Kulovits, Long top the field in Wheaton Warrenville District 200
School board incumbents in Wheaton Warrenville District 200 held their ground against a well-funded slate of candidates in one of the most polarizing races leading up to Tuesday's election.
The K-12 district has been at the center of culture war debates over school library books and classroom discussions dealing with racism, gender identity and sexuality. In a sign of the discord, nine candidates were clamoring for four seats on the school board.
Four challengers -- Spencer Garrett, Amy Erkenswick, David Sohmer and Kimberly Hobbs -- campaigned together under the banner of "parental rights" for majority control of the board.
When the dust cleared over Wheaton Tuesday night, at least three of the four slate candidates appeared to come up short in their bids.
Incumbents Julie Kulovits and Dave Long emerged from the crowded field with 8,040 and 6,888 votes, respectively, according to unofficial totals as of 11 p.m. Erkenswick led newcomer Erik Hjerpe for third place by a margin of just 61 votes.
Trailing were Sohmer with 6,139 votes and Garrett with 5,997. Anjali Bharadwa, running a solo campaign for the second straight election, had 3,172 votes.
In the contest for the lone 2-year seat on the board, John Rutledge, a former city councilman, bested Hobbs 8,107 to 6,744 votes.
The high-profile race was one of several suburban school board battles that attracted first-time candidates, an infusion of money and attention from outside groups.
Garrett, Sohmer, Erkenswick and Hobbs first showed up to District 200 school board meetings last year to raise objections to "Gender Queer," an illustrated memoir by nonbinary author Maia Kobabe. The book, which the American Library Association named the most challenged title of 2021, is available in high school libraries.
"I can't believe the pictures that I saw from this disgusting, lewd book," Garrett told the board in August.
Propelled off the sidelines, the like-minded parents formed a local political action committee that reported raising more than $26,000, according to Reform for Illinois' Sunshine Database. Some of the committee's donors were evangelical church elders and Christian school board members.
Awake Illinois, a Naperville group that has pushed back against mask mandates and called Gov. J.B. Pritzker "a groomer" for signing a controversial law updating sex education standards in K-12 schools, also endorsed Garrett, Erkenswick, Sohmer and Hobbs.
The slate candidates believe parents ought to have a greater say over what is taught in public schools and perceive "ideological issues" in the district's curriculum.
The nearly 12,000-student district has an opt-out process for parents to excuse teens from materials they find objectionable. But the four-person slate favored another approach: an opt-in system.
School board incumbents and their allies opposed limiting access to books that feature LGBTQ characters and deferred to librarians in curating materials.
"The fact that every student would want to see materials that represent their experience, whether they're gay, straight, transsexual, still deciding, I think that's very reasonable," Hjerpe said.
Board members defended the district's process for developing curriculum. The teachers union supported Long, Kulovits, Hjerpe and Rutledge.
"Seventy-three percent of our educators have their master's degree, and they are very well-qualified and capable of doing the job," said Kulovits, who was appointed to a vacant board seat last summer.
Critical race theory, a university-level academic discipline that examines how racism is embedded within legal and social systems, is not taught within District 200 schools. But several slate candidates still broached the topic during the campaign. They also criticized the district's equity initiatives, particularly implicit bias training for teachers.
"I don't believe in showing partiality in any way in the classroom and the district. We should treat all people the same. With that said, regarding the word 'equity,' it gives, just the word itself, gives me great concern," Garrett said. "We should not lower standards and expectations."
District 200 covers Wheaton and Warrenville, as well as portions of Carol Stream, Winfield and West Chicago.