The following analysis of the Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Candidate Debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters is the opinion of senior columnist and co-Editor in Chief Mr. Alec Brandel. All viewpoints, criticisms, and opinions represented in this article are solely that of the author and may not reflect the opinions of The Forest Scout newspaper as a whole.
This last Sunday, March 12th, the candidate debate for three local elections was held by the League of Women Voters in the RMA at Lake Forest High School. In each of the debates, the candidates made opening and closing remarks and then responded to questions submitted by audience members.
I’ll start with arguably the most interesting and contested election that Lake Forest and Lake Bluff has seen in many years — the District 115 School Board election.
All four of the caucus-endorsed candidates came to the debate, while only three of the Final Four were present. In his closing statement, Patrick Marshall, a member of the Final Four, announced that the group’s fourth member, Cindy Good, had a family health emergency.
As expected, however, tensions were high as these two groups of candidates butted heads over statistics, interpretations of data, and the school’s standing in comparison to neighboring communities.
Tomas Nemickas was the first candidate to speak. Nemickas is a caucus-endorsed candidate and this is his first time running for the school board. It was obvious that Dr. Nemickas feels that the school is moving in the right direction. One surprise within the debate was when another candidate from the Final Four made a statement that alluded to the fact that Nemickas may not be qualified to run. The claim made referenced that since he works for Illinois Bone and Joint, a company which has a consulting agreement with the school, he cannot run for the school board. I did a little research to further understand this claim. In doing so, I learned that according to IHSA rules our school is required to have a doctor on hand at certain athletic events. In addition, the athletic department has one trainer from Illinois Bone and Joint as a consultant for the entire year. The athletic department has not dealt directly with Dr. Nemickas and he isn’t the aforementioned consultant, so it should not be an issue. Even if this contract were directly with him, it could easily be rewritten to pull him out of it. It would only be an issue if he were directly mentioned in the contract as a consultant. Therefore, he is completely qualified to run for the school board.
Sally Davis, in my own opinion, was the real winner at Sunday’s debate. She displayed her in-depth knowledge of the facts and presented herself very well without responding to questions in a combative tone. When inaccurate claims were made once again by the Final Four about declining ACT scores, she stated accurately and confidently that our ACT scores have never been higher. The audience applauded even though they had been told to remain quiet throughout the debate. When the transparency of the current school board was questioned, she stated that all numbers and statistics could easily be found on the website. When numbers from Lake Forest High School’s Illinois Report Card were quoted by the Final Four candidates, she warned the audience of the easy misinterpretation of this information and clarified that schools report their facts differently. Comparing two schools can be a risky and often misleading action if not careful to ensure that the data points presented accurately. For example, LFHS includes the Athletic Director and Department Chairs as Administration, while other schools classify those positions as teachers. Overall, she both started and ended incredibly strong and only stated facts, not opinions or misleading statistics.
Ted Moorman, also a caucus candidate and an incumbent board member, started by explaining that he did not run as a caucus candidate 4 years ago. He also was approached by the organizers of the Final Four to run on their slate but decided to run as a caucus-endorsed candidate this election cycle. In the last election, Moorman received more votes than any other candidate running for the school board. Over the course of the debate, Moorman really made apparent how important his role was on the school board, and that in itself is a win. He also made it clear how focused he is with the LRC program at the school, and his pride in the evolution of the program for students with mental disabilities at the school. In addition, he is also a financial watchdog and discussed the strength of the school district’s finances. Despite not being at ease with public speaking, Mr. Moorman still proved that he would be a great choice for the next school board.
Mr. Dave Lane was another clear winner in this debate. He had very clear and concise responses to all of the questions. In fact, Mr. Lane received a loud round of applause when he encouraged some of the candidates participating in the debate to stop hanging on and exaggerating the negatives of the school and rather focus on the many positive changes that school has made recently. He is concerned with continuing to improve educational opportunities–mentioning the business entrepreneurship program as a successful example–as well as programs for social and emotional wellness. He also acknowledged the financial strength of the school district and the ongoing need for fiscal responsibility. He mentioned that the tax rate of our high school is nearly 1/2 of our neighboring districts and we have a triple A rating.
On the other hand, Mrs. Jennifer Neubauer lost my vote very early on in the debate when she used the word “entitled” in discussing AP classes and educational opportunities for Lake Forest students. When asked about de-tracking, she stated that some students are “entitled” to be in AP classes and some students aren’t. According to her philosophy, how a student performed in 8th grade would solely determine what level classes you take for the rest of a student’s high school career. There was no accounting for a student’s academic growth and maturation throughout high school and the provided opportunities for them to advance. In addition, she had no opinion on the use of technology at the high school in regards to education. I would have expected her to relay some sort of sentiment on the issue as she has experience with a high school student and we have been using Google ChromeBooks as an educational supplement for the past 3 years. She also doesn’t appear to respect the work of the employees at the district office, evidenced by her comment that the triple A rating is just because we are “Lake Forest” and doesn’t have anything to do with the hard work and diligence of the business office at West Campus.
