On a chilly February night in northwest suburban Barrington, candidates, activists and others gathered at the town’s Campus Life Center, a student gathering space for middle and high schoolers.
After much anticipation, a slate of candidates for three open seats on the Barrington school board took the stage. The trio of concerned parents are running in one of the hundreds of suburban elections scheduled for April 4.
This slate of candidates for the K-12 district, backed by funds from a local political action committee called Action PAC, say they’re worried about test results. Barrington’s 2022 scores on state elementary exams are down compared to pre-pandemic levels, as they are across the state. But scores remain nearly twice the state average.
Their plan to raise scores, the candidates said, is to scrutinize what is taught in schools. They contend that certain lessons, such as Illinois’ social-emotional learning and sex ed standards, are based on harmful ideologies and are distracting students from academics.
“Education isn’t political,” said one candidate, Leonard Munson. “We’ve got to get back to Christian values.”
Munson and the two other Action PAC-endorsed candidates, Katey Baldassano and Matt Sheriff, also said they worry about local tax dollars, noting that between 50% and 60% of property taxes go to schools. They want to look for opportunities to maximize efficiency and cut the budget.
This slate of candidates in Barrington are part of a larger trend. In Illinois and around the country, groups of conservative candidates are banding together in an attempt to get elected to their local school boards.
In several Chicago suburbs, slates of candidates have been telling a similar narrative about their districts: wasteful spending, plus lower test scores caused by distracting ideological lessons on sex, gender, mental health and diversity. In Barrington and a few other suburban districts, they also have the support of well-funded political action committees with multiple contributions of over $1,000.
Awake Illinois, a statewide conservative parent group, is leading the charge on many of these issues, opposing Illinois’ sex ed standards to prevent students from becoming what it calls “sexualized illiterate radicals.” This fall and winter, it hosted candidate training sessions led by the Leadership Institute, a Virginia-based organization that trains conservative candidates around the country. Awake Illinois says it has identified over 75 candidates for potential endorsements.
Opponents of these conservative candidates are struggling to catch up. Some candidates have personal PACs, but there is less fundraising and no state or national connections. But that could soon change. The Democratic Party of Illinois in late February said it plans for the first time in recent memory to spend money in local school board elections. The hope is to intervene in districts like Barrington with large fundraising gaps between conservative and progressive candidates.
How partisanship plays a role in nonpartisan races
At the start of the recent Barrington Action PAC meet-the-candidates event, Rosanna Klusmeyer, the PAC chair, told the crowd the organization was grassroots and nonpartisan (all of the April 4 local elections are officially nonpartisan).
But campaign fundraising records tell a different story. In January, the group collected $36,000 in contributions of $1,000 or higher. These included $5,000 from Bryan Croll, husband of Barrington Township Republican Organization vice president Josie Croll, and $5,000 from former Republican candidate for governor Gary Rabine.
There are other conservative connections as well. Marsha McClary, an Action PAC supporter who collected signatures for all three candidates, also chairs the Lake County chapter of Moms for Liberty, a national conservative organization.
In an interview at the event, Munson said he’s not concerned about Action PAC’s connections to Republicans. Klusmeyer also said she’s not concerned about her PAC’s contributors, adding “This is a nonpartisan election and we have Republicans, Democrats and independents amongst our supporters. I will talk to anyone.”
Sheriff and McClary declined to comment, and Baldassano did not respond to multiple interview requests. Like conservatives, progressive candidates also tend to get the lion’s share of their financial and organization support from Democrats in nonpartisan races, though Action PAC’s liberal opponents all say they’ve raised a small fraction compared to the PAC’s funds.
So far this election cycle, much of the organization on the progressive side has not been fundraising. Instead, loose networks of parents have focused on guerilla opposition research of candidates they oppose, hoping to turn off moderate voters by highlighting candidates with connections to Awake Illinois and other conservative organizations.
These activists include a parent in the western suburb of Downers Grove. Kylie Spahn is promoting her preferred candidates in District 99 by spreading information about two candidates she opposes. One of them, Barbara Allen, was among the parents who sought to remove the book Gender Queer from a school library, but she doesn’t make that part of her campaign.
“I would say 90% of our community supports our LGBTQ community, supports having a diverse curriculum” Spahn said.
Spahn is supporting a slate of candidates who bill themselves as bipartisan. Running on a platform of diversity and inclusion, the candidates include Kara Casten, wife of Democratic U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, along with Don Renner, a lawyer who told the Chicago Tribune he’s a Republican, and Ken Dawson.
