The underlying tensions in the race for three seats on the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Board of Education race have burst into the open during the last week of the campaign.
The Riverside-Brookfield High School teachers’ union, known as the RBEA, has, through the political action committee of the Illinois Education Association (IEA), become involved, paying for 250 campaign signs and 5,000 door hangers for candidates Lorena Gasca and Ryan VenHorst, who are challenging incumbents Wes Smithing and Ramona Towner
The campaign signs cost about $800, VenHorst said, and the union said they will reimburse the candidates for the expense.
This open support by the union caused Mike Towner, the ex-husband of Ramona Towner and a former Brookfield village trustee who now lives in Berwyn, to state in a Facebook post that Gasca and VenHorst were “union plants.”
On March 29, Mike Towner posted a photo of a ballot marked for Ramona Towner and Smithing on the Brookfield Connections Facebook page.
“Best choice for RB,” Mike Towner wrote underneath the photo. “Don’t vote for union plants. Keep independents on the board.”
Towner’s post drew 128 comments as of Thursday afternoon and sparked a spirited and sometimes heated exchange on the community Facebook page. The post was taken down on Thursday, but it is unclear who made that decision.
Neither Ramona Towner nor Smithing called Gasca and VenHorst union plants.
“I don’t think [the challengers are] a plant, as in they went and got them and had them do that, no,” Smithing said. “I think the union is supportive of them. My concern is we already have three Riverside residents on the board. If you get a fourth, Riverside then can own the board.”
The 5,000 door hangers is a significant purchase. Only 4,873 people voted in the 2019 District 208 school board election. RBEA officers said that they didn’t know the cost of the door hangers, but an employee at a print shop that sells campaign signs and produces campaign literature says 5,000 full color two-sided door hangers would cost $700.
VenHorst and Gasca have teamed up in the campaign with a joint Facebook page as well as joint campaign signs and campaign literature. VenHorst, a Riverside resident who teaches industrial technology and engineering at Oak Park and River Forest High School, acknowledged that the union paid for the campaign signs and door hangers, saying he and Gasca wanted to be completely open and transparent about their campaign.
“It was something that allowed us to get some name recognition,” VenHorst said. “Wes and Mona already have that as incumbents.”
The door hangers state they were paid for by Riverside Brookfield High School EA PAC. The IEA PAC, which purchased the door hangers and is reimbursing VenHorst for the yard signs, is funded by voluntary contributions of union members that are made separately from regular union dues.
Ironically, Ramona Towner has been an educator for 31 years and a member of the South Berwyn Education Association, a local of the IEA, for 29 years. Towner, a former teacher who is now an instructional coach and 1 to 1 coordinator for the South Berwyn School District, said she routinely contributes to the IEA PAC.
It’s no surprise that the RBEA is supporting Gasca and VenHorst. Smithing and Towner tangled with the union last year when Smithing and Towner and other board members wanted to start the school year with a hybrid schedule while the union wanted to start the school year with all remote learning.
The union eventually prevailed after teachers held a large demonstration in front of the school before an August school board meeting and orchestrated a slowdown entry to the school during an Institute Day right before the first day of school. Those tactics angered some board members, including Smithing and Towner.
“They’re gunning for me,” said Smithing, who has the phrase “Kids in School” at the top of the 100 campaign signs he purchased for himself. “I’m not surprised because we really worked hard to get our kids back in school and the teachers union particularly is against that.”
During a school board meeting in November, Towner called the RBEA leadership “toxic” and berated music teacher James Baum over his role in the August protest and what she perceived as the unwillingness of teachers to teach students in person.
Towner told the Landmark that she doesn’t regret her comments.
“I know that over the last four years all of the decisions I made as a board member have put kids first,” Towner said. “Anybody who was paying attention to what had been happening in the fall would understand my frustration at that meeting.”
The RBEA interviewed all four candidates by Zoom this year and decided to support Gasca and VenHorst.
“Ryan and Lorena were impressive and professional,” said history teacher John Fields, the elections and political action chair of the RBEA, in an email to the Landmark. “It is important that a board member represents the entire RB community, and that they will collaborate with all stakeholders.”
Towner said the RBEA was well within their rights to support and fund the campaign of Gasca and VenHorst.
“They were honest with us,” Towner said. “They said they were going to use their PAC money to endorse whatever candidates they see fit.”
Teachers are supporting Gasca and VenHorst with more than money. Towner said a friend told her that a couple of RBHS teachers were distributing Gasca and VenHorst literature in Brookfield this week. Some local progressive activists are also supporting Gasca and VenHorst
Towner, who held leadership positions in the South Berwyn Education Association in the late 1990s, used her IEA membership to help her campaign. She said that she called the IEA offices and asked for and received the names and addresses of all IEA members who live in District 208. She then sent a letter and campaign literature to the local IEA members them asking for their support.
VenHorst said he could understand that some might wonder if a school board member elected with the financial support of the teachers’ union might have a conflict of interest when negotiating contracts with the union.
He said openness is the key and that being pro-teacher is not being anti-student. VenHorst said he knows that the job of a school board member is to represent the entire community, adding he would not play an active role in contract negotiations should he be elected.
“I honestly think that I probably, for good reason, shouldn’t be as directly involved for the simple fact that I am a teacher who is paid by a separate taxing body,” VenHorst said.
But VenHorst said that he probably would not recuse himself from any contract votes.
“That’s the point of being elected,” VenHorst said. “I would consider recusal from being on the negotiations committee.”
Gasca took particular exception to being called a plant of the union.
“The union did not plant me; I planted myself,” Gasca said. “Everyone has a right to support whichever candidate they want, but to say that we were planted by the union is, quite frankly, it’s insulting.”
Gasca, a North Riverside resident who works on a federally funded program at Northeastern Illinois University to promote college access for students who traditionally are unlikely to attend college, said that she would bring much to the school board.
“I see a need for North Riverside to have representation,” said Gasca, noting that she is the mother of a seventh-grader who will soon be attending RBHS. “I see a need for a Latina voice on the school board. I think that perspective would greatly benefit the board. I would be representing over 40 percent of the students and families of color that belong to the district.”
Smithing and Towner have teamed up at the last minute to buy palm cards that they, along with some volunteers supporting them, will hand out at early voting sites and at polling places in Election Day on April 6.
Smithing estimated that he has spent about $1,000 to $1,500, on the campaign and received about a third of that in contributions. Towner said she hasn’t received any contributions and has spent about $750 on her campaign.
This story has been changed. At this time, it is unclear who removed Mike Towner’s post from the Brookfield Connections page on Facebook.