It’s three against one in the Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 school board race.
Three of the four candidates running for the three seats on the OPRF school board that are open in the April 4 election have teamed up to support each other effectively creating a slate although they are just calling it a partnership. Graham Brisben, Tim Brandhorst and Jonathan Livingston are pooling resources, have joint campaign signs and are boosting each other on their websites.
“I would describe it as an informal alignment and in doing so with those two gentlemen that’s not a slight at anyone else,” Brisben told Wednesday Journal in a telephone interview. “I think that on balance my positions are probably more aligned with theirs.”
Brandhorst denied the partnership was a slate.
“We’re not a slate,” Brandhorst said in a statement emailed to Wednesday Journal. “We don’t agree on everything, and we don’t have a substantive agenda. We do feel we share a common collaborative approach. And we all three saw the benefit to sharing the costs of the campaign, which are surprisingly (at least to me) high. We’ve all been very careful not to engage in negative campaigning, or to gang up on anyone in a forum, or criticize anyone brave enough to run for local office.”
The alliance leaves the fourth candidate, Brian Souders, as the odd man out.
“I’m certainly disappointed that they decided to band together,” Souders said. “That’s not really, in a lot of ways, how we do things in Oak Park. I don’t know if all the voters will appreciate it very much. But I also know that I have some significant differences between those other candidates and I think that my issues resonate with a lot of voters.”
Brisben, Brandhorst and Livingston decided to team up shortly after incumbent Sara Spivy dropped out of the race in January and endorsed the three of them.
“After filing my petitions last December, I reached out to each of the other candidates in the race and invited each person to meet me for a cup of coffee,” Brandhorst wrote in his emailed statement. “I knew I’d be spending a lot of time with each person on the campaign trail, and possibly serving together for the next four years, and I just thought it would be nice to have a personal relationship. One candidate declined. The others agreed. I had a long talk with Graham, and another long talk with Jonathan, and hit it off with both of them. They are super smart, impressive, collaborative guys. And the conversation evolved from there.”
Souders said he did not meet with Brandhorst because he wasn’t sure, as a first time candidate, if he should meet with an opponent in the race. He said he received conflicting advice and decided not to meet with Brandhorst although he did subsequently meet with Brisben who he knew from Boy Scout work in Oak Park.
Brisben, Brandhorst and Livingston all strongly support Project 2, OPRF’s $102 million plan to demolish and rebuild the southeast portion of the school which houses most of the physical education facilities other than the fieldhouse. All three are comfortable with the current school board deciding how to pay for Project 2, which includes a 10 lane 25 yard by 40 yard new swimming pool, while only Souders says that any borrowing for Project 2 should go to a referendum.
“It’s not really about the money to me, it’s about the principle involved,” Souders said. “The norm is that large capital projects go to the voters.”
Souders said he is concerned that spending so much on Project 2 will hamstring OPRF in addressing facility needs in the future and said he would like to take a more comprehensive approach that could also address other areas of the building that need to be upgraded.
“I think that if we do go to a referendum it shouldn’t just be for Project 2,” Souders said. “A referendum should be for a comprehensive building program so that we can do one referendum that isn’t just pool and athletics, but also creates a pool of money that can be used for arts, academics, vocational things over the course of, let’s say, an 8 year period.”
Brisben said he and his partners want to get Project 2 done as quickly and cheaply as possible.
“I think we have a little bit more realistic and practical and cleared eyed ideas about how to deal with the much needed infrastructure improvement in the southeast corner of the building,” Brisben said.
Brisben, a former member of the Oak Park Elementary School District 97 school board, rejected the suggestion that he and his allies are the candidates of the OPRF establishment.
“Sure I have connections within the community, partly due to my prior service on District 97 but I don’t see how having those connections, relationships and experience should necessarily be viewed as might be implied by the term ‘establishment,’” Brisben said. “We’re not on the board now and I don’t see how we are overly supportive or excessively supportive to the administration.”
Brisben, who owns and runs a supply chain consulting firm, Brandhorst, a lawyer, and Livingston, a college professor and non-profit consultant, all share a progressive political outlook. Souders, an independent marketing professional who said he is generally center-left in his politics, is outspoken about what he sees as OPRF’s excessive taxation over the past 20 years.
“Right now they’re forecasting surpluses for the next five years of more than $5 million,” Souders said. “For a family like mine in Oak Park that’s hundreds of extra dollars that they’re taking beyond what they need to educate kids. I don’t think that this is OK.”
Brisben said that he agrees that OPRF’s fund balance, which reached $130 million in 2013 and is projected to be $76 million at the end of the current fiscal year, was allowed to get much too high.
“I think I’m with a lot of people in the community that recognize that that was absolutely wrong,” Brisben said. “That never should have been allowed to happen.”
Brisben, Brandhorst and Livingston stress their collaborative spirit and collegiality.
“Three candidates for the D200 board possess the collegiality, collaborative spirit and commitment to problem solving that service on the board requires,” states the Brandhorst website. “Tim is delighted to ally with two outstanding candidates, Graham Brisben and Jonathan Livingston and expressly endorses their candidacies.”
Brisben’s website had a very similar statement which mentioned a “commitment to civility” until Brisben removed the statement after Souders, who knows Brisben from their involvement in Boy Scouts, complained to Brisben about it.
“They’re basically accusing me of being uncivil,” Souders said adding that he disagrees with that characterization. “They’re saying that I would be unable to compromise with anybody.”
Souders said that if elected to the board he would be willing to compromise and he says that better decisions are made when all points of view are considered.
“Compromises comes out of discussion and if everyone starts on one side of the issue, I don’t know that that creates the best outcomes,” Souders said. “I think there is a premium put on collegiality more than questioning whether this is the right thing to do.”
Brisben says the alliance with Brandhorst and Livingston is not meant as an attack on Souders.
“There’s nothing the matter with Brian,” Brisben said. “I’ve known Brian for 10 years because we’re both fellow dads in the same Scout troop and I only know him as a high character person and I think that there are a lot of common platforms or ideas among the four of us. I would just skew a little more along the lines of Jonathan and Tim.”