Since Steve Lefko shared his experience with the River Forest Community Caucus [I double-dog dare you to run for school board, Viewpoints, Oct. 28], I’d like to share mine as participant, co-chair and past candidate.
River Forest is not the only Illinois community to use a caucus to interview and endorse candidates for local government. Glenview uses one currently for its school board. The nearby village of Riverside uses a caucus to endorse Trustee candidates.
Caucuses in which I participated had 23 members: 19 voting members along with four non-voting participants, including two alternates (who would vote if they are replacing someone), one former board member to provide context for Caucus members, and one River Forest Education Association member (River Forest teachers union). Caucus chairpersons do not vote. Current school board members are not eligible to participate.
Some have asserted that the River Forest Community Caucus is part of District 90. That is not true. It has zero affiliation with the board of education or D90 administration. There is no budget for it. I spent my own money buying folders and pens for caucus members. Organizers and participants are all volunteer. Candidates do not have to participate, either. All known candidates are invited to participate. They just won’t have an opportunity to seek the endorsement of the caucus if they do not participate.
At the conclusion of the 2012 caucus, of which I was a voting member, the co-chairs asked all participants to consider leading the next caucus, which would be 2014. Eighteen months later, no one came forward to volunteer to be the next chairperson. This is when the co-chairs re-approached me to lead the 2014 Caucus.
In 2014, I served as co-chair with Laura Maychruk. I was a Willard parent, she was a Lincoln parent, so we had a sizable base of people throughout River Forest to encourage to participate. In order to attract and recruit candidates for both the caucus itself as well as D90 board openings, we posted flyers in high-traffic areas; wrote press releases to local media; contacted neighbors and friends with students in private school to invite them to participate; reached out to older residents; spoke at meetings for taxing bodies and the D90 PTO. We made a rigorous and honest effort to extend an invitation to everyone.
At the conclusion of the 2014 Caucus, Laura and I asked members of the caucus to volunteer to lead the 2016 Caucus. Similar to 2014, by autumn of 2016 no one had come forward. We emailed the previous members once again. Calvin Davis stepped up to become the leader.
After the 2016 caucus was formed, Dr. Nicole Thompson and I were approached by Cal to run as candidates for the D90 board. Members of the caucus were not able to find any candidates to bring forward and no other River Forest residents had come forward on their own. Incumbent Ann Gottleib and Stacey Willams, who had been appointed to the board in 2016 to complete the remainder of a term for a departing board member, were also candidates. With four candidates and four seats open, the March 2017 election was uncontested. Nevertheless, each candidate did complete the caucus interview process. All four candidates were endorsed.
In my opinion, here is what the River Forest Community Caucus does well:
D90 is the largest taxing body in River Forest. Convening a caucus every two years provides a focused opportunity for a variety of River Forest residents to check in with each other on the composition of the board and ask the question: What makes a board member qualified? What are the strengths, weaknesses and motivations of a candidate?
The caucus is an opportunity for community members to ask thoughtful questions and encourage candidates to open up about themselves. Generally the questions come in the categories of district finance knowledge, a candidate’s professional background, why they want to run, and what skills and perspectives they feel they would bring to the board.
Twenty-one residents can be actively recruiting candidates.
In my opinion, one negative thing is that perhaps the caucus is too big. A panel of 23 people assembled to conduct 4-8 interviews is somewhat inefficient and redundant. For example, there can be a lot of opinions expressed about how to word an interview question. Everyone is trying to say the same thing but in 10 different ways. Is there a way to make it smaller and not sacrifice inclusiveness and a broad range of experience and opinions?
River Forest is fortunate to continue to have many qualified residents who want to be candidates for our publicly elected offices. It is my hope that more residents become engaged, attend meetings (silver lining of the pandemic is they are all virtual now!) and take steps to look beyond social media comments for their information on local issues.
Judy Troyer Deogracias is a current River Forest D90 school board member and past River Forest Community Caucus member, chair and candidate interview participant.