By Bob Skolnik
Eight teachers at Riverside-Brookfield High School, including the leadership of the union that represents teachers at RBHS, the Riverside Brookfield Education Association, met for about an hour with six members of the District 208 Board of Education in closed session on Dec. 12 prior to the regular school board meeting.
Superintendent Kevin Skinkis was also at the meeting, which was held over submarine sandwiches, but Principal Kristin Smetana was not there.
The meeting was part of a concerted effort by teachers, administrators and the school board to forge better relationships and open the lines of communication. Last spring, the RBEA leadership suggested that it would be good to meet with the school board on a regular basis -- not just meet during high-pressure and often adversarial contract negotiations.
"We met to try to improve communication with the school board," said RBEA President Marty Sloan, a math teacher, in an email. "It was a good start."
Last year was a trying one at RBHS, with some teachers speaking openly about a perceived culture of retaliation and what they considered a generally unresponsive administration that often did not listen to veteran teachers.
The union filed grievances during the last school year, and last spring, in the aftermath of a decision not to rehire a popular teacher, the two incumbent school board members who ran for re-election were defeated.
School board President Garry Gryczan said the conversation at the meeting was general in nature and a chance for the board to hear directly from teachers.
"We all got together just to go over the state of affairs and how things are going forward," Gryczan said. "I think it was a good exchange of thoughts. We opened the door for them to come forward on the state of affairs. We want to hear what their perception is."
Gryczan characterized the tone of the meeting as "generally pretty positive." It has yet to be determined how often the informal meetings will take place.
"We may do it four times a year or once a semester," Gryczan said. "It's still informal on how often we'll do it."
Board member Tim Walsh said that it was good to hear from teachers directly, but he noted school board only directly supervises the superintendent.
"Our policy is that the teachers report to one of the assistant principals, the assistant principal reports to the principal, the principal reports to the superintendent, superintendent reports to the board," Walsh said.
But Walsh said that it was good to hear from teachers.
"We want to have a good relationship with the RBEA," Walsh said. "It's good for us to give them a chance to talk directly with the board members on occasion as long as it doesn't deviate significantly from the organization of the district is."
Skinkis said that board and union want to develop a closer relationship. Some teachers say they have noticed a different attitude from the administration this year, and that the administration has been trying to be more collaborative.
"We have made a concentrated effort to try and involve the staff more and to work with the staff more as we continue to move the district forward," Skinkis said.
Holding the meeting with the teachers in closed session raised some questions. The Illinois Open Meetings Act generally requires that school board meetings are open to the public.
The act allows multiple exceptions to that general and closed sessions are held at almost every school board meeting. Before discussing things with the teachers, the school board voted to go into closed session with the teachers citing the "collective negotiations" exception.
Descriptions of the meeting seemed to indicate that meeting was more general in nature and an airing of concerns rather than negotiating specific matters, but Skinkis said that since past union grievances were discussed the meeting fell under the collective negotiating matters exception.
"There was some discussion about some of the grievances that occurred last year and how current items in the contract, particularly instructional coaches are working out this year with some of the new changes, so it easily could be perceived as collective negotiations," Skinkis said. "There was talk about items in the contract."
One person at the meeting who asked to remain anonymous said that he did not specifically recall grievances being discussed in the meeting.
Walsh, the only lawyer on the school board, said that the board is careful to abide by the terms of the Open Meetings Act.
"To the extent there's any doubt we make sure that we get guidance from our outside counsel," Walsh said. "I'm confident that we've not violated the Open Meetings Act during anything we've discussed in closed session since I've been on the board."