Crowded Antioch school board race features ‘boogeyman talk,’ ‘Marxist progressive extremists’ and ‘torch and pitchfork’ candidates

No election in Lake County has drawn as many entrants this year as the race for six seats on the Antioch District 34 school board, where 13 candidates are asking residents for their vote on April 4.

Many school districts around Lake County drew just enough candidates to fill the number of open school board seats, or not enough to fill all the vacancies, but a massive field in Antioch appears to be the result of a fierce debate raging between parents, residents and members of the school board in recent years, first over masking during the height of COVID-19, then moving on to books and sex education.

Similar debates about schools have raged around the country, and in Lake County towns such as Barrington, Lake Forest and other Chicago suburbs, but in Antioch those involved on all sides of the issues have tossed their hats into the ring.

After a lawsuit over mask requirements in school, a grievance investigation triggered by an Antioch trustee and the departures of two superintendents, nine of the 13 candidates who spoke with the News-Sun did have some common ground: putting the children first and casting the drama aside.

Six of the candidates, board President Mary Beth Hulting, board Vice President Lori Linck and newcomers Tiffany Cappel, Kelly Beall, Josh Cornwell and Tamar Lasko, are running on a slate they call District 34 United.

Three candidates — Scott Shaffer, Sonia Williams and Pam Adams — say they are not a slate, but share a website, and are focusing on issues like transparency and the rights of parents over what their children are taught.

Kevin Fielder and Kristen Fielder, a married couple whose young children are just getting started at District 34, do not subscribe to either platform.

Hulting, an English and language arts teacher in Northbrook, hasn’t been discouraged by tumultuous debate between factions of concerned, at-times-angry parents who started showing up to school board meetings; or by the departures of superintendents Jay Marino and Bradford Hubbard, who resigned last summer.

“You’ve got the masking issue, then we were sued by some families from the community, and so was the high school, over wearing masks,” Hulting said. “That also led into issues with the books, what books do we have in the library? They also moved onto critical race theory, and, ‘You’re teaching critical race theory!’”

She said concerns about District 34 kids learning critical race theory are “just boogeyman talk,” and pointed to her experience navigating three contract negotiations with teachers as successes, along with significant additions the district has made at Petty and Oakland elementary schools during her tenure.

Test scores and Facebook fingers

Rather than voting history or a compilation of media coverage, District 34 voters will head to the polls on April 4 with incomplete, but impassioned catalogs of controversy visible on two competing Facebook pages, “Parents of Antioch Community Committee” and “Dear New Antioch Superintendents, WE believe in Equity.”

Some candidates racked up school-related posts on Facebook, where the rival pages have hundreds of likes and members. Others have avoided the discourse entirely.

Publicly available and older Facebook posts sent to the News-Sun appear to show Shaffer and Williams have commented extensively about District 34 online, though they downplayed their attentiveness to and history with the groups.

Shaffer said he “probably got caught up in” Facebook disputes in the past, and that he settled on improving testing scores as the centerpiece of his campaign after reflection.

“As far as what other people are posting online, I don’t have any opinion on it anymore, frankly,” Shaffer said.

Williams told the News-Sun she didn’t “really have a comment on the groups.”

In October, Williams posted on the PACC page ridiculing Illinois for, “allowing males into females bathrooms and locker rooms and vice versa, they promote books in schools with porn images,” and urged other group members to vote out “Marxist progressive extremists.”

In June and July, she posted messages advocating for classroom teachings to be recorded on camera and warned of people potentially using the LGBTQ “community to further their sexualizing of kids,” and that, “They’re literally getting away with molesting your children and corrupting their minds. What’s next, rape? Porn in the schools is not okay!!”

In November, the month before filing to run in the election, Williams authored a post suggesting that with the current administration, “pedophelia is somehow protected when displayed in schools, we must vote these people out!”

“I feel like that’s irrelevant anymore,” Williams said. “Those groups, I don’t know why they keep posting things or whatever they keep doing. I’m more focused on the voters and focused on my next goals.”

