When he started on the job one year ago, Kevin Skinkis knew it was not going to be easy being the new superintendent of Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208.
The district faced a large operating budget deficit and the then-rookie superintendent was working with a school board that had four new members.
What Skinkis, who was 34 when he took the reins on July 1, 2011, didn’t quite imagine was the managerial challenge of running a school that had been loosely managed in the past decade.
“I knew coming into the position that there were going to be financial concerns and that the district was deficit spending, and we were going to need to tighten some things up,” said Skinkis in a recent interview in his well-organized and uncluttered office.
Skinkis said that when he arrived a year ago, RBHS was a school where job descriptions had not been updated for a long time or were non-existent, no formal procedures existed for hiring recommendations, background checks, references, salary verification and what Skinkis called “position control,” or making sure that the employee positions were aligned with the budget.
“Those are all things we implemented in my first year,” Skinkis said. “We got a lot of stuff done. [It was] more managerial than I expected, having to put in some clear processes and procedures in place for day-to-day operations and contract implementation.
“I thought there would be more of that in place and there really wasn’t. We really had to start from scratch on some things.”
Many things at RBHS had been done on an informal handshake basis for years, sometimes with scant regard for official policy. Administrators in the past apparently handled many issues on an ad hoc basis.
“I was a little caught off-guard,” Skinkis said. “I think [former District 208 Interim Superintendent] Dr. [David] Bonnette did a good job starting to address a lot of these issues, so there were some things to build off of, but I just think there were a lot of issues not addressed and they needed to be addressed.”
One such issue was maternity leave. Last year a teacher applied for maternity leave. Skinkis consulted the school board’s policy manual and came up with a return date. But then Skinkis was apparently told by a union leader that the return date he came up with wasn’t the way maternity leave was handled at RBHS.
“The interpretation of board policy was just a little different than how I interpreted it,” Skinkis said.
Skinkis worked with the Riverside Brookfield Education Association (RBEA) to formalize the practice regarding the Family and Medical Leave Act, following written policy instead of the ways things had been done previously.
“We were just a little loose in our interpretation and it needed to be cleaned up,” Skinkis said without referring to any specific case. “It was an adjustment factor for some of the staff. We had to sit down and kind of teach each other.”
The current contract with teachers and other staff at RBHS is often vague and subject to multiple interpretations. Skinkis and the leadership of the RBEA have worked together to resolve issues.
“Personally I think I have a very good relationship with the RBEA,” Skinkis said. “I’ve been very transparent with them in following the contract, and when things have been outside the contract we’ve worked very closely to get things aligned to the contract.”
Skinkis prides himself on being a straight shooter. He’s had to make tough decisions laying off some teachers, making cuts and raising fees as the school board has whittled next year’s projected deficit down to a couple hundred thousand from an originally projected $1.6 million.
“We’re going to have a small deficit next year, a lot less than we expected,” Skinkis said.
But making cuts is not the way to be popular, especially with teachers and parents.
“I told the staff when I first got here that I would be as straightforward as possible and be a straight shooter,” Skinkis said. “I tell people what I’m thinking and why I’m thinking it and why I’m doing it.”
To most teachers Skinkis still remains a distant figure. They are concerned about the future of the high school and their own futures as cuts continue to be made. Many teachers and parents fear that school’s academic excellence and distinguishing qualities are disappearing in a frantic rush to cut expenses.
Skinkis admits that he hasn’t interacted with teachers as much as he would have liked in his first year at RBHS.
“It’s not an easy thing, because I feel like in my first year I would have liked to be more interactive with the staff talking about curriculum and instruction, but a majority of my time this first year was spent on financial issues and contractual issues and implementation issues,” he said. “My goal for year two would be to try and interact more with the staff. I think I can bring more to this position than just my ability to manage the operational side and the financial side.”
A first-time superintendent, a new part-time business manager and an inexperienced school board has been a formula for long and often tedious school board meetings that often run past midnight. Some board members have asked why certain numbers do not match in different documents, and sometimes it seems as if the board is focusing on minutia.
Both Skinkis and school board President Matt Sinde are hoping for shorter and more focused meetings.
“Our meetings do run very long,” Skinkis said. “This district is at a point right now where there were some changes that needed to be made and those long hours and those long meetings are part of that process.”
But overall Skinkis said he is very happy with how frequently the school board has accepted his recommendations.
“I think I have a very good relationship with my board and I think it shows by the work we were able to get done throughout the school year,” Skinkis said. “I think the board has been really supportive of the things I’m recommending and I’m very thankful for that.”
Skinkis said that he is has a good relationship with Principal Pamela Bylsma, who was hired one year before Skinkis.
“I think Pam’s a great principal,” Skinkis said. “I’m very happy with Pam’s performance.”
Next year will be dominated by negotiations for a new teacher’s contract. The current contract expires on June 30, 2013, less than one year from now. Skinkis’ precise role in the negotiations is yet to be determined, but he is expected to play a significant role in the negotiations representing the school board.
And, sooner or later, the need for more money will have to be addressed.
“There’s only two ways of adding money, that’s working cash bonds or a tax increase through referendum,” Skinkis said. “I think the board will be discussing that throughout the year, but it’s going to be tough because the board is preparing to also bargain a new contract … so it’s kind of hard to know what you’re going to need on the revenue side until you know what your next contract is going to be.”
Skinkis says that he is trying to build on, or at least maintain, the academic success that RBHS has achieved in the past.
“I think that there are some traditions that all of us have embraced at RB here that are good traditions that we need to keep in place going forward,” Skinkis said. “The job that the previous administration has done with improving test scores and improving the academic structures at RB is magnificent, and we need to keep some of those things in place.”
Sinde said he thinks Skinkis had an excellent first year.
“I think that Kevin is doing a really great job,” Sinde said. “I think he’s really making an impact at the school. It’s very positive. I think what he’s doing there is going to make the school better now and in the future. I’m very happy that I voted to hire him.”
Board member Laura Hruska was more restrained in her praise of Skinkis.
“I think he’s working very hard and doing a good job,” Hruska said.
RBHS parent Mary Somers, meanwhile, said Skinkis has made a good impression.
“I like him,” Somers said. “I understand that he’s in a very difficult position, and I think he’s doing the best that he can with the position that he’s in. He’s got a bad budget situation that he’s trying to work through and I believe he’s trying to do that. He’s dealt with me in a very honest and respectful way.”
One harsh critic of old guard at RBHS says that Skinkis is doing what needs to be done.
“Dr. Skinkis brings clear eyed administration to RB every morning,” said parent and former school board candidate Chris Robling. “He has done this community untold service in methodically presenting issue after issue swept under the rug by prior boards and administrators, each time with a proposed solution, the effect of which will be a sustainable foundation for educational distinction.
“It has not been pretty, but it is exactly what this district needed.”
Skinkis said that his first year has been a great learning experience.
“Although it’s been a tough year, at times I still think it was a very good first year” Skinkis said.