The tensions that have been simmering between board members for almost a year broke out into the open at a recent Riverside-Brookfield High School board meeting.
Two District 208 school board members made clear earlier this month that they were upset with statements attributed to District 208 School Board President Matt Sinde, saying that the board has ruled out a tax referendum in the near future.
Following an executive session at the April 10 meeting, the board engaged in a sometimes heated conversation for nearly 30 minutes about whether Sinde misrepresented the board’s position.
A special April 2 print edition of the Clarion, the RBHS student newspaper, precipitated the argument over issues that have been brewing for some time.
Board members Laura Hruska and Tim Walsh claimed that in the Clarion articles, all of which had been published online before the print edition came out, Sinde appeared to be speaking for the entire board in saying that there would be no tax referendum.
Less than 48 hours before the April 10 school board meeting, Walsh sent an email to Sinde requesting that a resolution be placed on the agenda of the meeting that would, if approved, make clear that Sinde’s public comments did not reflect a consensus of the entire board on issues that the board had not even discussed.
But because the resolution was submitted less than 48 hours before the meeting, it could not be voted upon at that meeting. Sinde suggested delaying discussion of the issue until after the executive session of April 10 meeting. Open sessions held after the executive sessions are not typically televised.
But Hruska wanted the issue discussed earlier in the meeting.
“I want it to be clear, while people are here, that I as a board member certainly never voted for the items that were stated in the newspaper article,” Hruska said.
But Walsh, admitting that the resolution couldn’t be voted upon on at the April 10 meeting, said he was willing to discuss the issue later that night.
The sniping between board members had already turned off Mary Somers, the mother of two RB students.
“I would like to make a request of the board to conduct themselves in a more civil manner than what we witnessed tonight,” Somers said. “We have a roomful of students here and parents, who I believed just witnessed shameful behavior.”
When the board again discussed the issue after the closed session, after 11 p.m., the discussion became more heated, but board members also sincerely tried to work through the issue.
The discussion centered around whether Sinde, who as board president has been designated as the board’s spokesperson, was saying that the board had decided things that the entire board has not agreed to or even discussed.
“I think it’s pretty important that the communications that are made by the board that appear to be saying what the board talked about or decided, were talked about or decided,” Walsh said. “I’d rather not air this in public, but there’s a big problem. The impression that you get from reading it, if you don’t agree with it, is that’s it’s something that the board must have talked about or decided.”
Walsh also told Sinde that the board president tries to control discussions during meetings and charged that Sinde often oversteps his role.
“You’re giving the public the impression that as president you have more authority than one-seventh of the vote here,” Walsh said. “When you cut people off and editorialize, you think it’s acceptable.”
Sinde responded that he has the right to speak up during meetings.
“Me as a board member has the right to make an opinion and make a point,” said Sinde, who mostly let others speak.
Walsh wanted Sinde to apologize for giving the impression that the board has discussed or decided when to hold, or not hold, another referendum.
“Would you just tell the public that’s not what we said?” Walsh asked Sinde. “He doesn’t want to do it.”
Hruska said that she has felt bullied by Sinde. She noted that a few months ago the seating arrangement was changed at board meetings to seat her between Sinde and Mike Welch, who is an ally of Sinde.
“When you changed my seat to sit between the two of them, that was intimidating,” Hruska said. “You didn’t ask me to change my seat. Don’t tell me that was not a little bit of bullying or pressure or we’re going to control you.”
Welch, who ran on a ticket with Sinde three years ago, suggested that the board discuss these issues at a retreat, but also accused Walsh of acting like a bully at times.
“Laura says that Matt bullies her,” Welch said. “Some of what you do Tim is like bullying too.”
“Absolutely,” responded Walsh.
Hruska and Walsh are the only two members of the District 208 board that were not actively supported by former Riverside village trustee Jerry Buttimer and former District 208 school board candidate Chris Robling.
Sinde, Garry Gryczan, John Keen, Dan Moon, and Welch all share the same base of support and were all backed by Buttimer and Robling, among others.
That seems to be the root of some of the mistrust on the board. Gryczan told Hruska and Walsh that their suspicions of the other five board members are unwarranted.
“I don’t talk to these guys other than at board meetings,” said Gryczan raising his voice a bit. “I don’t talk to those other people that you believe I talk to all the time. I don’t see them. There is no evil cabal going around here with an ultimate plan.”
Gryczan said he was fed up with the suspicion.
“I’m tired of hearing this,” Gryczan. “I’m tired of your guys’ beliefs that there is some agenda there.”
Keen suggested that there should be mechanism in place so that board members could speak out when they feel the board president has misrepresented the views of the board.
“He doesn’t have to be the spokesman,” Keen said. “If he says something that is out of line, you have the right to bring it up. I agree with you. Bring it up as individual members. At the meetings we’re all equal.”
Keen said that no one is perfect.
“We might need some kind of check on our spokesman,” Keen said.
But Keen said that Hruska and Walsh should stop trying to make Sinde backtrack on past comments.
“You can’t force him to retract what he said,” Keen said. “There’s an ego involved here. We all have egos.”
Walsh said that the board would just have to work through the issues.
“We shouldn’t be going after each other, and we shouldn’t be dysfunctional,” Walsh said.