How unions, political groups influenced school board elections

And political groups did, too. Some say that's not such a good thing.

  • A mailer from the Northwest Suburban Teachers Union lists its endorsed candidates for the school boards of Palatine-Schaumburg Township High School District 211 and Northwest Suburban High School District 214 in the April 6 election.

    A mailer from the Northwest Suburban Teachers Union lists its endorsed candidates for the school boards of Palatine-Schaumburg Township High School District 211 and Northwest Suburban High School District 214 in the April 6 election. Courtesy of Mark Cramer

  • Heidi Graham

    Heidi Graham

  • Kathi Griffin

    Kathi Griffin

Updated 4/11/2021 5:15 PM

A wave of incumbents will return to school boards across the suburbs, alongside some newcomers, amid ongoing criticism over how school leaders have handled pandemic learning and the gradual resumption of in-person classes -- an issue that sparked some of the most contentious elections in recent memory.

Emotions ran high this election season due to the pandemic affecting communities across the suburbs differently, as local school boards struggled to keep pace with evolving health guidance while facing criticism from parents and teachers alike.


Endorsements from local teachers unions likely helped incumbents in several contests, including Glenview Elementary District 34, Glenbard High School District 87, Glenbrook High School District 225, Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41, Naperville Unit District 203, Stevenson High School District 125, Palatine-Schaumburg Township High School District 211 and Northwest Suburban High School District 214, among others.

In Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 and Barrington Area Unit District 220, voters split their choices between candidates favoring a cautious approach to reopening schools and those who wanted to move students into buildings sooner. The latter race had three candidates backed by a conservative group.

The Illinois Education Association's local union chapters vetted and endorsed candidates in 38 school board and college trustee races statewide. Of 132 union-backed candidates, 107 were elected, according to unofficial results.

Additional union-endorsed candidates could prevail once all votes are counted, including provisional ballots and late-arriving mail votes, IEA President Kathi Griffin said Friday.

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"Some of the races are quite close," Griffin said. "Basically, we have about 81% (of candidates) currently successful, as of yesterday."

There were some notable exceptions.

In District 220, where 11 candidates were vying for four board seats, two of the winners -- newcomer Erin Chan Ding and incumbent Sandra Ficke-Bradford -- were endorsed by the Barrington Education Association. But union-backed candidates Lauren Berkowitz Klauer and Thomas J. Mitoraj lost.

Instead, voters picked Katie Karam and Steve Wang -- endorsed by the GOP-backed ACTION PAC, or the Advancing Change Together in Our Neighborhood political action committee. They, along with fellow slate member Malgorzata McGonigal, criticized the school board for staying in remote learning last fall.

"It was more emotionally intense than any election that I remember for Barrington 220," said Chan Ding, of South Barrington. "When to reopen schools, the approach that we should take, and the national partisan nature of that debate also filtered into our local school board election. There was an anti-teachers union sentiment that we have never seen this intensely before."


Chan Ding said that by electing two candidates each from opposing camps, voters have signaled their desire to have a wide range of viewpoints and ideologies represented on the board. "We know that our approaches are different and at the same time we know that our goals are similar," she said.

The divisiveness seen in this election has been long prevalent in the community, said Wang, of Barrington.

"The goal is to make sure that we provide the best possible environment for our children and to make sure that our community heals from all of this divisiveness over the last several years," he said.

While endorsed by several GOP members, Wang said the PAC was independent of any political or party influence. It was created by the candidates as a tool to track campaign contributions and pool resources for their campaigns, he added.

"The GOP is in no part a function of our political action committee," Wang said. "The PAC was a nonpartisan group established by several parents. The matter of our children and the betterment of our community is independent of our party affiliation. We ran as independents."

In addition to District 220, the Barrington Township Republican Organization backed candidates running for the Barrington Area Library and Harper College boards. The GOP group's president did not respond to calls seeking comment about its endorsement of candidates.

Political groups trying to influence local school board elections is cause for concern, say leaders of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters.

"It changes the game," said Heidi Graham, president of the League of Women Voters of Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Buffalo Grove and surrounding areas. Graham said the league supports getting special interest money and influence out of local nonpartisan elections.

While Graham opposes political parties in local elections, teachers unions also should get out of the business of endorsing candidates, she said.

IEA's Griffin said it's up to local unions to decide whether to endorse candidates, and many choose to do so because their members know what is happening on the ground and what's best for their students.

"Almost everything that happens in a school district is decided by an elected official. That is why some of our locals choose to get engaged," Griffin said.

The Illinois Education Association's annual State of Education report found that while the COVID-19 pandemic made teaching and learning more difficult, people still trust educators most when it comes to school-related matters.

"We are a bipartisan organization. ... We are Republicans, Democrats and independents," Griffin said. "The important piece is why are you running."

Divisiveness in local election campaigns is more of a reflection of what's happening in national political discourse, observers say.

Graham said she's never seen anything like the level of contentiousness in this election, including in school board races for districts 25 and 214, in nearly a decade of being involved with the league. Candidates have been accused of being "in the pocket" of unions or special interest groups and attacked for it in campaign mailers.

"I had candidates calling me in tears," Graham said. "These contentious elections chase people away."

The pandemic issue mobilized parents on both sides of the debate over remote learning and a return to in-person instruction. They have been pressuring school boards to decide one way or another through rallies and protests since last fall, including in Algonquin, Arlington Heights, Burlington, Crystal Lake, Gurnee, Libertyville, Schaumburg, Naperville and Wheaton.

That's the political reality that these newly elected school board members must navigate, said Tom Bertrand, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.

"Regardless of how you got there, you are one of seven board members," he said. "You've got to be able to work with others for the board to be effective. It's a nonpartisan position once you are there."

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