If Jack Baldermann was a bit of a show horse, charismatic, innovative, intense and mercurial, David Bonnette is a work horse, slow and steady, working methodically in straight lines to get the job done.
One year into his position as interim superintendent for Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208, Bonnette has brought a very different management style to RB.
In his steady and deliberative way, Bonnette has helped make changes that ruffled feathers and changed RB in significant ways, including the dismissal of RB legend Otto Zeman as athletic director and football coach; passing over Troy Gobble, a favorite of many inside RB for the job of principal; and removing many of the retirees who had been working part time at RB for years under Baldermann.
Bonnette, 69, looks like a superintendent with his white hair, blue suits and commanding physical presence. If Bonnette looks and talks like a superintendent, it is no accident. He has been a school superintendent since he was 31 years old when he was hired by a school district in the small Michigan town of Deerfield.
“I like being a superintendent overall,” Bonnette said in recent interview at his office in RB. “You certainly have days that are better than others, but overall it’s a great job to work with kids and faculty, other administrators, the board, parents and the public and work to bring it all together to have the system work the best that it can primarily for the kids that it serves.”
Bonnette came out of retirement last year to fill the void at RB left when Baldermann resigned as superintendent/principal after a year of drama.
Baldermann had recruited a superb faculty to RB, and his emphasis on Advanced Placement classes led RB to the top of high school rankings by Newsweek magazine.
But when Baldermann self-destructed, the District 208 school board turned to Bonnette, who had retired after 13 years as superintendent at Riverside Elementary School District 96 and one year as an interim superintendent in River Forest. Before coming to Illinois he had been a superintendent in Michigan for 20 years.
Bonnette speaks in a slow, deep baritone. He carefully considers every word he says, often clearing his throat. He acts the way he talks. He is careful, methodical. He is not a big delegator and often he gets down in the minutia, too much so some say. He does not make decisions quickly and often doesn’t let others know what he is thinking until he finally comes to a conclusion.
“I am maybe a bit of a plodder,” says Bonnette. “I like to be able to think about things and to be able to do some research and to gather evidence and data and information and get opinions from people before just jumping into a decision.”
Bonnette says that he makes decisions collaboratively. He likes to hear lots of opinions before making up his mind.
Bonnette is officially a part-time employee, paid $900 a day for 120 days a year. But he works far more than that. He puts in long hours, working at least five days a week. He probably spent more time at RB than Baldermann did in his last couple of years, when Baldermann spoke often at workshops and conferences.
Bonnette attended every meeting of RB’s Patron’s Council this year. He spent hours examining school discipline cases and other matters that some think could have been better left to those working under him.
Bonnette has spent much of the past year working to better systemize how things are done at RB. He has stressed openness and transparency generally, responding quickly to requests for information and alerting the community and the press to significant events at the school – even such things as arrests.
He held monthly Friday morning forums where he would meet with anyone who wanted to see him.
He always seems in control. That is apparent at school board meetings and the way he interacts with people. He doesn’t show his cards quickly and can be hard to read at times.
Bonnette says that his major accomplishments this year include moving RB to an easier-to-understand, function-based budget, establishing three community/staff committees to work on areas of concern, and getting RB reaccredited.
The committees illustrate Bonnette’s style.
“It was an opportunity to involve a lot of people from the community and staff to work together and come to some conclusions on some of the areas that have been concerns,” Bonnette said.
A decision that may the most long-term significance was his recommendation to hire Pamela Bylsma as RB new principal. Bonnette devoted long hours to the principal search and the board unanimously approved his recommendation to hire Bylsma, who began at RB last week.
One of his frustrations has been that he hasn’t had the time to get out into classrooms and hallways more.
“I haven’t been able to get out and interact with kids or with teachers to the extent that I would like to,” Bonnette said.
RB’s impending large operating budget deficit has made his job more difficult.
“Not having money is more challenging than having some discretion,” Bonnette says.
Still he is glad that the school board has decided not to made major cuts this year before a referendum that will likely occur next April.
“I’m pleased that the board agreed to try and run a program for this coming year rather than make deep cuts before the community had a chance to decide on it,” Bonnette said.
Working with a sometimes bitterly divided school board and school community has been a challenge. On issues such as Zeman’s future, Bonnette knew he could not satisfy everyone.
“With some of these decisions you’re damned if you do in one court and damned if you don’t in the other,” Bonnette said. “You just try to get all the relevant information and do the right thing. I try to make decisions on the basis of what’s best for the kids in the school.”
Bonnette says that he doesn’t read Internet chat forums in which he has been criticized by some, especially after his recommendation not to rehire Zeman.
“I don’t read the blogs,” Bonnette says. “I sleep better at night as a result.”
Bonnette says that if he had to grade himself for the past year he would give himself a B. One shortcoming was that some things didn’t get done until the last minute or didn’t get done at all.
He says he was late in bringing some issues to the school board which had two exceptionally long meetings in June racing to get things done. He says that he has not had the time to devote to big-picture issues.
“I don’t feel like I’ve spent the time I would have liked to have spent on goal setting,” Bonnette said.
In the coming year, which will be his last, Bonnette wants to develop a closer relationship between the faculty and the school board.
“I want to get the board and the staff more in sync,” Bonnette says.
Bonnette has also told the school board that this coming year will be his last.
“I do want to be clear on one thing,” Bonnette said. “This year is my last.”
He said his goal is to leave RB a better place than he found it, and he says that RB was a superb school when he walked in the door a little more than a year ago.
“RB truly is one of the best high schools in the state,” Bonnette said. “This is a very special and unique place and I’m just happy to have been a small part of it.”