Bob LeFevre Jr.’s reelection campaign for school board this year wasn’t much different from his first run 18 years ago. He relied on word of mouth to carry his message of fiscal stewardship and high-quality education. He repurposed the same yard signs, even though they are getting a little rusty.
But Tuesday — Election Day in the Palatine-Schaumburg area of suburban Chicago — will be anything but routine. The typically low-key school board race has become the epicenter of a national debate over transgender students. The Township High School District 211 election has received national attention and thousands of dollars from outside groups as a slate of conservative candidates seeks to wrest control of the board from LeFevre and other members who voted to allow a transgender girl to use the girls’ locker room at a local high school in 2015.
The election comes as an ever larger number of school districts nationally are grappling with how to accommodate an increasingly visible and vocal cohort of transgender students seeking to use the facilities of their choice. Policies supporting these students have often drawn protests from some of their peers and parents who think transgender students should use facilities based on the gender on their birth certificate. The school board election could have broad repercussions in that fight, as both sides hope it will set a new national standard for how schools balance the needs of transgender students with the privacy of their peers.
The three conservative challengers in the Township High School District 211 race have publicly opposed the board’s 2015 decision, which came after the Education Department found that the district had discriminated against the transgender student and threatened to pull its federal funding.
“We do want to protect the privacy rights of each and every student,” said candidate Katherine David during a forum last month, agreeing with her campaign teammates Ralph Bonatz and Jean Forrest. “I understand there’s arguments that say separate is not equal, but that’s hard to enforce that when you are in fact infringing upon other people’s privacy rights.”
The three candidates declined The Washington Post’s request for comment for this report. If just two of them are successful, they will probably break the five-member bloc that backed the 2015 agreement with the Education Department.
LeFevre, a tax accountant and lifelong resident of the district, said he is disappointed that the debate about transgender students has overshadowed other issues such as student poverty. But he does not regret backing the agreement. He thinks that allowing the transgender student to use the locker room — and installing curtains for any student who wanted more privacy — was the best solution.
“I support treating human beings like human beings,” LeFevre said. “I would never be disappointed if I lost because of my vote.”
The high stakes have drawn an unusual level of money to Tuesday’s race in the district, which covers five high schools and nearly 11,900 students.
GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein, a Wisconsin shipping magnate, gave $3,000 to a political action committee backing the conservative candidates — a considerable sum for an election in which some candidates spend nothing. On the other side, a Washington-based group, Trans United Fund, has mounted a last-minute effort to help a group of parents who support the pro-transgender policy organize door-knocking campaigns and direct mailers.
The election comes a week after North Carolina repealed its controversial “bathroom bill,” which required students and others to use public restrooms that matched the sex listed on their birth certificates. But transgender rights groups were critical of the replacement measure approved Thursday, which bars local governments from passing ordinances to protect transgender people.
In February, the Trump administration reversed guidelines released during the Obama administration that had required schools to let students use restrooms and locker rooms that matched their gender identity.
Tuesday’s election could deal another setback to pro-transgender forces — or halt the momentum for those who oppose transgender-friendly policies.
The district’s controversy began when a transgender girl at William Fremd High School in Palatine asked to use the girls’ locker room. When the school turned down her request, she filed a complaint with the Education Department. It ruled that the district was violating Title IX, the federal law that bars sex discrimination in public schools.
The seven-member board adopted the settlement in December 2015, with two board members dissenting.
The decision ignited a backlash from parents who said it disregarded the privacy of students who would feel uncomfortable sharing sex-segregated spaces with people they consider members of the opposite sex. They formed a group called Parents for Privacy, which filed suit against the policy and the Education Department and threw its support behind the like-minded candidates.
The transgender girl and two other transgender students have joined the lawsuit as defendants, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Parents for Privacy supports a policy penned by the Alliance Defending Freedom, which supports giving transgender people separate accommodations, such as a single-stall bathroom.
“All fragile children need to be protected in these private spaces,” said Vicki Wilson, a spokeswoman for Parents for Privacy. “Everybody’s emotional safety matters, and that is why these spaces have always and should be divided by gender by anatomy.”
Ousting the transgender student from the locker room would violate the district’s settlement with the Education Department, but given the Trump administration’s position on the issue, the settlement is unlikely to be enforced.
Transgender rights groups say segregated facilities for transgender students often force them to go far out of their way to use the restroom and alienate them from their classmates.
School district parents supportive of transgender rights have scrambled to organize under the name Parents and Neighbors for Quality Education.
“I feel like I actually do live in a good place and a good community who won’t stand for this intolerance and this nonsense,” said Lindsay Christensen, 33, one of the organizers.
Amid the rancor, the student at the center of the debate says life is normal at William Fremd High School, where she uses the girls’ locker room multiple times a week and says her classmates for the most part don’t react.
“Young people, they don’t care,” said the student, who asked to be referred to as Student A, as she is described in court papers. “I use the girl’s bathroom and no one makes an issue of it.”
If the board flips and a new policy goes into effect restricting her to a separate facility, she said she would feel “horrible” but would continue to use the locker room and restroom where she thinks she belongs. “If somebody wanted to try and stop me from going into that bathroom every day, go for it,” she said.