Off to the polls: six candidates run for D99 BOE election


Photos courtesy of candidates

IN THE RUNNING: Running mates Barbara Allen and Dana Cox sport DGN and DGS gear. Solo candidate Chris Erickson runs on a platform of test score improvements. The D99 slate consisting of Ken Dawson, Kara Casten

Molly St. Clair and Maggie Fleming

From masking policy controversy throughout the COVID-19 crisis to the debate over the graphic novel  “Gender Queer” in libraries, D99 Board of Education (BOE) meetings and the topics they discuss have grown in popularity throughout the community. 

The seven-member board will have three open seats in the upcoming April 4 election with six candidates in the running. 

In an Omega interview, current BOE member, Jennie Hagstrom spoke on her own behalf, not representing the board as a whole. According to Hagstrom, recent items the board has voted on include the district budget, teacher and staff contracts, the academic calendar, changing of available courses, and the hybrid block schedule.

Current BOE President Nancy Kupka was elected in 2011 and is not be running in the upcoming election. Kupka believes that even though many do not completely understand the role of the board, the BOE’s work is deeply important to the success of the district. 

“I think a lot of people don’t pay attention to the board a lot of the time. Like me, before I got on the school board, they assume that everyone does the right thing. What I have found in my tenure on the school board is that people vote their conscience. Our role is really to promote the best education we can for our students,” Kupka said. 

Kara Casten, Ken Dawson, and Don Renner are running a combined campaign as the D99 slate. The three candidates are long-time Downers Grove residents whose children have all attended District 99 schools. 

Although Casten is married to Democratic representative Sean Casten, the slate is running unaffiliated with any political party.  

“The three of us came together because we are all committed to ensuring that all students feel welcome in District 99. Politically, we have different backgrounds but we feel that that should stay out of the school board,” Casten said. 

Censorship in schools has been a controversial topic both nationwide and within the community. 

“Our position is that censorship in general is not a good idea. It’s a slippery slope when attempting to censor certain books or topics. We are not in favor of having parents censoring specific items in D99 libraries,” Renner said. 

Renner is the only candidate in the running with previous experience on the board, having served on the board from 2015-2019. 

“I thought it was important to put a candidate in the field who has existing experience in the board of education like myself. Someone who can provide some continuity between the previous board to the new board,” Renner said. 

Barbara Allen and Dana Cox announced a joint campaign for the 2023 election. Allen and Cox were both inspired by their children’s ties to District 99 to run for the BOE. They believe success within the BOE depends on the ability to listen to the community and transparency with stakeholders. 

I felt the need to be a voice for stakeholders, students, and parents to place the focus back on high-quality education

— Dana Cox

Cox said. 

When it comes to censorship, Cox believes that the board does not have the right to control content in an educational setting. 

“I do not support censorship in the classroom or reading materials. It violates freedom of speech which is our First Amendment right,” Cox said. 

Differing from Cox’s position on censorship, Allen believes that not only parents but taxpayers of the community deserve a say in District 99 curriculum.  

“It is important that parents have this ability to question the content of what is being taught in schools because parents have the primary right for their children. Additionally, the taxpayers of D99 contribute the majority of district funding. Local stakeholders in the community do have a right to voice opinions regarding curriculum and instruction,” Allen said. 

During the 2021-2022 school year, Allen was a prominent voice in efforts to end masking at DGN. In an email to the board that was made public through FOIA (The Freedom of Information Act), Allen urged members to vote mask optional.

Allen also played a key role in the attempted removal of the novel “Gender Queer” from D99 libraries. In another email to board members, Allen detailed her concerns. 

“Has District 99 considered how including “Gender Queer” in the school library will impact sexual promiscuity in our schools? The questioning of one’s sexual orientation at the high school age is a complex issue best handled by parents and professionals. Gender Queer has no place in our schools,” Allen wrote in a June 5 email. 

Chris Erickson is the only candidate running a solo campaign this year. Erickson’s campaign is centered around improving overall academic performance throughout the district. 

“There has been a decline in academic performance [in D99] while other districts are outperforming. We have great resources in our community that can be leveraged in order to return to growing performances of all students.” 

Erickson describes himself as “about the future.”  With two children soon entering the district, he believes he has the most at stake regarding the outcome of the election. 

“My family represents the future. I have one shot to raise my children, lead by example, and do what I can to ensure the success of my community. 

When asked about censorship policy regarding classroom content and reading materials, Erickson erred on the side of caution.

“I would work to minimize the impact of any controversial issues that could distract from instruction. If there were a controversial subject that arose and did not imminently affect students, I would advocate tabling the discussion and address it over a summer session,” Erickson said. 

Science department chair Michael Heinz was selected by union president Josh Bodenheimer to lead a committee advising the union on supporting a certain set of candidates. 

After the DGEA advisory committee met with the six candidates throughout January the committee ranked the candidates based on how their responses aligned with the district’s values. The committee then put a proposal forward to support the D99 slate to a combined DGEA Governing board who made the final union endorsement for the slate. 

When looking at candidates, the DGEA chose candidates they believed could best represent the district as a whole.

“When looking at leadership in a school district you want the people who are best aligned with the values of the district. They should support teachers, and students, but still have that fiduciary responsibility to protect the interest of the taxpayers,” Heinz said. 

High school students aged 18 or older who are registered in Illinois are eligible to vote in the upcoming election. Online voter registration ends March 19, but election day registration is available at polling locations. 

According to Luka Paulauskas, the DGN student BOE representative, student participation in this election is crucial. 

“Students are able to take initiative and be the reason that there could be positive outcomes. It’s a way for those who were once unheard to step up and feel empowered in the end,” Paulauskas said.