Despite an unusually cold month of March, Mike Welch has been out for a couple of hours nearly every day this month pounding the pavement, ringing doorbells, talking to voters and passing out campaign literature as he campaigns for another term on the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 board.
With the April 9 election less than two weeks away, the campaign has moved into high gear. Welch, school board President Matt Sinde and labor lawyer Ed Jepson are running together as a slate.
Also running for the three seats up on the school board are two 12-year veterans of the Brookfield LaGrange Park Elementary School District 95 school board, Jim Landahl and Chuck Snyder and a newcomer, Riverside businessman Joe Wanner.
Although Landahl, Snyder and Wanner are running independent campaigns, they have also appeared together at three or four coffees hosted by supporters.
“I think a lot of people do look at us as a de facto slate,” Wanner said. “We’re not a slate. We’re every independent.”
Wanner is mounting an aggressive campaign and appears to be spending the most money in the race. He bought about 80 colorful signs, unusual in a District 208 school board race. The signs are mostly appearing on lawns in Riverside. He also has the slickest piece of campaign literature, a four-color piece on coated paper.
He has dropped by spaghetti dinners, pancake breakfasts, PTA and PTO meetings and has been a very visible presence. He even had some campaign T-shirts made which his daughter, a sophomore at RBHS has worn to school.
“If I don’t get elected, it won’t be because I didn’t try hard,” said Wanner, who played football at Columbia University and has a MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.
Wanner touts his financial background as RBHS deals with financial challenges.
“I emphasize excellence in education and re-establishing financial stability,” said Wanner. “I’m also emphasizing that the way to get there is an inclusive approach. We have to have input and participation and a partnership between all the stakeholders in the school, not just the teachers, not just the administrators, but the people in the community, the board itself, the students, the taxpayers.”
Collaboration and partnership is something that Snyder and Landahl also emphasize, an implicit criticism of the incumbents for what many see as a strained relationship with RBHS teachers.
Snyder and Landahl point to the most recent teachers’ contract at District 95, which eliminated the automatic step increases. That groundbreaking contract could only be accomplished because the District 95 school board had treated the teachers in District 95 as partners and earned their respect, Snyder said.
“I have 11 contract negotiations between the teachers unions and other unions within the school district,” Snyder said. “I think we settled these pretty successfully, culminating in the last contracts that tied the increases to CPI, allowed us to retain good teachers and has District 95 living within its means.”
Snyder said that is important to treat teachers at RB with respect and to communicate with them.
“It’s having open and honest communication,” Snyder said. “You can’t sit down and hash out an incredible contract that’s good for the district and the staff without actually talking and communicating and having respect.”
Landahl, like all the candidates, says that the challenge is to balance fiscal responsibility with excellent education.
“We want to maintain a high-performing school while living within our means,” said Landahl, the president of the District 95 school board.
Landahl said that he is concerned that larger class sizes at RBHS is hurting struggling students.
“The only concern I have in regards to larger class sizes is the effects it has on average- to low-performing students,” Landahl said. “Also how much time is taken away from actual teaching time for housekeeping duties in large class sizes.”
Landahl said that if further budget cuts need to be made he would look at possibly cutting the athletic budget.
“If we dig deeper in cuts on the curricular side, it may start to deteriorate student performance, so then we may have to take a look at the athletic side of the budget,” Landahl said.
Landahl, who chaired the unsuccessful campaign to pass a property tax increase referendum for RB in 2011, says that he doesn’t see another referendum in the immediate future.
“Right now a referendum question on the ballot would fail, so there’s no sense of putting the question on the ballot as of now,” Landahl said.
Welch agrees that referendum cannot even be discussed until a new teachers’ contract is negotiated.
“I just don’t believe there’s an appetite for a large referendum out here,” Welch said. “However in the end we need to adequately fund our schools or find ways to be creative in that way. We don’t know what our funding needs will be so I’m not supporting a referendum until the teachers’ contracts is done and we know what our costs will be.”
Welch took exception to the charge that he and Sinde are so focused on finances that they ignore education.
“I think that’s totally untrue that we don’t care about academics,” Welch said.
Welch said that he, Sinde and Jepson can move RB forward.
Sinde, who was elected RBHS board president two years ago, pointed to advances made in his four years on the school board.
“The biggest accomplishment is that we brought transparency and a new administration to the high school, which has really helped out a lot,” Sinde said. “We want to keep what we’ve accomplished in the last four years.”
Jepson, a graduate of Harvard Law School, said that although he personally voted in favor of the tax referendum two years ago he doesn’t see a new referendum passing in the immediate future.
“I have a child at the school, and at least one more who will attend the school so I have every personal interest in keeping the school as excellent as it can be,” Jepson said. “But we need to continue to try and live within our means because, frankly, the resounding defeat the last time through — which by the way I voted for, and would vote for another one as a person, as an individual — but as a board member I just don’t see that in the next year or two that a referendum would fare any better.”
Voters will not support a property tax increase, Jepson said.
“One thing I’m hearing over and over again is that we can’t have our property taxes increased further,” Jepson said. “In fact I’ve heard a number of voters say that if we could sell our houses we would.”
The Jepson, Sinde Welch slate is backed by Riverside residents Jerry Buttimer and Chris Robling, who backed Sinde, Welch and Dan Moon four years ago and Garry Gryczan and John Keen two years ago.
Jepson said that while he, Sinde and Welch are being supported by Buttimer and Robling, he rejects the charge that he is a tool of Buttimer and Robling.
“I find that so offensive,” Jepson said. “I’m not a tool of anyone. Never have been, never will be. I will vote as I think is best for the community, for the teachers, for the administrators and for the students, and nobody’s going to tell me how to vote.”