From mixed messages to micromanaging, District 25 challengers criticize how board handled pandemic
Three years after the onset of COVID-19, candidates for Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 board still are debating how the board navigated the pandemic, and what implications that experience has on governance in the future.
The April 4 election for three 4-year terms on the panel involves five candidates, including two incumbents who served as board president during the pandemic and were on opposite ends of controversial votes to reopen and keep open schools.
The candidates -- incumbents Scott Filipek and Brian Cerniglia, and challengers Maria Zeller Brauer, Kevin Michael and Elizabeth Nierman -- addressed pandemic management during an interview with members of the Daily Herald Editorial Board.
Zeller Brauer, a parent who was coming into the district during the board's fall 2020 4-3 vote against an "adaptive pause" to temporarily close schools, said she saw a disjointed board and mixed messages that "threw parents for a loop."
"A divided board didn't help a divided community. I believe that you have to have different opinions and have those conversations, but seeing that didn't make me confident in what was happening in the district," said Zeller Brauer, a management consultant for the nonprofit Shelter Inc. "What I've heard from parents is they lost a lot of trust, and we're going to have to do a lot of work to rebuild that trust."
Michael, a parent who is an instructional technology coach in Park Ridge-Niles District 64, said the board's vote against Superintendent Lori Bein's recommended temporary suspension of in-person learning amid surging COVID cases "did not sit well with me."
"It felt like there was a lot of micromanaging going on," Michael said of lengthy board discussions about how to define 6-foot distancing and how many kids could fit in classrooms. "They really should have just relied on public health experts for those types of conversations. It should have been not a conversation about if we should be meeting these requirements, but how we can best meet these requirements."
Nierman, who was the Arlington Heights Council of PTAs president at the start of the pandemic, said school board members now have the opportunity to bring the community together.
"The board's role is to always keep children's safety at the top," she said. "The board needs to listen to experts. The board needs to listen to community members and parents and staff and students and listen to everyone, bring the information together."
Filipek, who was board president for a year beginning in April 2021, said the pandemic was "a very difficult time." Filipek was one of four "no" votes for an adaptive pause in December 2020, and four "yes" votes to increase in-person learning to five days a week from four in April 2021.
"We found through on-the-job training that everybody has a role and there are professionals in every aspect of what is presented," said Filipek, a sergeant with the Mount Prospect Police Department. "The superintendent is a professional. The medical professionals are obviously professionals. The board has an obligation to do what's best for the kids in the community. What we learned during that pandemic was that there are certain rails that everybody has to fit into."
Cerniglia, who was board president before Filipek at the height of the pandemic during those contentious meetings and votes, said he learned to "take emotion out of it." Cerniglia was one of three votes siding with Bein's recommendations.
"You had to take your parent hat off. You had to make decisions that maybe you personally didn't agree with. That's very difficult to do. You have to dissociate yourself. So, if your personal desires were to have the kids back in school and education is first, you couldn't just ignore the science," said Cerniglia, a marketing manager for UPS.
"Our job as a school board is to set policy," he said. "It's oversight. It's not to run the district. We're not a board of directors. That's what we hired our superintendent for."