Interest and outrage pour into school board races
In the three years since the pandemic began, school board races across the country have become ideological battlegrounds, with fights over masking morphing into divisive conflicts over book bans, critical race theory and sex ed.
In Illinois, this may explain a bump since the start of the pandemic in candidates running for school board races in DuPage County, which covers a large swath of the western suburbs. The county was once a Republican stronghold, but as the range of residents’ political views broadens, elections where no candidate runs unopposed are on the rise.
In the three elections prior to the pandemic, in 2015, 2017 and 2019, less than half of school board races were competitive, meaning there were fewer candidates running than spots available, a WBEZ analysis finds. In the two pandemic elections since, that’s flipped. Roughly 60% of school board races in DuPage County were competitive in 2021 and will be again in the upcoming April 4 election.
In suburban Cook County, there was little change in competitive races before or after the pandemic began, WBEZ found. But in Barrington, which is partially in Cook, and a few other hotspots of conservative organizing, interest in the school board seats has bucked that trend. Some 18 total candidates in Barrington have filed to run in the two races since the pandemic began. Only 12 ran in the two cycles before the pandemic.
In Barrington, incumbents face a well-funded PAC
In Barrington, a 2022 struggle over access to books has cast a shadow on this April’s election. Last fall, the District 220 school board narrowly voted to keep three books on the shelves of the high school library: Gender Queer, Flamer and This Book is Gay. All three books tell the story of young LGBTQ people and contain explicit depictions or discussions of queer sex. The district allows parents to bar their children from checking out books they find objectionable.
Still, the Action PAC-endorsed candidates represent a faction of parents who say the board failed to respond to their concerns. They say it’s another issue forced by school board members who care more about ideology than academics and test scores. At the meet-the-candidates event in February, Baldassano proposed that the school board create a system for removing all sexually-explicit material from the library.
Compared to Action PAC, incumbent and pediatrician Barry Altshuler tells a markedly different story about the Barrington school district. In an interview with WBEZ, he did not mention test scores, saying “we’ve maintained a high quality of education despite some of the rocky things that have happened over the last three years.” He isn’t worried about wasteful spending, saying board members have been “very good financial stewards of the community.” He cites the district’s balanced budget and AAA bond rating.
Altshuler and another incumbent, parent Leah Collister-Lazzari, are helping each other’s campaigns. Their priorities include more diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and building a new fine arts center.
Both board members voted to keep the controversial books in the library. After reading each book with a focus group of parents and teachers, they concluded the potential value for queer students outweighed their explicit images. “We need to make all of our students feel welcome and safe,” Altshuler said. “That means having literature in the library that might appeal to just a couple of students, but is going to help them in some way.”
He and Collister-Lazzari remember audience members yelling at meetings, and Altshuler said he and the other board members were assigned police escorts to their cars after the vote on Gender Queer. “Before one of our meetings in closed session we went around the room and everyone was stressed. That’s just not good, and it’s not normal,” Collister-Lazzari said.
Rachel Forsyth-Tuerck, a Barrington parent who is running for library board this year, also witnessed the pandemonium at board meetings.
She decided to speak up in favor of keeping the books, and she began introducing herself to the few people who agreed with her. From those introductions, a loose network of parents started to form. “People who are not part of [Action PAC] are reaching out to each other. We’re linking elbows like Red Rover.”
Forsyth-Tuerck is helping Altshuler and Collister-Lazzari’s campaigns. Some of her fellow activists are doing opposition research, like obtaining school board candidates’ signature petitions and records of campaign contributions to Action PAC.
Illinois Democrats get involved
In a new development, parents like Forsyth-Tuerck won’t be the only force trying to counter outside conservative spending and training targeting school board contests.
Democratic Party of Illinois Executive Director Ben Hardin said the party has identified just over 60 school districts with what he calls “fringe candidates” who are either connected to outside conservative groups or support their agendas. The party will help opponents of these conservative candidates by offering mailers, online ads, and advice from its political consultants.
“We were made aware of groups with national funding bases, like Moms for Liberty, actively recruiting candidates,” Hardin said. “They’re targeting these low-information elections to support agendas contrary to our values.”
The Democrats haven’t announced which races they will choose, and it remains to be seen if candidates in these officially nonpartisan races will accept the help.
It’s clear, though, that political organizers across the political spectrum see school boards in a new light: as important seats of local political power.
Amy Qin is a data reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @amyqin12.
This story was updated to clarify that the loose network of parents described by Rachel Forsyth-Tuerck are not anti-conservative.