If one is to judge by comments on websites or the emails being sent to voters, the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 school board race is a nasty battle between those who don’t care a lick about education and only want to save money and crush the teachers union as they ruin a once superb high school against those who just can’t wait to try to impose a large tax increase on the community to pay teachers more money.
However, when the actual candidates stood up with each other before the public at two candidate forums this week, they spoke kindly of each other and displayed mutual respect for one another. An observer had to strain to hear any significant differences among the six candidates.
But if you listened closely you could sense a difference of approach, if not goals.
In his opening statements, incumbent Mike Welch said recent teachers contracts are the root cause of the financial difficulties and cutbacks that the school has experienced over the last couple of years.
Welch said that a new teacher hired seven years ago at RBHS would have had a cumulative 65-percent pay increase over that period of time.
“We want to provide quality, sustainable education,” Welch said. “We had to make some cuts to financially get by. You can’t have quality education without a financial foundation. They go hand in hand.”
Welch acknowledged that class sizes have increased at RBHS due to the cuts.
“We had to do the increased class size because of the monetary problem,” Welch said. “The referendum didn’t pass. Is this a problem? I don’t believe it’s a problem currently. It’s a concern and we told the administration to keep on top of this; that’s what we do as a board.”
School board President Matt Sinde, who is running on a slate with Welch and Ed Jepson, said the board has directed the administration to try and keep freshmen class sizes at 25. Sinde touted the new leadership at the school, Superintendent Kevin Skinkis and Principal Pamela Bylsma.
“They have brought integrity, honesty and transparency,” Sinde said. “I feel right now that we are moving the ball ahead, but we have a lot more to go.”
Candidates James Landahl and Chuck Snyder, who have served together on the Brookfield-LaGrange Park Elementary School District 95 board for 12 years, emphasized their record negotiating a teachers’ contract that eliminated automatic step increases and tied raises to inflation. They emphasized the need for the school board to have a good relationship with teachers.
“We helped balance the budget by doing that,” Snyder said. “We did it together, because we were able to talk to one another across the table with respect. We don’t always have to agree, but we have to talk.”
Landahl, the president of the District 95 school board, also emphasized the importance of paying close attention to employee relations.
“There’s a perception that the culture is deteriorating with its employees,” Landahl said. “We need to reestablish that on firm ground. We need all rows in the water going in the same direction, because the teachers in the school, the professionals, will have the answers.”
Jepson spoke of the need for balance.
“I will do my best to balance the interests of our taxpayers, the community, the students, the teachers and the administration,” Jepson said. “It will be a tough balancing act, but you’ll get my best efforts.”
Jepson, a management-side labor lawyer, said that he has to bring opposing sides together as part of his job.
“I am a problem solver and I’m good at bringing people together to work out disputes,” Jepson said. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re fiscally responsible with the new collective bargaining agreement.”
Joe Wanner, another challenger, emphasized the need to reach out to all segments of the community.
“I would like to see the board create a think-tank committee,” Wanner said. “I think that it’s important that we reach out proactively on this board. You cannot wait for people to come. You need to tap them on the shoulder. Reaching out is very important.”
On specific issues the candidates said similar things. They advocated looking for sponsorships to help defray the costs of extracurricular activities and other programs. Most of the candidates said that it should be easier for community members to volunteer at the school.
But Welch noted that the current contract limits the number of unpaid volunteer coaches.
“Under the current contract our hands are kind of tied,” Welch said.
Sinde said the school was able to bring back many activities this year by establishing a pay-to-participate policy for activities as well as sports.
“I guarantee that you’ll probably have a musical next year,” Sinde said.
Landahl acknowledged that budget realities make a pay-to-participate program almost inevitable.
“Pay-to-participate may be a new reality for schools across the state,” Landahl said.
Jepson advocated taking a look at charging different amounts to participate in different sports or activities based on the cost of the activity instead of just charging the same flat fee for everything.
Snyder called for more attention to be paid to education.
“Over the last 10 years the test scores at RB have been stagnant,” Snyder said.
The candidates, if not their supporters, seemed to like and respect each other.
“This is a great group of guys,” Wanner said.