Doesn’t that sound like an awkward comingling of schoolyard antics with the important work of adult elected officials? It’s that time again. The next Consolidated General Election is April 6, 2021, and some of our best citizenry find themselves stuck with a tight monkey-bar grip above what’s becoming a playground instead of a playbook for academic excellence. 

Awakened by a clearer understanding of educational uncertainty, yet paralyzed by a system pointlessly politicized. Adrift in its own sea of acronyms, and more recently made unattractive by a handful of bullies. Fear is favored to win this election cycle, and I want to shine light on one place it’s hiding. 

That dark corner is the River Forest District 90 Caucus. My facts and any bias come from being a 2019 candidate. Caucus needs defining so we’re connecting on the same point. Today, Webster says it’s a closed meeting of a group of persons belonging to the same political party or faction usually to select candidates or decide on policy. There’s just one closed group for D90 and it’s the only faction secretly operating to influence elections among all five of River Forest’s elected boards. Oak Park’s District 97 and 200 don’t use a caucus. 

Not a politician, I was versed in the overhaul of curriculum and instruction underway but hadn’t explored the dark corners of the playground. Advanced warning suggested the caucus was an invisible long arm of the school board and this squared with two early findings. First, it has a history of endorsing incumbents, odds that begin to wear on the notion of neutrality. Second, the 2019 caucus chair was recruited by an existing board member. Coincidence? Perhaps, but unlikely given the pattern. 

The chairperson this cycle was both 2019 caucus delegate and campaign manager for one winner last cycle. I know, I was the lone opponent on the two-year ticket and target of a contemptible campaign. It played out through insolent email blasts, stinging social media and even fake rumors that entangled school officials. The attacks kept attention off education at a time when more is needed. 

Probably worse, the behavior of bullies stands as a deterrent today to those considering candidacy. Nobody dared me to run; I was volunteering for civic duty. 

To be fair, years ago I remember caucus organizers first working publicly to create a pool of candidates. Now the focus seems to be furthering support for an agenda using a top-secret interview. Mine was scheduled for February, and as skepticism brewed, I ask about a governing document. After all, “they” wanted me to come sit for a many-on-one interview where the questions, questioners and my answers would all remain confidential. 

Afterward, this faction would transmit an endorsement to this paper where readers might confuse it with something resembling democracy. Request denied.

This year is different. A caucus website has a bottom link to the “constitution.” You won’t find the names of caucus delegates, no plans to live-stream or post recordings of candidate interviews. Most disconcerting is a schedule that should limit candidate participation. 

Last cycle, the caucus began interviewing candidates in February, months after the Cook County Board of Elections December filing deadline. This cycle, organizers are using an early caucus “application deadline” to ward off participation, and an interview schedule concluding in October. They’ll pick their winner months before the Dec. 21 candidate filing deadline. What’s so important to this group that the current board won’t condemn anti-democratic behavior?

I can smell a charge of “sour grapes,” and that’s OK. What isn’t OK is how frequently it’s been said, “I wouldn’t consider running after what happened to you.” If fear wins, then we all continue to lose. 

Now more than ever our students and communities need democracy. We need cohesion over coercion. 

District 90, I dare you to abolish the caucus. 

Steve Lefko is a resident of River Forest.

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