Home Local Kara Casten, wife of US Rep. Sean Casten, joins crowded field in Downers Grove school board race

Kara Casten, wife of US Rep. Sean Casten, joins crowded field in Downers Grove school board race

by staff

While some DuPage County school boards are going begging for candidates in next year’s election, the campaign in Downers Grove’s Community High School District 99 promises to be lively, with six candidates — including one with a familiar name — going after three open seats.

Kara Casten, an insurance executive who is the wife of Democratic U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, has formed a slate with tax attorney Don Renner, who was on the board from 2015 to 2019, and customer experience professional Ken Dawson.

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Casten said her decision to run was inspired in part by the memory of her daughter Gwen, who died in June from what the DuPage County coroner called a sudden cardiac arrhythmia. Gwen Casten had graduated from Downers Grove North two weeks earlier.

“We are so grateful for the opportunities she had, the memories we have of high school,” Casten said. “I want to step up and help advocate for the voices that aren’t heard as loudly in our community and ensure every student in District 99 is included, welcomed, and given the same opportunities as every other student.”

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The still nameless slate will face two district parents who are running a joint race for the April 4 election. Stay-at-home mom Barbara Allen and health care administrator Dana Cox said their priority will be getting academics back on track after the challenges of the pandemic years.

“Certainly equity is important,” Allen said. “It’s one of the top (issues) that’s at the front of all of our minds, to ensure all students are getting equal access. But we need to be careful that we’re not losing focus and keeping it on good public education.”

The sixth candidate, engineer Chris Erickson, is running a solo race. He said he is concerned with declining standardized test scores.

“So many of my neighbors, they started in the city and moved out to the suburbs,” he said. “When you’re picking a suburb, often times you’re doing that for the schools. That’s why I want to get involved — to ask some questions and make sure (academics are) getting the due attention.”

District 99 is centered in Downers Grove but its boundaries include parts of Bolingbrook, Darien, Lisle, Oak Brook and Westmont. While the Illinois State Board of Education rates both of its high schools “commendable,” the second-highest designation, there are differences: Downers Grove North is more affluent and less racially diverse than Downers Grove South, according to state data.

Casten noted that the district’s voters passed a $136 million building improvement referendum proposal four years ago in which equity was part of the sales pitch: Downers Grove South, for example, got a new performing arts auditorium.

“We all want to ensure that all of our students … receive the support, guidance and resources they need, so they can create their own path and be successful in life,” Dawson said.

As in other towns, Downers Grove saw plenty of discontent over student masking policy during the height of the pandemic. When a judge in February ruled that Gov. J.B. Pritzker overstepped his bounds in mandating the practice, Cox and Allen joined dozens of others asking District 99 to end it.

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“Please make masks optional,” Cox said in a public comment. “Many kids will still wear them, but you must allow the choice. Denying students their civil rights is against the law.”

The board ended up voting 6-1 to make masks optional in late February, but Cox said the lasting impression was that “the community wasn’t being heard.”

Parents Barbara Allen, left, and Dana Cox have teamed up to run for the District 99 school board next year.

The district also made news when some parents challenged the graphic novel “Gender Queer.” Administrators defended its inclusion in the high schools’ library collections, but Allen objected at a June board meeting, saying that by making the book available to students, the district was promoting sexual activity and promiscuity.

“This is not about inclusivity,” she said. “This is not about giving students safe spaces. No sexually explicit materials should be provided by our schools regardless of sexual orientation, period.”

Board members unanimously voted to keep the book in the schools’ libraries. In an interview with the Tribune, Allen said the issue did not figure into her decision to run for the board.

“It’s time for our community to heal,” she said. “I feel strongly that that is behind us and we are focusing on our future.”

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She and Cox said they are more interested in addressing test scores and a new hybrid “block schedule” that lengthens class periods on some days.

Renner said he aims to keep politics out of board discussions, though he allowed some voters might think the slate is being influenced by Sean Casten.

“It would be naive for me to join a slate with Kara and not understand that thatassumption will be made,” he said. “I have been a Republican my whole life. I’m not really affiliated with that political party over the last four years under its leadership, but I think the three of us come from very different political backgrounds.”

jkeilman@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @JohnKeilman

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