She explained that she joined the page more than a year ago, after a neighbor sent her a post containing photos from “Gender Queer,” a book that some residents were mobilizing to get removed from library circulation or given only restricted access from minors.

On a shared website with Shaffer and Adams, a bio about Williams emphasizes her effort, “to restore parental rights and accountability.”

“I would like (parents) to be like partners in our school,” Williams said. “They should feel welcome when they come. If they want to know about curriculum in their child’s class or anything, they should feel there’s not an issue with that; that they should get the answers they need, and I would try to make that into policy if I could.”

Shaffer previously posted about recording classroom lessons, either by audio or video. He told the News-Sun he was “probably not for” making that a reality anymore, but he would like to survey district parents about how to improve transparency.

“If the responses come back that they want (classroom recordings), all right let’s consider it,” he said.

Shaffer said he paid attorney Tom Devore’s retainer to loop District 34 in as one of nearly 150 schools named as defendants in a mask mandate lawsuit, and told the News-Sun his campaign’s impetus was how many students aren’t meeting state readiness benchmarks in math, science, English and language arts.

“We need to have a win-win for the children because those scores say it, ultimately,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer shared Illinois State Board of Education reports showing the majority of Antioch District 34 students were not meeting or exceeding proficiency levels from 2017 to 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the shutdown of schools.

Test scores from 2021 show that 47% of students did not meet — or only partially met — the standard, while over 25% of students met or exceeded the desired performance level. Data from 2022 shows that 42.7% of District 34 students did not meet — or partially meet — the standard, while a majority, 57.2% approached, met or exceeded the state standard.

Shaffer does not allege, as Williams has suggested online, that critical race theory is being taught in the district, nor did he say that social-emotional learning or sexual education was to blame for lackluster test scores.

“Whether the question is, what do we have to start doing that’s not being done now, or what do we have to stop doing that we’re doing now to raise those scores, is CRT part of it? I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t have any direct knowledge of it right now. But, do I think people need to be held accountable for those scores? Yes.”

Williams said she is, “worried about the scores,” has the experience to serve the board well after advocating for her children’s needs as they went through the district and that, “parents are not getting the transparency they’re seeking.”

Adams doesn’t look to be as active on Facebook, but she came under fire on social media for a Jan. 11, 2021 post that said she was “at the steps of the Capital and personally witnessed how … MSM and many in the government are portraying the Patriots as terrorists storming the capital when that narrative is the farthest from the truth!”

The post continued to say she, “spent the day from early in the morning with hundreds of thousands of Trump Supporters,” and called it, “one of the most peaceful demonstrations I have witnessed.”

Adams’ campaign bio explains she is a lifelong Antioch resident running to, “ensure quality education for the children of this community through transparency and accountability with the school board and the parents.” She did not respond to interview requests.

Trust vs. turnover

Following Superintendent Aron Barowiak’s hiring last summer, public records show District 34 enlisted education law firm Kriha Boucek to investigate whether a board member or District 34 employees “engaged in harassing conduct,” which could include name-calling, use of derogatory slurs, harm, threatening or stalking. The firm’s 30-page report shared with the district advised “there is no evidence” of such claims.

Invoices sent to District 34 and shared with the News-Sun show that Kriha Boucek billed for more than $12,000 in “grievance investigation” matters between October and December, and for a sum of more than $26,000 in total expenses and fees in that span.

If she wins a seat, Tamar Lasko is set on, “refocusing the financial aspect away from grievances, lawsuits and investigations that really have no bearing on what we should be trying to accomplish,” and that she is particularly excited to help see through upgrades at Antioch Upper Grade School.

“There are just so many other ways we can funnel those funds, improving school grounds, improving some of the older buildings,” Lasko said.

Shaffer responded to separate criticism “for costing District 34 legal fees,” noting the board’s imposition of a masking requirement when schools reopened during the pandemic. He wrote on his candidate Facebook account that he did not believe data showed masks to be effective for COVID-19 prevention, adding that “for children the virus was a nuisance” and their due process rights were violated by masking rules.

“Would I do it again? Yeah, I would,” Shaffer told the News-Sun. “The opinion of myself, you or anybody on that board, the personal opinion of why you do something when potentially (violating) someone’s due process rights, that’s irrelevant.”

