Block schedule, book banning among controversial issues in District 99 school board race

Six candidates vie for three seats in April 4 election

The First Methodist Church polling place in Downers Grove for the General Election on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Six candidates are vying for three seats on the Community High School District 99 School Board, and book banning and a controversial block schedule are among the key issues on candidates’ platforms as they campaign with less than a month until the April 4 election.

The race has three Educational Excellence for D99 candidates – Ken Dawson, Kara Casten and Don Renner. Also in the race are Barbara Allen and Dana Cox, who are running as a team, and Christopher Cox, who is running a solo campaign.

Dawson, Casten and Renner have the backing of the Downers Grove Education Association and hope to use their diverse backgrounds to create a welcoming environment that puts educational excellence first.

All three candidates have or had children in the district, and Renner is no stranger to the school board, having served as a member from 2015-19. When his term ended, Renner didn’t imagine he would ever seek reelection, but his desire to keep the district moving in a positive direction led him to join the Educational Excellence for D99 slate along with Casten and Dawson.

“When I learned three board members would not be running again, it got me concerned about the transition of the board, and I wanted to make sure there is some continuity in leadership,” Renner said. “I see how great District 99 is, and we want to preserve that educational excellence.”

Nancy Kupka, Michael Davenport and Joanna Vazquez-Drexler are not seeking reelection to the board. Davenport is seeking a seat on the Downers Grove Village Council.

One item the slate hopes to address if elected is the district’s block schedule. Renner said they are aware that many parents dislike the block schedule as it is formatted and understand the board is working to adjust it. To assume further about what changes can be made, Renner said, would be presumptuous of the slate. Instead, they hope to join the board with an open mind when addressing issues, Renner said.

The members of the slate come from different life experiences and political backgrounds, which they believe is a strength. Casten believes the board has disengaged the community, but hopes that she, Renner and Dawson can bring new energy to restore trust, respect and support between the board and the community.

Renner has been a Downers Grove resident since 2010. Along with his wife, Heidi, he has three children who attend District 99 or Downers Grove Elementary School District 58 schools.

An attorney, Renner has served on numerous boards within the community, including the District 99 Education Foundation and the District 99 Master Facility Executive Committee. He’s a member of the Downers Grove Historic Preservation and Design Review Board and president of the Grove Express 5K Foundation.

With recent discussion in the district about book banning, specifically pertaining to the graphic novel “Gender Queer,” which depicts sexual acts among high schoolers, members of the slate said they do not believe in banning any materials from the school or suppressing diverse voices.

“We very strongly believe professional educators should be making the decisions about education,” Casten said. “I trust educators to curate the information our students need to be prepared to go into the world.”

The slate believes some members of the community are not sharing their voices because of what they perceive as an intimidating atmosphere at school board meetings. It is important to them to hear all voices in the community and relay accurate information, Casten said.

Casten is the wife of U.S. Rep. Sean Casten. The couple moved to Downers Grove in 2007. Their daughter Gwen graduated from Downers Grove North in 2022 and daughter Audrey is a sophomore.

Casten has been a member of several committees in Districts 58 and District 99 including the core planning committee that guided the development of the latest District 99 strategic plan. She works in the insurance industry.

Dawson said the slate believes there are many more avenues of communication the board could use to help community members feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts. They believe in the collaborative work of a board and want to continue the district’s reputation for a well-rounded education.

“What all three of us have is that we are willing to listen to others and find everybody’s perspective,” Dawson said. “We have strong communication skills, we are team players and we are solution driven. Our goal is to make the best decisions for our students based on hearing all the voices in our community.”

Dawson is a customer experience professional with more than 15 years of operations management experience. He and his wife, Donna, have lived in Downers Grove since 1998. Their son is a Downers Grove South graduate.

Dawson served on the board of directors of BBF Family Services, a community-based nonprofit social service agency providing education programs and family support services to inner-city youth in Chicago. He was president of Y.E.S. Fundraising Group at La Rabida Children’s Hospital for three years.

Barbara Allen, Dana Cox

Allen and Cox entered the school board race with a focus on parent and stakeholder opinions as well as a desire to open up communication between the board and the community.

Allen and her husband, Marc, have four children who are either attending or graduated from District 58 and District 99 schools. They have lived in Downers Grove for more than 20 years. Allen spent several years in the commercial interiors industry.

