Heated school board races to watch in Wheaton, Glen Ellyn

 
 
An earlier version of this article misspelled a candidate's last name after the first reference.

DuPage County voters heading to the polls Tuesday will face hotly contested races in many school districts. Here's a look at two of the hottest:

District 200

The Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 school board is guaranteed at least two new faces. The only incumbent in the race is Chris Crabtree, a former District 200 teacher and now a curriculum consultant who won her first term in 2015.

Newcomers Susan Booton of Wheaton, Dave Long of Winfield, Harold Lonks of Winfield and Mary Yeboah of Wheaton round out the field for three seats.

If elected, Yeboah would focus on diversity and equity, calling pervasive academic achievement gaps across grade levels "one of the most significant needs in the community."

On the 2018 SAT test, the gap between black students' and white students' performance was 63 percentage points in English language arts and 54 percentage points in math.

The English language arts black/white achievement gaps on the PARCC exam in 2018 from third- through eighth grade were 49, 46, 49, 46, 40, and 41 percentage points. The math black/white achievement gaps in third- through eighth grade were 49, 41, 45, 44, 50, 42 percentage points.

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Yeboah, who holds a doctorate in educational administration and works at Wheaton College, wants the district to launch equity audits and hire more teachers of color. "It's a more of a way to further improve the strong school culture in our buildings and our district and to build on what's already going on," she said.

Aging infrastructure is another perennial issue that district critics say has been neglected. Voters two years ago rejected a property tax increase to fund a $154.5 million plan for repairs and renovations at all but one of the district's schools.

Then last November, voters approved one of the projects -- replacing the Jefferson Early Childhood Center through so-called lease certificates paid back out of the operating budget. But what about the other projects in the defeated referendum campaign?

Long, a finance director for a glove manufacturing company, has said he's not supportive of tax increases "primarily because the community has spoken. They don't want to pay more taxes for infrastructure."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Long and Booton also aren't ruling out an "opportunity" in the not-so-distant future when existing debt rolls off the books and the district could look to issue new debt without raising the tax rate.

"The community has been very clear about not wanting any kind of a tax increase," said Booton, who owns a marketing agency with her husband. "We need to exhaust all other options first before we go to a referendum, but (the superintendent) has been open about the fact that our middle schools outside of Hubble are going to need to be addressed, and that is not in our budget to do that ... It's a lot of those capital needs that are beyond what we can do out of fund balance."

Lonks, a self-employed accountant, has fallen short on three previous bids for a board seat. He's criticized the district on transparency issues and end-of-career bonuses for retiring employees, but Booton says the payments help retain staff.

Crabtree says the district is pledging about $7 million to $7.5 million annually over the next four to five years to pay for capital projects.

"We're going to start drawing down our fund balance a little bit," she said. "We're going to be tightening up a little bit within our budget, not impacting students, and we're hitting off those top-priority needs, so that's our main focus."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

District 41

The outcome of Tuesday's election in Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 -- long a political hotbed -- will decide the balance of power on the school board and who will work with new Superintendent Melissa Kaczkowski, who takes the helm July 1.

Stephanie Clark and Kurt Buchholz have led a four-member majority that has banded together on most decisions. The incumbents are running as a slate against Jessica Buttimer, Ted Estes and Julie Hill for three available board seats.

The Clark-Buchholz slate and the challengers stand as polar opposites on nearly every major issue.

Clark, a former engineer, and Buchholz, an insurance agency owner, take a hard line on taxes, saying they've pushed for fiscal discipline and initiatives to improve a "failing" special education program.

The incumbents have faced backlash over the split with outgoing Superintendent Paul Gordon, the board's silence on his removal, the level of decorum at board meetings and the dismantling of so-called teacher specialization in second grade.

Buttimer, a part-time freelance user research consultant, Estes, a software developer, and Hill, a former Chicago Public Schools teacher, have the backing of the teachers union. They also want to develop a plan to find the space and funding to implement full-day kindergarten.

"It's the national trend," Buttimer said at a League of Women Voters forum. "Our community wants it. They expect it."

Clark disagrees, saying in an email that the results of a fall 2016 survey showed the "overall community supports the idea of full-day kindergarten but doesn't want to pay for it."

"We don't have the facilities, so you're looking at a $20 million to $30 million referendum for a full-day kindergarten center," Buchholz said. "Our buildings are not equipped to be added on anymore, and you're looking at $2.5 million for operating expenses."

Hill says a full-day program helps close achievement gaps. Estes says the district is at a competitive disadvantage with neighboring school systems that provide full-day kindergarten. He also has called for a "well-thought out taxing strategy."

"There should be no surprises, and we should commit never to have a referendum again," he said. "We should be able to plan for the future and figure out what we're doing."

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