Reopening debate or not, District 25, 214 incumbents dominate
Whether it was the reopening debate that got people out to the polls or not, incumbents in two hotly contested Arlington Heights-area school board races ruled election night.
In Arlington Heights Elementary District 25, that meant a split decision as voters returned two board members who pushed for a quicker reopening over the superintendent's objections but also elected another incumbent and a first-time candidate favoring a more cautious approach.
And in Arlington Heights-based Northwest Suburban High School District 214, the establishment slate that's gone undefeated in local elections since forming in 2007 extended its winning streak, with reelection of three incumbents and one newcomer. All endorsed the administration's gradual reopening plans, which were opposed by a challenger slate of parents.
The battle over whether and the degree to which suburban school buildings should have reopened was perhaps most pronounced in District 25, with a split among parents who attended raucous board meetings and among the board members voting on those decisions.
That divide was seen Tuesday, when incumbent Anisha Patel and newcomer Greg Scapillato -- who favored Superintendent Lori Bein's adaptive pause recommendation -- joined pro-reopening incumbents Gina Faso and Rich Olejniczak as top finishers in a crowded race of eight.
Olejniczak, on the board for eight years, led the charge for a quicker reopening and gained the support of three other board members. He's often the board's contrary voice, questioning some administrative decisions, but believes the panel as a whole has grown in recent months because of its extensive discussions in an open, public forum.
"I think maybe what this (vote) says -- more so than in other districts -- the community is happy or is satisfied in the direction that the board collectively, or us individually, have taken over the last year," he said. "We have a community that supports our school system, is interested in more dialogue and communication, and has different opinions about things, which is 100% OK and why we have seven different people on a board.
"We don't want seven people who always agree on every single facet because then we will not move forward."
Olejniczak and Faso ran their campaigns with two parents, Katie Rausch and Todd Witherow, under the Arlington Heights Forward banner. Patel and Scapillato were loosely aligned with Deborah Tranter and Melisa Andrews, though they ran independently.
Patel, the top vote-getter for her second election in a row, said other local elected officials she's talked to believe the election was one of the most divisive they've seen in town. The district needs to come together to overcome the challenges of the past year and create a "stronger, more unified district," she said.
The Supporters of 214 slate -- made up of incumbents Mark Hineman, Millie Palmer and Lenny Walker and newcomer Andrea Rauch -- were the top vote-getters in a race for four seats on the elected panel that oversees one of Illinois' largest high school districts.
Palmer, who will start her second term, believes the slate's electoral success in recent years is tied to the district's success.
"District 214 is an excellent place to be educated. We offer a ton for our students," Palmer said. "Are we perfect? Of course not. But when we do have a problem, we try our best to fail forward ... I think people see that and think, if it ain't broke, why fix it?"
She added that the board can do better on transparency and providing background about decisions so parents and others "will know they're being heard."
Members of the District 214 Parents for Kids slate of challengers on Wednesday pointed to factors that led to their defeat, from traditionally low voter turnout for local elections to endorsements of incumbents by the teachers union, local elected officials and Daily Herald Editorial Board that could have swayed voters.
"We knew we were the underdogs and it was going to be an uphill battle," said Elizabeth Bauer, who received the most votes of the parent slate but was still some 2,000 behind the next-closest finisher.
Rich Menninga, who finished last, said he considers it a victory of sorts that schools are fully open for anyone who wants to attend in person; he believes they'd still be closed were it not for the parent group's engagement.
But he added once schools started to reopen, his slate should have pivoted its campaign focus to one about governance and transparency. His side is expected to keep a spotlight on those issues ahead of the next election, with plans to rebrand the Re-Open D214 Facebook page and keep its political action committee operating.
"We've got the foundation for the non-establishment," he said. "It's just a matter now of keeping the foundation and building on it for the next two years."