Four people are running to fill two seats on the Triton College trustee board. Each seat has a six-year term. Incumbents Mark R. Stephens, who is the board’s longtime chairman, and Luke Casson, an Oak Park resident, are attempting to keep their seats in a race that includes challengers Tracy Jennings and Andrew Charles Kopinski.
A major focus and point of pride for both incumbents has been confronting the number of students entering Triton who have to take remedial coursework while Jennings said he wants to focus on community outreach and ethics.
“I believe in Triton,” Jennings said. “My family and I have attended Triton at one point of time or another.”
Jennings, 55, lives in Westchester and pastors a church, which he founded, in Joliet. A U.S. Army veteran, he said he has corporate experience working at two Fortune 500 companies and has been a state administrator for the Department of Human Services, the Department of Children and Family Services’ legal division, and the Illinois Department of Employment Security.
In 2020, he ran unsuccessfully as an independent for the 7th District Congressional seat held by longtime Rep. Danny K. Davis.
“I know people who work at Triton [and] there seem to be concerns, especially among employees, about how the board operates,” Jennings said. “They say you have to be in a clique to get anything done and there is the appearance of some unethical things that have taken place.”
Jennings cited as a recent example the March issue of the college’s monthly newsletter, Connect, which included a story about Lisa Bickel, an incumbent appointed to a vacant board seat last year.
“I understand how campaigns work, and to basically get a campaign piece to go to every house in the district is a little questionable to me,” Jennings said. “Triton can’t endorse anyone but published the same article they wrote about her last summer when she was appointed.”
Jennings added that, in addition to transparency, he wants to bring a more robust community presence to the board.
“I really want to make it a point for myself to get out into the communities and be an advocate for talking about the benefit of community colleges, especially in areas of color,” he said.
Stephens, 61, and Casson, 55, both touted the recent implementation of the iLaunch Math Lab, a teaching methodology that uses educational software to get students taking remedial courses up to speed.
“Students come to Triton at a disadvantage,” Stephens said. “And the biggest disadvantage we see are folks who come to us out of high school who aren’t prepared to do college work. Almost 70 percent of our students have to take some type of immediate coursework.”
Stephens said the iLaunch Math Lab, which was implemented in 2018, “is enormously important, because it has reduced the remediation our students have to take by 20 percent, which is enormous and we’re going to get better as time goes by.”
“Academically, I can shout from the rooftops the pride I’ve taken in what has gone on in the math department,” said Casson. “The iLaunch Math Lab is something the whole community can be proud of. The results speak for themselves.”
Stephens, who owns a cleaning company in Rosemont, the suburb founded by his father, Donald E. Stephens, has been on the Triton board since 1991. He’s been board chairman since 1992.
Casson, one of two Oak Park residents on the Triton board, is a partner at a law firm he co-founded. He was elected to his first term on the board in 2015.
“Oak Park students make up the largest percentage of our students and most people in Oak Park are dumbfounded by that,” Casson said. “They either don’t believe it or they blame the high school. I have to remind them that it’s not to blame and it doesn’t cast [Oak Park and River Forest High School] in a bad light at all.”
Casson said Triton College also boasts many high-performing students and gave an example of a Triton attendee who was recently accepted into the University of Michigan.
“Community college isn’t a predictor of anything other than opportunity,” he said. “I think more kids should use the Triton system. We teach out of the same textbooks that the lion’s share of 4-year universities use for curriculum credit. One of the things we do well is partner with 4-year universities and adopt a lot of their curriculum.”
Stephens said if he’s re-elected to his sixth full term, he’ll continue working to realize what he said has been a long goal of his. He said years ago, college faculty and staff presented him with the concept of an institution where students starting in middle school can, within five years, obtain a high school diploma and a full associate’s degree without needing to take remedial coursework in college.
“I won’t give up on that dream,” Stephens said. “As a matter of fact, we were able to acquire a piece of ground on the [former Golfland Arcade practice driving range at 1701 S. 5th Ave.] at a very favorable price
[records show the board purchased the land in November 2017 for $3.6 million]
and that is the primary reason for the board’s purchase of that land, because that would be the perfect spot for building that building and getting that school up and running.”
Attempts to contact Andrew Charles Kopinski for comment were unsuccessful.