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Three open seats draw close attention in District 218

By Dermot Connolly

The three seats up for election in High School District 218 are expected to be among the most closely watched local races on April 2.

District 218 includes Shepard High School in Palos Heights, Richards High School in Oak Lawn, and Eisenhower High School in Blue Island. Two board members seeking second terms in districts 5 and 6 are facing stiff opposition from candidates who believe that as good as the district is, it could be better. Two newcomers are vying for the 1st District that the longest-serving board member Johnny Holmes is vacating after 16 years.

Kats

Kats

In District 5, incumbent Carol Kats, an elementary school teacher from Worth who serves as board secretary, is facing opposition from another educator, Maureen Kenney Richel, Ed.D., of Palos Heights. While in the 6th District, attorney Robert “Bob” Stokas is being challenged in his bid for re-election by Tricia O’Sullivan, an elementary school teacher and wife of Worth Township Supervisor John O’Sullivan. Both live in Oak Lawn.

Newcomers Sheila Wilson-Collier and Jacqueline R. Sharp are vying for Holmes’ seat, which takes in the southern section of the district that includes Blue Island and Robbins.

richel regional headshot

Richel

In separate phone interviews this week, both Stokas and Kats stressed they were proud of the accomplishments made by the district over the past four years, while keeping costs down. They both said they were happy to see the board apply for and receive about $6 million in property tax relief from the state as part of the new state funding formula.

This will result in a reduction on the 218 portion of local property tax bills for the second installment this year. Kats said that the exact amount saved depends on property values, but for a home valued at $150,000, it is expected to be about $84.

“I have been the voice of the taxpayer for the past four years,” said Stokas. “I have voted numerous times against raising taxes but I am proud to say I still have the support of our teachers’ union and maintenance workers’ union. I never wanted anything cut from our classrooms.”

He said he just opposed raising the tax levy to the maximum unnecessarily, or “the same as last year plus more.”

“I know costs keep going up each year but there has to be a limit,” said Stokas.

Among the board accomplishments during her first term that Kats noted was the ability to reduce the cost of the new Richards High School Performing Arts Center.

Stokas

Stokas

“When we came on board, the planned costs were about $25 million, and we said that wasn’t possible. We were able to bring the costs down to $15 million and it still looks beautiful,” she said.

“I feel that we have the right mix on the board now,” said Stokas, who said everything was going along well until last year “when politics got involved.”

He said he felt that his seat was targeted by outside political forces because he resisted voting to remove a law firm that represents the board. Stokas said he has heard good things about O’Sullivan, but said the fact that her husband is the Worth Township supervisor leads him to believe that her candidacy is politically motivated. Also, he said that he believes the mix of professions on the board works now, and there is no need to add to the two teachers already there.

O’Sullivan denied that there was any political motivation for her running, and said her husband’s position should not be used against her.

“I am a teacher in Hazelgreen School in Alsip and I believe my educational background will be a good addition to the board. I live this every day so I am better able see what may or may not work. I was asked to run before but I didn’t have time. But now I do, because my youngest son is turning 18,” she said.

“I have been out in the cold, going door to door. My local school district means a lot to me,” said O’Sullivan. “I feel it is very unfair to have these accusations of machine politics being thrown at me.”

Stokas said the two teachers already on the board is enough, because teachers already get input through their union. But O’Sullivan said that at least half of the seven-member board should have backgrounds in education.

Kats, a lifelong Worth resident, is also a teacher, at Ridge Lawn School in Chicago Ridge. She said working at a school that feeds into District 218 is beneficial to the board.

Richel, her opponent, has a doctorate in education. Originally from Oak Lawn, she and her husband, Patrick, have lived in Palos Heights since 1989.

“I’m an education specialist,” she said.

Tricia OSullivan

O’Sullivan

After teaching in the classroom and being a curriculum director for a Tinley Park school district, she moved on to the Illinois State Board of Education, where she worked on federal grants and programs.

“It gave me insight into the high schools because we managed school improvement grants for the state of Illinois. They are awarded to chronically underperforming schools and they are mostly high schools,” she said.

After retiring in 2011 from the state Board of Education, she now works on national programs affiliated with the Centers on Innovations in Learning at Temple University, and at the Academic Institute in Lincoln, Ill.

“I have been doing a lot of work with the Center on School Turnaround,” said Richel.

Richel said she would like to work with teachers to help bring up SAT results in District 218, because according to the Illinois Report Card, only 24 percent of juniors last year met or exceeded standards in English in 2018, and only 21 percent in mathematics.

“I think we can do better, and we should do better. There are lot of little tweaks that we can do to improve student achievement that don’t require money,” Richel said. “This is about giving the teachers the support they need to be the sort of instructors they want to be.”

Stokas and Kats said they are aware that there is room for improvement on SAT scores, and said an “articulation director” is working with feeder schools to prepare students for high-school level work.

“You can’t judge schools by one test,” said Kats.

She said more 218 students than ever before — not just those in honors classes — are now taking Advanced Placement classes as well as classes for college credit while still in high school through a partnership with Moraine Valley Community College.

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