Stephen Schuler, the electronic trader who led a brief campaign for a seat on the District 200 school board before suddenly withdrawing earlier this year, may no longer be a direct competitor in the race, but his financial impact is still resonating.
Schuler and his wife Mary Jo, two highly regarded local philanthropists, have contributed at least $11,500 in campaign contributions to four candidates.
One D97 candidate, incumbent Jim O’Connor, reported a $1,000 contribution from the Schulers, while three D200 candidates — Fred Arkin, Jennifer Cassell and Sara Dixon Spivy — each reported a contribution of $2,500 from the couple.
In addition, Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) — a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee closely associated with Teach for America (TFA) — has contributed $18,000 to the re-election efforts of O’Connor, a TFA alumnus.
The contributions by the Schulers and LEE were reported to the Illinois State Board of Elections, because they were donations of at least $1,000 and made 30 days prior to the election. Smaller individual donations raised by local candidates, 10 of whom are running in D97 and five of whom are running in D200, will be reported in quarterly filings after the election is over.
That there have been only a handful of donations more than $1,000 reported to the Illinois Board of Elections indicates that they’re the exception to the rule in this year’s local school board races, with most candidates, like Sandra Arguello, financing their campaigns. Arguello, a candidate for the D97 board, said she’s spent about $225 of her own money on handmade signs and palm cards that she carries to forums.
But the sheer amount of money that’s floated around from just two sources has alarmed some candidates who have been forced to support their campaigns the old-fashioned way.
They’ve expressed concern about the lack of fundraising parity, the lack of transparency and the unhealthy influence of special interests on board decision-making that may result from such a significant infusion of cash.
“Seeing a sum as large as $18,000 potentially raises the threshold higher to be seriously considered than many well-intentioned and otherwise well-qualified candidates would potentially be willing to spend,” said Rick Boultinghouse III, one of 10 candidates vying, along with O’Connor, for three open D97 board seats.
“I am not comfortable with funding requirements of that magnitude for a position of public service at this level,” said Boultinghouse, who added that he fears “the quid pro quo implied” in LEE’s significant donation.
John Abbott, a D97 candidate allied with Boultinghouse, echoed those concerns.
“In throwing its outsized weight around in school board races, what does LEE hope to accomplish?” Abbott said in a statement he posted on his Facebook account, referring to TFA’s role in the school privatization and charter school movement.
The organization has been widely criticized for its role in undercutting teachers’ unions by providing a steady stream of highly educated, but relatively inexperienced and inexpensive college graduates to teach in classrooms, many of which are in underserved urban areas.
A vast number of the teachers stay in the classroom for less than five years, before moving onto administrative or elected positions — a dynamic that promotes high turnover rates and degrades the quality of instruction over the long-term, critics say.
Moreover, LEE is a 501(c)(4) political organization that’s effectively exempt from disclosing its donors.
According to LEE’s website, the organization is nonpartisan, has no policy preference and that its sole ambition is to empower its members to “serve as a transformative force for students, communities and the broader movement for educational equity.”
“LEE supports all TFA alumni — Democrats, Republicans and independents,” said O’Connor. “I didn’t fill out a survey of interest; there are no policies we have to support over others. I received their support because I’m an alumnus; no strings attached.”
O’Connor, who started a middle school in Chicago based on the KIPPS Ascend Charter School model, said that those who share Boultinghouse’s fear that a “quid pro quo” may be linked to the money should evaluate that fear based on what he’s done in his first term as a board member.
O’Connor said he’s not an ideological school privatization advocate, but “an advocate for good schools of any kind” and that quality education “starts with traditional schools.”
Currently, O’Connor works as a project director for the public school reform organization Advance Illinois, whose mission is to be “an independent, objective voice to promote a public education system in Illinois that prepares all students to be ready for work, college, and democratic citizenship.”
Both O’Connor and D97 board President Robert Spatz said they’ve raised more money this election because of the sheer competitiveness of the field. Neither has run a contested race for a district board seat.
“In 1999, I spent less than $1,000. In 2001, I spent $3,000. This year, I spent about $4,000, maybe less than that,” Spatz said, adding that the amount of funding for this year’s race is “all over the place.”
“But if you get a thousand people contributing $20, it’s different than having one entity contribute $10,000,” Spatz said.
Sara Dixon Spivy said that apart from her $2,500 contribution from the Schulers, “almost all of my donations have been under $100.”
She said the amount of financial involvement in the race reflects the priorities of the town.
“The fact that people are willing to spend money on local races like this says far more about our village than it does about any individual candidate,” Spivy said. “I’m proud to live in a place where people put their money into what really matter, which is the health of our schools.”
But District 97 candidate Jay Schulman said that, with too much money, there eventually comes a point of diminishing returns.
“Will one more lawn sign make a difference? Does two mailings to every voter’s home make a difference?” Schulman asked. “One thousand, or even $2,500, will make a difference in the quality or quantity of the campaign, but it likely won’t win it alone.”
Schulman added that angel investors such as the Schulers are “appropriate for this type of race,” but that LEE’s large outside contribution is “atypical for this type of race … without a hot button issue that people are for or against.”
Perhaps that hot button issue this election needs to become the campaigns themselves, noted Spatz.
“We should have conversations about what is an appropriate level of expenditures,” he said.
This article has been changed to correct the total amount of money Stephen and Mary Jo Schuler have contributed to candidates in local school board races.