Reopening debate divides District 25 board candidates

  • District 25 and 214 parents rallied last September in North School Park in Arlington Heights to reopen schools.

    District 25 and 214 parents rallied last September in North School Park in Arlington Heights to reopen schools. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 3/12/2021 8:50 PM

Much like the divide in the community that developed last summer, the eight candidates in the contentious Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 board race are split over the degree to which the district should have reopened schools this academic year.

While District 25 families and students who have chosen the in-person option are now back four days a week, school board candidates, parents and residents continue to wrangle over the current board's decision-making process -- an ongoing debate that began when the district announced in July it would start the school year remotely.

 

It's a debate expected to continue Saturday afternoon when the eight school board candidates for four 4-year terms appear for a virtual candidate forum. Co-hosted by the Arlington Heights Memorial Library and League of Women Voters of Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect and Buffalo Grove, the District 25 forum is scheduled from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. It'll be preceded by an Arlington Heights village board forum at 1 p.m. and followed by a Northwest Suburban High School District 214 forum at 4 p.m.

The District 25 candidates -- four pro-reopening candidates running as the Arlington Heights Forward slate and four independents who favored a more cautious approach -- traded views during a recent virtual forum with the Daily Herald Editorial Board.

The capstone event in the District 25 reopening debate was the board's 4-3 vote on Dec. 4 against a temporary suspension of in-person learning -- a so-called adaptive pause.

Rich Olejniczak, on the board for eight years, had led the effort to get more students into school buildings since the fall -- what he calls a gradual and systematic approach as metrics and data evolved, and more information became known. He doesn't believe there was strong data to support an adaptive pause, while saying the consistent view of parents was to have their children back in class.

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"The fact that we had a split vote on the board and that decision is actually a good thing," Olejniczak said. "That means there's a diversity of thought and a diversity of opinion. Not every decision will be a 7-0 vote."

Gina Faso, appointed to the board in November, said health experts indicated schools were not the primary locations for the spread of COVID-19, while noting that the best and safest place for them to be was in school.

"Things continue to change, but looking back in hindsight, I think that the school board delivered the right answer with the right information at the right time to our community," Faso said.

Katie Rausch, a parent of three who served as a district substitute teacher, said she got to see firsthand the mitigation procedures students and staff members were taking to stay safe, and that affirmed her views on in-person learning.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Todd Witherow, a parent of two, said he favored the board's providing additional oversight when Superintendent Lori Bein changed course in July, from having some amount of in-person learning to starting the year fully remote.

"That's when the board took the action to have more heavy engagement, because there was a lack of transparency, trust and communication," Witherow said.

On the opposite side of the debate are the four other candidates. That includes Anisha Patel, a four-year board member who voted for the adaptive pause. She said she weighed the views of parents and teachers, advice from public health organizations, and the recommendation of the superintendent to go remote.

"I really had to then put principles over personality and empathize and listen to every perspective," Patel said.

Deborah Tranter, a District 25 teacher now running for the board, said some co-workers were comfortable being in classrooms and others were not, particularly over increased risks due to holiday travel and the hosting of large gatherings.

"I agree that having the families and the community members involved in surveys and decision-making processes collaboratively with the board is important as well," Tranter said. "But we really need to leave the high-level decisions to the professionals."

Melisa Andrews, a parent of three, agreed that many teachers didn't feel comfortable in classrooms until metrics were met, and she said the board should have more closely followed the advice of health departments.

Greg Scapillato, a teacher in Northbrook Elementary District 28, criticized the board majority for micromanaging Bein, as they delved into metrics and 6-foot distancing standards at board meetings.

"The action they took was taking away responsibility from the superintendent, and then confusing their job between governance and setting direction for the district to actually managing the district," Scapillato said.

Three of the candidates who favored an adaptive pause -- Patel, Tranter and Scapillato -- were endorsed this week by the Arlington Teachers' Association, the teachers union in District 25.

If elected, Tranter said she would resign as a fifth-grade teacher but stay on until the end of the school year as an unpaid, licensed teacher volunteer.

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