Cox and her husband, Steve, are 15-year Downers Grove residents with three children. Their oldest son will attend District 99 in the fall as a freshman. They have twins in sixth grade who attend District 58. Cox has almost 18 years of experience in health care management.

The duo believe that having children yet to enter the district makes them uniquely vested in the future of District 99.

Both Allen and Cox have volunteered in many capacities within the community, having served on PTA committees and at fundraiser events. Cox is a certified substitute teacher and has substituted primarily in District 58 schools. Allen is a member of the District 58 Policy Committee and has taught religious education at St. Mary of Gostyn for several years.

“We have been actively involved in the community through our children and have had an active pulse on the community for years,” Allen said.

One of their priorities is to gather stakeholder input regarding the new block schedule and implement change. Allen said she has heard many parents express concern over the amount of unstructured time students have in the schedule in addition to concerns about students leaving campus.

Cox said she and Allen have heard many negative comments about the block schedule, and they believe that when the plan was rolled out, it was not accurately described to the community, resulting in significant frustration from parents.

“The district has claimed they can’t release survey results from the block schedule survey, and it seems like their goal is to show positive outlooks, and that’s what we’ve heard from parents,” Cox said. “This is one of our top priorities as a current and ongoing issue.”

Another issue Cox and Allen believe stakeholders and parents care about is the failed attempt to ban the book “Gender Queer” from District 99 school libraries. Allen said the term “book banning” is an inappropriate label for what is really just concern about certain books in the school libraries, which she and others believe are not academically appropriate.

“What we’re really talking about is the wider discussion of what parents and the administration feel is academically appropriate in our schools,” Allen said. “When you start to bring materials that are not academically appropriate into the schools, it raises questions about what our goal in education is.”

“Gender Queer,” specifically, Allen said, is rated appropriate for those 18 years of age and older, but having the book accessible in the school libraries makes it available to those as young as 13 years old. She read the book in its entirety, she said, before contacting the district requesting its removal.

Cox and Allen both said they want to work with others on the board and in the community. They described themselves as open and welcoming people and mothers who lead with love. They said it is important to continue the district’s great reputation and to be careful to avoid constantly focusing on divisive topics.

“I think District 99 does a great job with inclusiveness and that needs to be continued,” Cox said. “Personally, I haven’t seen divisiveness, but I think people feel they are not being heard, and we understand that frustration. We are looking to work with other board members and bring a fresh perspective.”

Christopher Erickson

Erickson decided to run for the school board after neighbors shared that they were considering leaving the district because of concern over academics. The conversation sparked something in Erickson, and he decided the best way to make sure academics are the focus of the board would be to join the board itself.

Erickson has two children who will eventually enter the district, one in seventh grade and one in fourth grade, and has two nieces and a nephew attending District 99 schools. He comes from a family of educators and has lived in the district for more than 20 years.

“I want to give my perspective and energy to the community so that everyone can receive the same quality education,” Erickson said.

Erickson was shocked to hear others mention concern over the district’s academic quality, so he didn’t just take their word for it. Instead, he began attending board meetings and doing research. Quickly, he noticed that no one on the board seemed to be talking about the academic concerns such as the fact that the district’s Illinois Report Card proficiency has been steadily decreasing since before the pandemic, he said.

With a background in engineering, Erickson is accustomed to asking questions, and believes the board should focus more on these metrics and ask questions that will lead to a change in the trend. Additionally, much of his background in engineering has involved construction, which offers him a unique perspective when it comes to examining the district’s assets and investments.

“As an engineer, I am really naturally curious,” Erickson said. “So I want to ask the questions and make sure we have accountability and actionable goals as a board and a community.”

Erickson said there is no room for distraction in the form of politics on the school board. Aware of recent controversy regarding book banning and other topics that have taken a political slant, Erickson said the division is a distraction from the board’s true purpose of providing a quality education to students.

Making sure students and the community at large will feel heard is something Erickson values, he said. Removing the politics connected to certain decisions and maintaining an apolitical body would help the board improve its relationship with the community as well as the ability to engage with stakeholders, he said. As a result, the board would making better decisions for the students.

“These kids deserve for the board’s full attention to be on education, not distraction by differing political opinions,” Erickson said. “We have to understand the community and students all have opinions they value, and then challenge ourselves to consider all perspectives, and I think that will promote the best decisions and a greater buy-in from the community.”