthand how different ways of thinking, based on different life experiences and different thought can really generate a lot of creativity and often get to the right answer in things,” Swinehart said.