Why pandemic drove so many challengers to run for school board

What motivates people to run for school boards?

Often, candidates are inspired by fiscal concerns, such as reducing taxes, cutting or raising salaries, or advocating for more funding for schools. They may have a desire to improve education quality, or a yearning to serve the community.

In Tuesday's election, though, the COVID-19 pandemic and the way school districts have handled remote learning and the return to in-person instruction have galvanized a lot of newcomers on ballots in school board races across the suburbs.

It's the most divisive campaign issue in several contentious races, including Arlington Heights Elementary District 25, Barrington Unit District 220, Community Unit District 300, Glenbrook High School District 225, Indian Prairie Unit District 204, Libertyville District 70, Naperville Unit District 203, Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Palatine-Schaumburg Township High School District 211 and Stevenson High School District 125, to name a few.

  Chris Wolf, a teacher of advanced placement biology at Vernon Hills High School, uses a three-dimensional model of a protein during a remote learning lesson. John Starks/

Historically, there has not been a single issue to drive so many candidates to run for school board in the suburbs in one election cycle, said Tom Bertrand, Illinois Association of School Boards executive director.

"There's just incredible frustration, grief. Everybody is experiencing some kind of loss. ... I give credit to anyone who is willing to serve as a volunteer in this environment," Bertrand said.

Some years, there's a shortage of candidates willing to serve. This year in some races they number in the double digits - 11 people seeking four seats in District 220, and 10 candidates each for four seats in Libertyville-Vernon Hills High School District 128 and Huntley Unit District 158.

In many cases, challengers have criticized incumbents and school administrators for not doing a better job with remote learning or not resuming full, in-person classes sooner. The issue also has mobilized parents on both sides of that debate, pressuring school boards to decide one way or another.

"It's a thankless job to be on a school board, and under normal conditions; it is very difficult and a lot of work," Bertrand said. "It's an extraordinarily difficult time to be a school board member. You know you are not going to make (all) people happy with your decisions."

Naperville North High School teacher Gene Nolan encourages students in his business classes to embrace remote learning as an opportunity. How schools have handled learning during the pandemic has been one of the most contentious issues in many suburban school board races. Courtesy of Gene Nolan

The association trains incoming school board members on ethics and their roles and responsibilities. In a typical election cycle, 20% of those elected are newcomers.

Bertrand expects that number will be higher this year due to the pandemic's effect.

Parents also have a heightened interest in school board races as voters.

For many, this past year of working from home while helping with their children's schooling has offered unique insight into the struggles students and teachers face and the "vital role that schools play in a community," he said.

"It's not just about academics. The social-emotional piece, the mental health services ... it got magnified during this pandemic," Bertrand said. "The one thing this pandemic has done is underscore the importance of schools to the local communities and the importance of having good people working in our schools who are dedicated."

The debates over remote learning and a return to in-person classes have prompted numerous protests since last fall, including in Algonquin, Arlington Heights, Burlington, Crystal Lake, Gurnee, Libertyville, Schaumburg, Naperville and Wheaton, and emotionally charged exchanges at school board meetings.

Roughly 90% of schools statewide offer some level of in-person learning. Reopening schools has hinged on health and safety concerns, including COVID-19 community transmission rates and teachers being vaccinated.

Teacher Kim Deg's first-grade class at Spaulding School in Gurnee enjoyed bringing green items to school one day in December. How schools have handled remote learning and reopening to in-person learning is the main motivator for many candidates in suburban school board races. Courtesy of Len Wojciechowicz

Education advocates say the pandemic also has magnified funding inequities from one district to another and teacher burnout, exacerbating existing shortages which elected school boards will have to tackle going forward.

"I'm hopeful that people have realized the importance of public education and the very important role we play," said Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association. The union's local chapters recommend candidates in school board and college trustee elections.

"When a lot of people run, that is a sign that the community is engaged," Griffin said. "Making sure that those elected are going to be looking through the lens of what is best for children in many different areas is very important. You want them to have an overarching understanding of the issues ... and all the things involved in running a school and focusing on students, rather than just one issue."

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