Back-to-school process sparks debate among District 128 candidates

Candidates for the Libertyville-Vernon Hills High School District 128 board of education agree in-person learning is preferable, but they differ on whether it should have happened sooner.

Ten candidates are running for four 4-year terms on the board. Longtime incumbents Pat Groody and Karin Lunstedt are not seeking reelection.

Incumbents Kevin Huber, a retired executive with the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund, and Don Carmichael, a retired high school teacher who was elected to an unexpired term two years ago, are seeking reelection.

The pair differed on the back-to-school debate last year that sometimes resulted in four-hour school board meetings. Huber wanted a hybrid option to begin the year while Carmichael opposed it.

As in many districts, those differing opinions reflected the community's feelings and prompted a big turnout of school board candidates for the April 6 election.

Also running are Cara Benjamin, an on-hiatus high school English teacher and private ACT/SAT tutor; Jim Connell, owner of a social media marketing business; Chris Coughlin, who is in sales for CDW and serves on the Libertyville Elementary District 70 school board; Kara Drumke, a reading interventionist at Fremont Elementary School and attorney; wealth adviser Sean Gay; Sonal Kulkarni, an information technology executive; Dale Sherman, a corporate executive and attorney; and pediatrician Katy Talerico.

All candidates are Libertyville residents except Benjamin, who lives in Vernon Hills. She, Carmichael, Kulkarni and Drumke held a fundraiser as "Together for Continued Growth" and are endorsing each other.

Hybrid learning in District 128 begin Jan. 19. On April 5, in-person learning will double to four full days a week.

During the debate over in-person learning, Carmichael said, board members treated each other with respect even when they disagreed.

"The thing I think would have been better is if we would have decided to stay fully remote for the entirety of the semester earlier rather than kicking the can down the road as we did," he said.

Kulkarni said there was a lot of confusion regarding COVID-19 and each school faced different factors.

"You have to evaluate it based on the information you have and the community that you are serving, not what's going on around you necessarily," she said.

Drumke said everyone on the board had the same goal.

"I find that they have been responsive but not reactive, and I don't know that's a bad thing," she said.

Benjamin said the board worked with teachers, administrators and families to deliver "robust" remote instruction. She said the school board's response to the pandemic has been "excellent," with safety as a priority.

"Maybe we should have been back earlier in the summer when the numbers were better, but there was still a lot of fear," Huber said.

The decisions were tough, the meetings brutal and the discussion sometimes heated, he said.

"But it always ended respectful, and that's what's the most important thing about a board," Huber said.

Coughlin said the board was too cautious in getting students back in school and began hybrid learning too late.

"The only thing I wish we would have done a better job of as a district is looking at the science of possibly bringing the kids back in hybrid earlier," he said.

Connell said he had hoped school would have started sooner but is looking ahead.

"We elected them. They made their decision. I support their decision," he said.

Gay said the board acted too slowly, leading to anxiety and frustration.

"It seemed like as the science was developing there wasn't enough quick action," he said. "I'm not going to second-guess the board. It's a tough decision. But I'm for full in-person learning."

Sherman has been critical of board decisions during the pandemic. He said District 128 should have found a way to open in person last August.

"I think they've done an increasing disservice to our kids and to our families," he said.

Talerico said the district's hybrid plan was good but should have started sooner.

"I personally look to experts when decisions I am making fall outside of my scope of expertise, and I would have expected those making decisions as important as school reopening during a pandemic to do the same," she said.

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