The annual elections for the executive board of the Brook Park Council (BPC), which is a parent organization similar to a PTA for Brook Park Elementary School in LaGrange Park, are typically sleepy affairs. The biggest challenge is usually getting enough parents to volunteer to fill all the positions. Contested races are almost unheard of.
This year is different.
When three Brook Park parents who strongly opposed requiring face masks in school filed to run for the BPC executive board — including for president of the board – it immediately sparked controversy.
All three candidates — Jamie Baker, Robert Cheval and Anthony Santos — made public comments calling for an end to the mask mandate at the crowded Feb. 10 meeting of the Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 Board of Education.
In the wake of opposition, two of those candidates, Baker and Santos, have now pulled out of their races. Cheval is running unopposed for the position of recording secretary. The BPC executive board election will be held May 10 at Brook Park School. BPC has 187 members and those voting must be dues-paying members.
Baker, the mother of a kindergartener at Brook Park, had filed to run for president of the BPC before withdrawing on April 18. A few months ago, she founded a Brookfield/LaGrange Park chapter of Awake Illinois, a stridently anti-mask group that was founded last year by a Naperville woman who had run unsuccessfully for the Indian Prairie District 204 school board in 2021.
In the last year Awake Illinois has emerged as a combative organization with a right-wing sensibility. Some have described it as extremist. Awake Illinois members have criticized what members see as a left-wing bias in public schools and advocates for what they call a “parents bill of rights.”
Before she withdrew from the BPC race, Baker was set to face off against current BPC Vice President Leah Picek. Baker said she withdrew from the race for president because of time demands, but she was also upset by the reaction to her candidacy.
“I don’t think the position really is worth the amount of time that I would have to dedicate to it, especially if people wouldn’t be appreciative of the work or any kind of new suggestions that I could bring to the table,” Baker said. “They were fixated on the fact that I had started a chapter of Awake Illinois and basically used that as a way to attack me, my family and my name, not even knowing that I don’t even have a chapter anymore and that I don’t have any members, never did. But no one came to me from the BPC and asked me about my affiliation with Awake Illinois. Or asked me personally anything about it.”
Baker, who described herself as a political independent, said her involvement with Awake Illinois was limited to the mask issue.
“That was something I did during the pandemic to get the masks off the kids,” Baker said.
Baker, who has been an active BPC member and volunteer this year, said she wanted to be president just to serve the students and the school.
“My focus was on the kids and being there for my child and all the other kids at Brook Park,” Baker said. “But when I started hearing the background chatter, I don’t have time for this.”
Some mobilized to campaign against Baker, Santos and Cheval. Mitzi Norton, the co-leader of the Indivisible Brookfield, a left-leaning progressive organization, said that she sent emails to about 10 households asking them to join the BPC and to vote in the executive board elections.
“We were made aware that a group under Awake Brookfield, under Awake Illinois, was formed to run, but our ask was that people vote for the incumbents,” Norton said. “I didn’t name anyone.”
Baker wonders why so much was made of her involvement with Awake Illinois, noting that two people currently on the District 95 school board, Meaghan McAteer and Jessica Filbey, are affiliated with Indivisible Brookfield.
“We’ve got two people on our school board that are part of that group Indivisible Illinois that believes in defunding the police, and they get to sit on the board, no questions asked,” Baker said. “And I don’t even have a group anymore and I’m being attacked for it.”
McAteer, a co-founder and co-leader of Indivisible Brookfield said she has never tried to hide her involvement with Indivisible.
“I co-founded Indivisible Brookfield in September of 2017, and I am proud of the work we have done here in our community,” McAteer said in an email. “I was very open and transparent about this when I ran for the D95 school board. I would also like to point out that, among other things, Indivisible advocates for and supports fully funded public education for all students.”
Some were concerned that Baker and her running mates were trying to use the BPC as a springboard to a race for the school board next year. Baker says that she hasn’t decided whether to run for a seat on the school board but said that the reaction to her candidacy for the BPC executive board would give her pause.
“I have not made a decision on that,” Baker said.
Santos denied that he was affiliated with Awake Illinois and said that he wasn’t even aware of the group until he read about it on social media.
“My intentions was nothing but purely being a dad involved with his kids,” Santos said.
He said the controversy and infighting led him to withdraw as a candidate, which he did so officially on April 25.
“It just turned south so quickly,” Santos said accusing opponents of bullying people on social media.
Cheval could not be reached for comment.
Picek, the BPC vice president now running unopposed for president, is the mother of a sixth-grader at S.E. Gross Middle School and a kindergartner at Brook Park. She has been involved in the BPC since her sixth-grader was a student there and has served as vice president of the BPC for the last two years.
Picek says that it’s unfortunate the BPC election became contentious.
“The controversy is so blown out of proportion, I think, especially from the other side because we just keep telling them we’re not doing anything, like we’re not emailing people, we’re not making public posts,” Picek said. “We’re very careful with what we post on our Facebook pages and our comments about things, because we don’t want them to get misconstrued and we don’t anyone to feel like they’re not welcome because our whole initiative this year is to bring our people together.”