Shaffer said he stopped attending some of the most heated school board meetings because it was a “toxic environment.” He added that he left the Parents of Antioch Community Committee group, and has posted less online regarding school issues in recent months.

“Here’s the reality: I don’t know if critical race theory is being taught in the schools,” Shaffer said. “If people are concerned about it, let’s just be more transparent and maybe do the survey I suggested and have people come up with more ideas on how we can be more transparent as a board to the district, to the voters.”

After working in the district as a homeroom supervisor and cafeteria worker, and substitute-teaching in nearby districts, District 34 United candidate Kelly Beall thinks curriculum concerns are overblown.

“To what end would anybody be doing any of these things? All I’ve seen is love and care every time I’ve been in the school, in all honesty,” Beall said. “For me, I saw there were going to be six seats up and that’s not normal.”

District 34 United candidate Josh Cornwell, a principal in nearby Big Hollow School District 38, said he is happy with the experience of his children in District 34, especially because of options like orchestra which are available to students as early as kindergarten. In less-crowded election cycles, Cornwell said he had been asked to run for the board, but stayed out.

In his view, “It seems like there are a lot of people upset about the schools, but they don’t really understand how the schools work or don’t really know what’s going on.”

Messaging around issues like social-emotional learning and Illinois’ standards for sex education, Cornwell said, is ironic because, “parents always have the opportunity to opt their kid out of particular units, if they wish, so it’s not even about their kid.”

“I feel like it shifted once COVID kind of ended, from masks now to just parents kind of thinking they should have a say in everything their kids are taught,” Cornwell said.

Lori Linck, a board member since 2013, thinks District 34 can, “launch into one of the top-tier districts” after “a lot of ground work” on curriculum development, curriculum audits, building upgrades and professional development for staff.

She recalled the departures of Marino and Hubbard, noting Hubbard, “got thrown right into” the district’s debate over masks and curriculum when he took the job.

“Then all the politics kicked up,” Linck said, “and it’s really unfortunate.”

She said school board interest is “feast or famine,” and that the work of a board member is, “a lot more complicated than it appears from the outside.”

Tiffany Cappel was appointed to the board in 2021 during a time of “turmoil” after she wore “different hats in the district” as a volunteer, special education advocate and former teacher at Oakland Elementary in Lake Villa.

She said she believes criticism for the board has spouted from a “small group that is louder” than most of the district’s residents.

“The part I focus on is the quieter voices,” Cappel said. “People will quietly send messages of support via email to the board email or sent private texts in support, and I think the majority of our community is still strong and supportive.”

The rest of the field

Two other candidates, Paul Green and Christopher Hartman, could not be reached for comment.

Kevin Fielder told the News-Sun that he and his wife Kristen have been unfairly characterized online by the Dear New Antioch Superintendents Facebook page as being in tandem with Adams, Shaffer and Williams.

He said the page is, “grabbing people’s names and trying to drag them through the mud,” and is “assuming that I’m part of this radical, right-wing conservative group.”

“Torch and pitchfork, charge the people and throw the whole board out — that’s not what I’m about,” he said. “I’m very much right down the middle, open-minded, moderate, all about community.”

An email from Kristen Fielder said her intention to run because she is passionate about, “addressing age appropriate classroom curriculums that set our students up to critically think, act and conduct themselves as stand up citizens in their community,” and “respectfully” being a voice for parents. Other focuses include “basic studies” of reading, math, science and history.

Kevin Fiedler said he does not “have that impression at all” that district staff is pushing a political or social agenda on students, and he wants to “keep an open ear to everyone.”

“ (I want) to make sure day-to-day, parent-teacher-administration communication is happening,” Fielder said. “I don’t have a complaint. I don’t want to change it. I just want to make sure the system they already have continues, because it’s great.”

He said he understands a need, “for progressive curriculum to work itself through the districts as the years go by,” even though it is different from when he attended District 34. He added his “stipulation is making sure that the current curriculum brought to the classroom matches the age and maturity levels of students.”

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