By Nona Tepper
Another two residents have emerged as prospective candidates for the Forest Park District 91 Board of Education, in what's shaping up to be the first crowded race for board seats D91 has seen in years.
Three seats will be open in the April election. Shannon Wood, an incumbent, will run for re-election. Greg Mitchell, recently appointed to a seat on the board, is "tentatively planning" to seek election. And incumbent Christina Ricordati has announced she will not seek a new term.
Residents Daniel Gasse and Monique Cotton have announced they will run for the school board. Gasse and Cotton said they started gathering signatures about a week ago and have already compiled the 50 necessary signatures to get on the ballot. They are working together to support one another during the campaign.
Cotton said running for a board position has been a "long time coming," a position she long dreamed of holding as her four children passed through the D91 system. Now that three of her children have settled into life at Proviso East High School and Proviso Math and Science Academy, she believes the timing is right to run. She currently has a third-grader enrolled in D91.
"I've had four children in the district and all four kids are completely opposite, different people," Cotton said. "One kid is a shining star who got straight A's almost all the time, I had a kid who could be an A student you just had to be on it, I had a kid who is special education and had to be bused out of district to get additional help, another just needs a little help. I feel like I touch on almost every option, so I know a little bit about each aspect of the school."
She said a healthy school district is key to a healthy community, since schools touch many of Forest Park's institutions, naming the library, Park District of Forest Park and local businesses as examples. Cotton, a benefits specialist, currently serves on the Citizens Advisory Council, and said she is active in Boy Scouts and library functions.
In addition to driving higher test scores, she said she is passionate about students' social and emotional growth.
"I know everyone wants the schools to do well academically, but I'm also passionate about building the whole student, not just grades but social skills and emotional skills," Cotton said. "The more well-rounded children we have, the more well-rounded adults we have."
Some people feel disconnected to the current school board, Cotton said. If she were named to the post, she said she would serve her entire term in office and welcome everyone.
"I'm here in Forest Park until I get booted out," she said. "I'm coming in wanting to learn and get other's ideas so we can, as a community, build it up and get the schools where they need to be,"
A native of Argentina, Gasse has five children, with two currently enrolled in D91. He has attended nearly every school board meeting over the last year. His son Ernesto often livestreams the meetings on Facebook. Gasse said he was inspired to run because he wanted to shake up the status quo.
"I think the board should have played more of a role in leadership, like setting the goals and looking over what the superintendent is doing," Gasse said. "Not just taking everything that comes like, 'Uh huh, 7-0 [vote].'"
He said he feels passionate about the district's state test scores, pushing high achieving students further and better aligning the school's curriculum from kindergarten to eighth grade. Gasse called this year's change in Forest Park Middle School's schedule, as well as the addition of Spanish-language classes for all students "radical."
"This is a consequence of six years of parents pushing," Gasse said. "We needed to touch the bottom for [the administration] to react, and last year our test scores touched the bottom. It was bad…I don't think you need to waste six years of students' time to notice you're going in a wrong track."
Gasse named the school's financial management and hiring of the new communications director as strong points, and low enrollment compared to its high number of buildings as the biggest challenge the district faces.
He co-founded the local Gasse School of Music, holds a master's and doctorate in Musical Arts from the University of Illinois, and also has studied engineering.
"I'm passionate about kids, I think they are just the best and we should do whatever we can to provide them with the best for the future," he said.