The campaign season just concluded with yesterday’s election has been quite a ride, both for the candidates and the voters. That has been especially true in the District 97 and District 200 school board races, with the former comprising an unheard-of 10 talented, qualified individuals vying for four board seats. The robust level of debate on a range of issues, from funding levels to student equity, can only bode well for these districts.

But these elections have also been notable for sparking a late debate on how much money candidates running in local elections should spend on their campaigns and what should the sources of that funding be.  In the current race, three candidates for the board at OPRF received healthy contributions from a local philanthropic family.  And Jim O’Connor, an incumbent in District 97, took in $18,000 from an education related PAC in Washington, D.C. 

It is rare but not unheard of in Oak Park for outside money to be received. Several years back a party running for the village board in opposition to the long-established Village Manager Association got a large sum from unions representing portions of village government staff. In the last village government election, Anan Abu-Taleb, then a candidate for village president, was generous in helping to fund his own race.

In both cases, there was a proper debate over how our local elections should be funding, and how they can be legally funded. Now, we expect, we will have a fresh debate on the same important topic.

Campaign spending, as with the factor of race in Oak Park’s educational inequities, is an elephant of an issue that many might be tempted to avoid rather than confront. If Oak Park’s image of ourselves as a hub of enlightenment and progress is to be more founded than overstated, we must remain self-aware and unafraid to challenge ourselves. Do we want local elections where big donations play an influential role? What can be done about that?

Let’s hope these conversations, started before April 7, extend well past the election because there will be another in two short years.

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