Suburban school board races heat up over library books, sex ed

Suburban school board races show divisions in culture war

Two years ago, school board races across the suburbs drew long lines of candidates galvanized by mask mandates and remote learning.

This election cycle, school board hopefuls from Wheaton to Palatine have refocused their energy on heated debates over library books, lessons on racism and the role of parents in deciding what is taught in classrooms.

Those divisions especially are clear in Wheaton-Warrenville Unit District 200, where parents have pushed to remove “Gender Queer,” an illustrated memoir by nonbinary author Maia Kobabe, from high school library shelves.

Spencer Garrett, a mortgage banker and a father of five, had never attended a school board meeting until last August, when he voiced objections to the graphic memoir, deeming it a “lewd, pornographic, disgusting book.”

Garrett now is campaigning on a well-funded challenger slate with three other like-minded parents — Amy Erkenswick, David Sohmer and Kimberly Hobbs.

Garrett said he's running because he believes historic models of education have been “hijacked” and replaced with “targeted, organized, political ideology and agendas.”

“If we allow the worst of the world's influences to seep into formative minds and hearts, we will lose what historically has made families want to live in our district,” Garrett said.

The slate members are locked in a closely-watched race against incumbents Dave Long and Julie Kulovits, as well as newcomers Erik Hjerpe, Anjali Bharadwa and John Rutledge. Four seats on the seven-member school board are at stake. Hobbs and Rutledge, a former city councilman, are competing for the lone two-year term.

The slate candidates see a trend of board decisions that “infringe on parents' right to be involved in their children's education.” Sitting board members say they defer to experts in curriculum development and book selection.

“As a board member, we're there to set policy. We have oversight,” Long said. “We establish the strategy, and then we get out of the way and let the experts do the work.”

Similar battle lines are being drawn around book lists and sex education in other large suburban school districts. Traditionally often tame affairs, school board contests have taken on a more partisan tone in recent years. National political action committees have entered the fray.

For example, the 1776 Project PAC, a New York-based group that promotes “patriotism and pride” in history classes and backs “un-woke” school board candidates, has endorsed 14 in Illinois, including three in Barrington Community Unit District 220. The 1776 group has put out mailers on behalf of Katey Baldassano, Leonard Munson and Matt Sheriff, who are campaigning on a slate.

Book challenges

In District 220, the school board narrowly agreed in August to keep “Gender Queer” available at the Barrington High School library. School officials had launched a formal review of the book.

Two school board members seeking reelection, Leah Collister-Lazzari and Barry Altshuler, voted to retain the book. Parent Nelda Munoz, who now is running for a school board seat, read a passage from the memoir and told the school board, “Stop sexualizing our kids.”

In District 200, Kulovits said she's firmly opposed to restricting access to books with LGBTQ characters.

“It's really important in literature that there's this concept of windows and mirrors, that students see themselves in literature, and they also have the opportunity to read about experiences they might not have,” said Kulovits, an attorney who was appointed to the board in August.

The nearly 12,000-student district has an opt-out process for parents to excuse teens from materials they find objectionable. Slate candidates prefer another approach: an opt-in system.

“I don't have a problem at all with diverse books in our library. I don't have a problem with even books addressing different sexualities,” Erkenswick said in a joint interview with the Daily Herald Editorial Board. “What I have a problem with is sexually explicit material.”

While the teachers union has endorsed the incumbents, Hjerpe and Rutledge, the four-person slate has set up a local political action committee called Parents for CUSD200 Children. Some of its donors are local church elders and Christian school board members.

“Sexuality issues belong in the families,” Garrett said. “And I'm not sure why the educators in the National Education Association feel like they are better at bringing up our children than the families and the parents of District 200.”

New sex ed standards

Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211's controversial adoption of the state's revised sex education curriculum last November clearly has split the 10 candidates that remain in the race for four board seats.

The expanded curriculum adds the topics of sexual orientation and gender identity to freshman and sophomore wellness classes to be taught in April.