Patrick Marshall, while focusing mainly on a supposed downward trend in test scores, was arguably the best member of the Final Four at the debate. In referencing the test scores, he mentioned a couple of times that there was a decreasing trend. What he may not know is that starting in 2013, LFHS began including the scores of students with extra time on the ACT when reporting the school’s average ACT score. This means that the overall average of the school went down one year, but since that change, the scores have recently gone up, including last year’s record high. Of the Final Four candidates, he did seem to be the most interested in the overall success of the students, though, and that proves him to be the best of that bunch.
Lisa Mienville was the third member of the Final Four present on Sunday and, in my opinion, struggled to validate her candidacy above that of the Right Track candidates. As far as we know, she didn’t go to LFHS, her husband didn’t go to LFHS, and she chose to send all of her kids to LFA (Lake Forest Academy). If I am wrong and either she or her husband did go to LFHS, she probably should have mentioned it in the debate. Although her academic reputation as a Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University scholar speaks for itself, her lack of investment in Lake Forest High School with her own children is troubling for an elected public official. A major concern is whether or not she knows what happens inside of LFHS. She projected an elitist mentality towards education. Similar to the philosophy expressed by Mrs. Neubauer, Mrs. Mienville expressed that students should be in tracks and that later in life, there are tracks that you must accept. She was very focused on the number of students that are accepted at “elite” colleges versus students going to the colleges that are the best for them. Also, it is my interpretation that she unintentionally complemented the current school board when answering a question centering around technology. She responded that you do not want to be the first school to adopt a new policy but instead should learn from the early adopters so you do not make the same mistakes. That is exactly what the school board did three years ago when implementing the 1:1 computer program at our school, as Mr. Lane had explained earlier on. The only thing that validates her candidacy for this position is that she’s a taxpayer and has a lot of educational experience at the university level. In my own opinion, she focused too much on test scores and not enough on student emotional wellness. Frankly, it is my understanding that she failed to fully grasp entirely what de-tracking at our high school consisted of.
Now, for the debate between the two candidates running for alderman of Ward 2 in Lake Forest. This debate was between Melanie Rummel and Paul Hamann, two well qualified and respectable candidates.
Melanie Rummel started her introduction by stating all of the positions she has held over the years. It was too many to count, which definitely shows how qualified she is for the position of alderman. She explained how she has hosted coffee luncheons and other gatherings to hear from the people in her ward, which is something an alderman should do. They are the face of their ward. She also spoke frequently about her goal of creating more community celebrations and attracting more businesses to Lake Forest to increase the attractiveness of the community. Overall, she won this debate through her great proposals and excellent public speaking skills.
Paul Hamann also did a very good job, yet his entire focus was on the pension crisis in Illinois and how it would affect Lake Forest. While this is an enormous issue facing our community and the entire state, it is not one the can be resolved by the city alone. Even when a question didn’t relate to pensions, he would tie it back in ways that didn’t really work effectively. Ultimately, his time would be better spent in a position that focused primarily on pensions, not in an alderman seat. He very clearly knew what he was talking about, but his intentional and unwavering focus on pensions caused him to fall behind in this debate.
The final debate I am going to cover was the one for the District 67 School Board. Again, there are four open spots and five candidates running. Despite that, however, I have only chosen three winners and I am going to merge the explanations.
Mike Borkowski, Robert Lemke, and Jeffrey Folker all did incredibly well during the debate and helped make it lively. They are all three incumbent candidates and it was obvious that they were comfortable with each other, the questions asked, and presenting in front of a group. There was a time where Borkowski was outlining several points and, when he ran out of time, Lemke flawlessly finished the points made prior. While their responses to questions varied based on their personal beliefs, it was obvious that there is far less tension within the District 67 campaign in comparison to District 115. There was also plenty of laughter on stage between the three of them. Ultimately, their cohesiveness and camaraderie will surely help them on the school board. They all served on the school board previously, so they have plenty of experience as well.
Patrick Patt and Alice LeVert didn’t win the debate for the exact opposite reason. Patt, in my opinion, was more combative and aggressive in his responses, though I am sure that working with the other three would help soften him. LeVert, dissimilarly, was a little too passive in her responses and did not seem like the knowledgable, confident candidate that Borkowski, Lemke, and Folker did. Overall, there were no strict losers in this debate, and all five candidates performed solidly.
The debate, hosted by the League of Women Voters, was such a pleasure to attend and witness. Many people from Lake Forest and Lake Bluff came out to observe and ask questions. In my opinion, this is a perfect way for people to get involved and really participate in the local political process. The debate was filmed by the local channel LFTV, so I encourage anyone and everyone to watch it and form individual opinions beyond what I covered in this article. Even if you think these elections don’t directly affect you, I encourage you to still exercise your right to vote. Every vote counts.