Three weeks ago many Riverside-Brookfield High School students received a surprise when their seventh period class started. Teachers began handing them two sheets of paper. Both sheets bore the letterhead of the Student Association Executive Board and included the names of the faculty sponsors of the SA.
One sheet was a blue “Student Referendum Volunteer Sign-Up” sheet and the other was a gold “Student Referendum Volunteer Reminder Sheet.” Students were asked to fill out the blue sheet and return it to the teacher and keep the gold sheet for themselves.
A box at the top of the sheets listed cuts that would take place if the RB tax referendum is defeated under the headline “What is at Risk if the Referendum Doesn’t Pass?”
Students were asked to write down their name, grade, phone number and email address. They could then check off up to eight ways of helping the Vote Yes campaign, ranging from urging family and friends to voting yes to canvassing door to door.
While most RB teachers appear to have sheepishly handed out the sheets, saying little, one freshman says that his English teacher spent some time talking about the how students could help the Vote Yes campaign.
“She was explaining it for 10 minutes,” said an RB freshman, referring to his English teacher, Kirstin Bacon. “She wanted us to put links on social network sites like Facebook.”
The student said that he did not feel pressured to sign by Bacon to sign up to work for passage of the referendum.
Bacon responded to an emailed request for comment about her actions by referring all questions about the referendum to district administrators.
The volunteer sign-up sheets were passed out in at least eight different classes, ranging from athletic PE to algebra and trigonometry based on scattered interviews with RB students. Some RB students would only speak to the Landmark if they would not be identified by name in the newspaper.
In most cases the teachers apparently said little about the sign-up sheets and did not pressure the students to fill out the sheets.
Senior Kayla Fernandez said that her zoology teacher, Dave Monti, was given the sign-up sheets by an SA member and Monti passed them out to the class.
“They gave it him during class and then he passed it out to us,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez said that Monti did not pressure students to sign up to volunteer.
“He said it was all our choice,” Fernandez said. “He said we could leave it blank if we really didn’t want to do anything for it.”
One student said that he felt some subtle pressure when he was handed a sign-up sheet during a study hall in the RB library, because of all the talk at the school about the referendum.
“Our school talks about it all the time,” said the RB student, who asked not to be indentified because his father is running for public office. “They’re kind of you do it, or you don’t and you feel bad about it.”
In at least one case it was an SA member and not the teacher who passed out the sign-up sheets.
“It wasn’t the actual teacher teacher giving it out,” said Sara Nie, an RB junior. “They’re not allowed to do that.”
Under the Illinois State Officials and Employee Ethics Act school employees are not allowed to participate in pro- or anti-referendum activities during the school day.
RB Interim Superintendent David Bonnette said that once he learned that the sign-up sheets were passed out during a class period he quickly put a stop to it.
“I didn’t realize necessarily that the students were going to hand this out during the school day and certainly did not realize that on the form they were going to have it returned to a teacher,” Bonnette said. “We have since made it clear we do not want this happening during the school time, certainly classroom time. If they want to do something before or after school or at lunch time, certainly they could do that. Furthermore, they have to do it as a student association. They’re not to involve the teachers in this.”
Bonnette said that he has in recent weeks twice sent out memos to staff telling them that they cannot engage in political activities during the school day.
“After I learned of this we moved aggressively to say we don’t want any connection here and that has not occurred since then,” Bonnette said.
Bonnette said he did not know who drafted the sign up sheets.
“I’m not sure who drafted it,” Bonnette said. “The concept was student-driven.”
Student Association President Allison Hornung told the Landmark that SA activities have been directed at informing students about the issues in the referendum.
“What we’re trying to do is make the students more aware exactly what the referendum is … the different points of views about it, because a lot of students don’t exactly know what’s going on,” Hornung said.
When asked directly about the student volunteer sign-up sheets, Horning declined to answer and referred all further questions to Angela Mills-Ziola, an RB teacher who is a faculty co-sponsor of the SA.
Neither Mills-Ziola nor the other SA sponsor, RB teacher John Fields, responded to emailed questions about the sign-up sheets. They also did not return phone calls from the Landmark asking for comment.
RB teacher Jan Goldberg said that midway through her seventh period class, a representative of SA came to her door and handed her the sign-up sheets.
“The boy said, ‘I’m going to come back in 10 minutes,'” Goldberg said. “I said, wait a minute. We were in the middle of a mock trial, and I was determined to get through this piece of testimony by the end of the period. And he says we really want these today.”
Goldberg said she waited until the late afternoon announcements came on just a few minutes before the class period ended to pass out the sign-up sheets. She said little work gets done in the last few minutes of seventh period once the announcements come on.
“I figured I could just pass it on then and there could be no conflict of interest,” Goldberg said.
Goldberg said that she told her students that if they didn’t want to volunteer just to leave the blank sign up sheets on their desks.
“The ones that were filled out I gave to Betty Sharp, and the ones that weren’t I gave back to SA,” Goldberg said.
Sharp is secretary for both Principal Pam Bylsma and Assistant Principal for Curriculum and Instruction Tim Scanlon.
Goldberg said that Sharp and Scanlon are helping coordinate the volunteers for the Vote Yes campaign.
“Tim was coordinating the canvassing,” Goldberg said. “Betty will collect things for Tim throughout the day and then just pop it in his mailbox. … Betty Sharp is coordinating all the volunteers, whether they’re parents, teachers, students. She helps the committee put it together after school. She’s not doing it during school time. She will coordinate it and pass it along to [Communities United for RBHS co-chair] Jim Landahl.”
Scanlon, who many consider the mastermind of the Vote Yes campaign, did not return calls from the Landmark asking for comment about his role with the student sign-up sheets. Sharp said that she could not comment.
“We have been instructed by the superintendent to put all phone calls directly to him on anything to with the referendum and I have to respect that because it came down from his office,” Sharp said.