Thursday afternoon David Bonnette said goodbye to the office staff, cleared out his office, carried a few boxes to his car and left his position as interim superintendent of Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208.
After a 49-year career in education, Bonnette is now retiring for the last time. On Friday, Kevin Skinkis took over as the new superintendent for District 208.
Bonnette served as interim superintendent at RB for two years, stepping in when Superintendent/Principal Jack Baldermann resigned under pressure in 2009.
Bonnette, who at the time was retired from his job as superintendent of Riverside Elementary District 96, was the choice to step in.
“Anybody looking at it could see that Dave was the obvious choice, because of his standing in the community,” said former school board member Larry Herbst, who first approached Bonnette about stepping in at RBHS.
Herbst also recently revealed that a year earlier – in 2008, when the board found out about a romantic relationship Baldermann had with a staff member and that Baldermann had let his superintendent certification lapse – he had approached Bonnette about possibly replacing Baldermann, but Bonnette was then serving as the interim superintendent for River Forest School District 90.
“I had been directed by the board a year earlier to talk to Dave,” Herbst said.
Bonnette’s two years at RBHS were eventful. The school hired a new principal, a new superintendent and let go its longtime football coach and athletic director, Otto Zeman. Then this spring a tax referendum needed to preserve existing programs went down to an overwhelming defeat.
For much of this year, Bonnette’s work has consisted of planning budget cuts and then implementing them.
“This has been a really not fun six months,” Bonnette said at the May school board meeting. “This is not a pleasant process to go through.”
Bonnette was initially hired on a part-time basis, with the idea of serving one year. But the school board changed course and decided to hire a principal before hiring a superintendent. So Bonnette agreed to stay for one more year.
“I think Dave would have been a happier guy had we followed through on the original plan,” Herbst said. “He bit the bullet. He didn’t really want to come back. He was ready to go.”
But Bonnette wasn’t about to leave when the board asked him to work another year.
“For me it’s been a pleasure to serve the district,” Bonnette said at the regular June board meeting. “This has been a community service project for me.”
Bonnette did his part to help the district get the message out prior to the April referendum, hosting forums to lay out the district’s financial situation and outlining potential cuts if the referendum failed. He even went door to door asking voters to vote yes, but it wasn’t enough.
The defeat stung although Bonnette, like many, blamed it in on the bad economy.
During the referendum campaign there were allegations that school resources were used illegally to push for yes votes. RBTV aired a Vote Yes advertisement which was not paid for and was produced by school staff. Volunteer sign-up sheets were handed out to students in classrooms. After the referendum, former Cook County Board member Tony Peraica filed a lawsuit alleging illegal activities.
Bonnette insisted that he quickly put a stop to any questionable political activities at the school when he found out about them, but some who had admired Bonnette wondered about his role.
“As a longtime supporter and admirer of David’s I was very disappointed with his performance at RB,” said Chris Robling, a former school board candidate who emerged as vocal opponent of the referendum. “I think he proved unequal to the task of reforming the school, and he allowed the worst elements of RB to dominate. And that’s why we have unresolved allegations of wrongdoing throughout the building relevant to the referendum.”
But those who worked with Bonnette have high praise for him.
“We were in a bunch of turmoil,” said current school board President Matt Sinde. “With his leadership, he helped get it on a steady course and also helped us define where our needs were, and I think we’re progressing with that right now.”
Sinde and Dan Moon voted against Bonnette’s initial appointment. It was their first board meeting, and they say their vote wasn’t against Bonnette personally, but they wanted more time to consider alternatives.
But last summer, the board unanimously voted to hire Bonnette for one more year.
“Within months I got to know him better as the leader and the CEO of this institution, and I came to respect him,” Moon said. “He was the right man at the right time. … The guy was fantastic. I think he set the standard at a tough time for what we needed as far as leadership.”
Former school board President James Marciniak, who worked closer than anybody with Bonnette, was also effusive in his praise.
“He leaves this place in much better shape than he found it,” Marciniak said. “What a gift it was for this district to have Dave Bonnette sitting in that chair for the last two years. I felt like we were in good hands. Dave is a consummate pro in the education business. He’s a student of the game. He’s totally committed to it. He was already the gold standard when he retired from District 96, and I think it was a great stroke for Larry Herbst to approach him two years ago when Jack Baldermann left.”
Bonnette began his career in 1962 as a high school biology teacher in the small town of South Lyon, Mich. He became a superintendent at age 31 and served as a superintendent in two small Michigan districts before coming to Riverside in 1992. He was District 96 superintendent for 13 years. At District 96 he built the orchestra program and passed two referendums and a bond issue.
After retiring from District 96, Bonnette taught at Northeastern Illinois University and served as an interim superintendent in River Forest.
He thought he was retired in 2009 when Herbst approached him about coming to RBHS.
Once there, Bonnette offered consistent, hard-working leadership that was more perspiration than inspiration. He tried to establish procedures and practices where Baldermann was at times a seat-of-the-pants kind of manager.
“I think the staff appreciated that regardless of who they were when they came in they would get the same answer,” Bonnette said.
He and the school board got tougher on discipline and residency cases, expelling some students. He practiced openness with the community and the press.
He also won the respect of the faculty.
“It has been an honor to work with Dr. Bonnette the past two years,” said veteran science teacher Dave Monti in an emailed statement. “His vast experience, knowledge, positive demeanor and meticulous nature were invaluable to District 208 during our time of transition: a new school board, a new principal and a new superintendent starting July 1. Open, honest and regular communication was one of his trademarks and he also brought an unexpected sense of humor that often helped lighten the stressfulness of a situation.”
Bonnette was as impressed by RBHS as those at high school were impressed by him.
“I always knew RB was a good school,” Bonnette said at a recent board meeting. “Having been here the last two years, I know it’s a great school.”
What’s next for the 70-year-old Bonnette?
“I will do a little bit more travelling, a little bit more golf. I will go to work for my wife on our house, a honey-do list,” Bonnette said. “Maybe I’ll have a chance to read more. Maybe I’ll do some writing.”
And his service to RBHS isn’t quite finished. He wants to redo the school’s staff handbook, which hasn’t been updated in a long time.
Will he miss the job?
“I really enjoyed the work of a superintendent,” Bonnette said. “It’s about opportunities for students and trying to see that they have access to a really good teaching staff and program. I’ll miss that work.”
That’s what made the budget cutting so painful for him, such as eliminating the School of Environmental Education.
“Rather than be in a position of expanding opportunities for kids you are making difficult decisions on cutting back,” Bonnette said.
“I wish I had been able to spend more time in classrooms and with kids,” Bonnette said.
Bonnette said that he feels his most important contribution to RBHS was his role in the hiring of Principal Pamela Bylsma and Athletic Director Art Ostrow.
“Part of my legacy to the district certainly is Pam Bylsma and Art Ostrow,” Bonnette said.
Herbst said the Bonnette was just what the school needed.
“He was exactly what we needed when we needed it the most,” Herbst said.