The campaign for the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 school board will resemble a game of musical chairs. With four candidates vying for three seats, after the votes are counted, one person will be left standing on the outside.
Running for the three seats are two incumbents who live in Brookfield, board President Wes Smithing and Vice President Ramona Towner, and two newcomers, Ryan VenHorst of Riverside and Lorena Gasca of North Riverside.
VenHorst, 41, teaches technology and engineering classes at Oak Park and River Forest High School. A member of the faculty for 18 years, he is also an assistant wrestling coach. VenHorst has lived in Riverside for nearly eight years and is the father of two daughters, a sixth-grader and a fourth-grader.
“I’m interested in the strength of schools and, in general, it’s important to have people involved,” VenHorst said when asked why he was running for the school board.
VenHorst grew up just outside Bettendorf, Iowa, and his father served on the local school board, so he has always thought that he might like to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“It’s often more challenging than rewarding, but it’s important,” VenHorst said.
VenHorst graduated from the University of Northern Iowa and earned a master’s degree from Concordia University-Portland.
He says he wants to be a voice of reason on the school board and said he understands the limitations of a school board’s member role.
“You set policy and hire the superintendent, negotiate contracts with the superintendent; that’s what you’re limited to,” VenHorst said.
VenHorst said that he would like to see RBHS strengthen career and technical education.
Gasca, 47, has lived in North Riverside for eight years and is the mother of a seventh-grade who attends Komarek School. She was born in Monterey, Mexico, and moved to Chicago when she was 6 years old. Gasca grew up in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago.
She graduated from Whitney Young High School, University of Illinois at Chicago and recently earned a master’s degree in human resources management from Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU).
Gasca has worked at NEIU for 14 years and is a senior project manager for GEARUP, a federally funded program that works in partnership with the Chicago Public Schools to encourage disadvantaged urban youth to go to college.
Coming from Chicago, which has an appointed school board, Gasca said she has been interested in serving on a school board since moving to North Riverside. With her master’s degree completed and North Riverside resident Gina Sierra choosing not to run for a second term on the District 208 school board, Gasca decided that now is the time to take the plunge.
“I thought now would be a good time for me to give back to my community,” Gasca said.
If elected, Gasca would be the first Hispanic member of the school in recent memory. But that was not something that she had thought about when deciding whether to run.
“My interest was in representing North Riverside, period,” Gasca said.
However, 36.7 percent of RBHS students are Hispanic and Gasca believes that having representation on the school board would be good.
“I definitely think RB should continue to work towards making sure that all their stakeholders are represented in all aspects, whether it’s the school board, administration — where I think they’re doing a good job — also teachers,” Gasca said. “Diversity, I think, is a strength.”
Gasca and VenHorst face off against Smithing and Towner, who, along with board member Laura Hruska, have been vocal in supporting a return to in-person learning and have occasionally aggressively criticized the teachers’ union at RBHS, with Towner at one board meeting describing the leadership of the union, known as the RBEA, as toxic.
Smithing noted that both Gasca and VenHorst work in education.
“Competition is always good,” Smithing said of having a contested race. “It will be interesting to see what the educators think we need to do better than we’re doing. It will be interesting to see their take on how they hold educators accountable and educators trying to hold educators accountable.”
Towner works as instructional coach in South Berwyn School District 100, where she’s been employed as an educator for 31 years, while Smithing is a manager for facilities design and construction for United Ground Express.
Towner said she welcomed competition and is glad, as a voter, that other people have decided to run. But, she argued that the school board will need experienced leadership and said there’s work she still wants to complete.
“I am running because I don’t think I accomplished my goals that I set for myself, for instance making sure that we remain financially stable,” Towner said. “And giving kids more choice in classes, especially non-college bound kids.”
Smithing noted that VenHorst works at OPRF, a much larger school than RBHS.
“It will be interesting, because I don’t think there is any interest in running our school any way that Oak Park-River Forest runs their high school,” Smithing said. “We’re different schools, different agendas.”
Smithing said that he understands that he is not very popular with the teachers’ union right now.
“I’m just holding them accountable and people don’t tend to like to be held accountable that often,” Smithing said. “That’s probably about the reason there.”
There has been speculation that the RBHS teachers’ union played a role in recruiting candidates to challenge Smithing and Towner.
VenHorst denied that he was recruited by the union, but acknowledged that he knows some RBHS teachers.
“My desire to be a part of the school board has actually gone back far beyond anything that is happening on the current board,” VenHorst said.
VenHorst and Gasca have spoken but have not decided whether they will team up in the campaign.
“We’ve talked on the phone,” VenHorst said.
VenHorst said that being a teacher has advantages and disadvantages when it comes to being a member of a school board.
“The advantage is understanding what teachers do, what our jobs really are, what we’re asked to do, and from there see what our limitations are in our outreach,” said VenHorst, adding that the disadvantage is that teachers are often viewed as part of the education establishment.
VenHorst said he could balance competing interests of teachers and taxpayers should he be elected to the school board in April.
“I think it starts with attempting to find fairness,” VenHorst said.
Gasca said she didn’t have an informed opinion yet on the issues between the school board and union but noted that it is not easy to run a school during a pandemic.
“Regardless of what side you’re on it’s a difficult time, so I can see why tensions would be high,” Gasca said.