Though students have the right to opt out of those class sessions, critics have argued that's not sufficient reason to be covering the topics at all and found the lack of defined teaching materials a concern both in November and throughout the current campaign season.

While four of the candidates — incumbents Kimberly Cavill and Steven Rosenblum along with challengers Michelle Barron and Jane Russell — are endorsed by the district's teachers union, a conservative group called Citizens For Kids Education (C4KE) is supporting incumbents Mark Cramer and Peter Dombrowski along with challengers Susan Saam and Barbara Velez.

Cramer and Dombrowski voted against the adoption of the revised sex education curriculum. At a January candidates forum, Saam said the current sex education curriculum takes time away from other instruction students should be receiving.

“A hypersexualized curriculum will create hypersexualized students,” Saam said.

Challenger Meenal Dewan said she believes such a curriculum is crucial to keeping students safe and healthy. Another candidate, Aiden Branss, who graduated from Palatine High School in 2022, called the curriculum debate a “non-student issue” that only parents are concerned about.

“I had sex ed,” he said. “All of you had sex ed. And no one was complaining then. I don't understand why it's such a big deal within the district now.”

Race issues

Slate candidates in District 200 are campaigning against what they perceive as “political and ideological bias” in curriculum and learning materials.

“Activists, ideologues, politics tend to start to creep into these types of things,” Sohmer said of the district's equity plan. The district sought to “develop staff awareness and knowledge of how one's implicit bias influences behaviors and actions” as part of its equity plan.

Making her second solo bid for a District 200 school board seat, Bharadwa founded a parent council focused on diversity, equity and inclusion in the district. She's sought to draw attention to achievement gaps between students of color and their peers.

“We need to create a conducive environment for more diverse teachers, including the training about things like unconscious bias,” Bharadwa said. “I also think that there are some ideas that we haven't explored yet, like in early childhood, how we can address some of the kids that might be coming from an area where they have less words when they arrive at kindergarten.”

Critical race theory, a college-level academic discipline that examines how racism is embedded within legal and social systems, also has been raised in some races.

“CRT is not taught in our schools,” Long said. “CRT is taught in colleges. And so those implications are a little bit troubling.”

Hjerpe said there is a “place to talk about systemic racism.”

“There is a curriculum-appropriate way to weave it in education,” Hjerpe said. “The teaching of systemic racism only fits in within a certain context, and that's typically going to be history classes, as they cover the experience that people have had with racism through our history.”

Sohmer said he believes in teaching children about the horrors of slavery.

“But we should not be treating children differently today because they happen to look like people groups of the past. That is clearly wrong,” he said. “I believe each child is precious, is unique, is an individual, not a part of a group. They're an individual made in the image of God.”

• Daily Herald staff writers Eric Peterson and Steve Zalusky contributed to this report.

Top row from left, Dave Long, Amanda "Amy" Erkenswick, Spencer Garrett and Erik Hjerpe and, bottom row from left, David Sohmer, Julie Kulovits and Anjali Bharadwa are running for three 4-year seats on the Wheaton-Warrenville Unit District 200 school board on April 4.
Kimberly Hobbs and John Rutledge are running for a two-year seat on the Wheaton-Warrenville Unit District 200 school board in the April 4 election.
  Parent Dan Krucek holds up a sign during a debate that flared up in Barrington Community Unit District 220 last summer over the graphic novel "Gender Queer." Steve Zalusky/, August 2022
This cover image released by Oni Press shows "Gender Queer" by Maia Kobabe. Oni Press via AP
  School board campaign signs are plentiful along Madison Avenue near downtown Wheaton. A sign is posted for a slate of Wheaton-Warrenville Unit District 200 challengers - Kimberly Hobbs, Amanda "Amy" Erkenswick, Spencer Garrett and David Sohmer - near those for candidates Erik Hjerpe, Dave Long and Julie Kulovits. Paul Valade/
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