Two challengers swept to a convincing victory in the Riverside-Brookfield High School High School District 208 Board of Education race, while incumbent Ramona Towner has edged out school board President William “Wes” Smithing for the third and final seat.
With all 25 precincts reporting unofficial results, Lorena Gasca of North Riverside led the four-candidate field with 2,296 votes. Oak Park and River Forest High School teacher Ryan VenHorst, a resident of the Riverside, finished second with 2,050 votes. Ramona Towner received 1,927 votes. Smithing trailed the field with 1,803 votes.
Gasca and VenHorst ran as team with a joint Facebook page and campaign signs that were paid for the Illinois Education Association, the state wide teachers’ union, at the behest of the RBEA, the union local that represents RBHS teachers.
In addition to winning the support of most RBHS teachers, Gasca and VenHorst were supported by progressives and those angered by what many viewed as the dismissive treatment of teachers by Smithing and Towner.
“I don’t really support the people on the current board,” said Ern McGovern after voting for Gasca and VenHorst at S.E. Gross Middle School in Brookfield. “They throw the teachers under the bus.”
Many voters only voted for two candidates, either Gasca and VenHorst or Towner and Smithing despite being able to cast three votes for three seats.
Towner and Smithing teamed up at the end with joint palm cards, but Towner is running slightly ahead of Smithing because of voters like Brian Oberhauser and Jim Raffensperger.
Oberhauser, a former member of the Brookfield Village Board who works as a teacher at Warren High School voted for Gasca, VenHorst and Towner.
“I know Mona well,” said Oberhauser who served as village trustee with Michael Towner, Ramona Towner’s ex-husband. “I think her experience as an educator puts her in a good place.”
Raffensperger, of Riverside, strongly supported Gasca and VenHorst but decided to use his third vote on Towner. Raffensperger said he held Smithing, as the president of the school board, responsible for the atmosphere at meetings and the general demeanor of the school board.
“I really did not like the way that he antagonized the RB teachers and teachers’ union,” Raffensperger said. “Smithing was president. You got to vote for three and one had to go.”
Smithing and Towner were both strong proponents of in school instruction. Smithing put the phrase “Kids in School” at the top of his campaign signs and at a November school board meeting Towner called the leadership of the Riverside Brookfield Education Association (RBEA), the RBHS teachers union, “toxic.”
At the same meeting both of them, along with board member Laura Hruska, aggressively questioned RBHS music teacher James Baum. Smithing later apologized for the tenor of the interaction with Baum; Towner did not.
Riverside resident Jennifer Fournier was more typical of the more hardcore Gasca and VenHorst supporters.
“I think they are realistically looking for the best interests of the students, and the teachers, and the community and our emerging diversity in addressing real world race issues that will impact our larger community,” said Fournier after voting at Riverside Township Hall.
The RBEA strongly supported Gasca and VenHorst paying for 250 campaign signs and buying 5,000 door hangers for them.
That was enough for one Riverside man to vote for Towner and Smithing.
“I’m against teachers’ union,” said the voter, who did not want to give his name. “They’re part of the problem in the state of Illinois. In my opinion kids should be in school.”
Smithing was disappointed with result.
“It’s a bummer, didn’t go the way we wanted it to,” Smithing told the Landmark Tuesday night. “Obviously the Illinois teachers’ union spent some time and effort to unseat me for some reason.”
Smithing emphasized providing in-person schooling for students. He said that apparently the community didn’t agree with him, noting that only about 28 percent of RBHS students are attending school in person.
“Seventy percent of the kids are not in school; maybe that’s not important to the community,” Smithing said.
“I’m glad Ramona is still on there,” Smithing added.