What a difference a year makes, at least in Riverside Elementary School District 96.
One year ago, the overwhelming majority of the school board was maneuvering to force out a superintendent who most of the board did not trust. The board regularly met in closed session late into the night and Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis had a difficult relationship with some school board members.
A detectable whiff of tension was often in the air. Two members of the school board, both strong supporters of Sharma-Lewis, abruptly quit in August of 2014 as the school year was starting as Sharma-Lewis was nearly let go.
Parents, many of whom supported Sharma-Lewis, wondered what the heck was going on.
“It was a real difficult situation,” said school board member Randy Brockway. “From one week to the next you never knew what was going to happen.”
Now with Sharma-Lewis gone and two veteran retired superintendents taking charge on an interim basis, the atmosphere around the school board and, to a large degree, around the district has changed.
School board members are very happy with the leadership that interim superintendents Patrick Patt and Griff Powell have shown. Lines of communication are open, decisions get made, board meetings are much shorter and most of the drama is gone.
“I think they are doing a great job of running the schools,” said Mary Rose Mangia, who was school board president until last May and now serves as board vice president.
Mangia said that she likes the way the interim superintendents answer questions and provide information to her and the board.
“When I call the superintendents and ask a question, I am satisfied that they’re doing their best to kind of address whatever my question is,” Mangia said.
Brockway also is very happy with the work of Patt and Powell.
“I think they’re doing well,” Brockway said. “They’re attuned to the right issues. They communicate well with the principals and the teachers and the parents. Not afraid to go toe to toe with the PTA when they needed to over there at Ames when there was that one issue [regarding the end-of-year pool party] that came up. I don’t think Bhavna would have done that. All in all we’re in much better shape.”
Brockway said the atmosphere among school board members is better and he said that reports from administrators have improved.
Patt and Powell are both 69 years old have a combined 50 years of experience as superintendents, mostly in the northern suburbs. Their experience, and their confidence, shows up in many ways
They are open with the press. They are quick to pick up the telephone when they are called. They communicate clearly and directly. They both get into the schools often and talk to teachers and other staff.
“They’re around, they’re pleasant, they’re like thank you for your job,” said one teacher who asked not to be identified, because she was talking about her superiors. “I know a lot people loved Sharma-Lewis, but she just wasn’t that way.”
Patt says that he operates by a simple philosophy.
“Be straight with people; don’t try to dodge things. Just look at the issues and figure out how to solve the problem,” Patt said.
Patt does simple things like walking around classrooms before school starts on Monday mornings to make sure the heat is working properly. He’s noted for his soft-spoken, warm manner and superb people skills.
“Pat is a real good people person,” Powell said. “In terms of his relationship skills, way superior to me. I’m much more a taskmaster kind of guy.”
Mangia said she believes Patt’s presence helped smooth out the final rounds of negotiations with the teachers union in coming to terms to a new contract last August. Patt and Powell try to meet with music teacher Bill Howes, the president of the teachers union, at least once a week just to chat and keep up with what’s going on.
Patt is not a big technology guy; he doesn’t even use direct deposit for his paychecks. Powell, on the other hand, carries his iPad wherever he goes.
“We’re very different, that’s why we’re great partners,” Powell said. “I take care of all of the state reports, the stuff you have to do on the computer where’s he’s great with getting out in those buildings, talking with teachers, and working with people.
“We’re definitely the odd couple in many ways, and that’s why we work so well together.”
Patt and Powell have worked together before as interim superintendents in Berwyn and in Lyons-Brookfield District 103 and got to know each other years ago while they both worked in the northern suburbs.
They came to District 96 in May after being pushed out of a Lyons District 103 assignment — their second go-round there. The two had just begun when a newly elected school board majority, backed by Lyons Village President Christopher Getty, dumped them in favor of someone connected to the village’s (and District 103’s new) legal counsel.
Patt and Powell, who generally alternate days at the office, got involved quickly last May even before Sharma-Lewis left. They knew they needed to stabilize the district and reassure parents concerned about the direction in which it was headed.
“They saw the instability of the district office, they saw their superintendent leaving, they saw their assistant superintendent leaving, they saw two principals leaving — all at one time — and I think within six months we have created a calmness and a stability level, more than anything else we’ve done,” Powell said.
They slightly changed the way school board meetings are run and they don’t spring surprises the way some thought that Sharma-Lewis sometimes did.
“You try to make them feel that they have all the information necessary before they’re forced to make a decision,” Powell said. “Boards resent anybody pushing them to make a decision unless they have all the information necessary. We try to bury them with the information that they actually need in order to make any decision, and we don’t push the decision until they’re ready to decide.”
Both Patt and Powell also have good senses of humor.
“We definitely try to enjoy ourselves while we’re doing this,” said Powell who rode his motorcycle to work when the weather was warmer. “I think this board needed some fun in their lives. They weren’t having much fun before we walked in the door.”
Otto Miller, a parent who was a strong supporter of Sharma-Lewis, has been impressed with Patt and Powell.
“I think the new superintendents have done a good job with a challenging situation,” said Miller, who is the father of a Hollywood School second grader. “They are clearly veterans and they know how to communicate well. This instills me with confidence that they can get D96 headed in the right direction and start establishing some consistency with regards to teachers, administration and curriculum.
Mangia is happy about the way things have turned out.
“You can have positive outcomes from things that kind of look bad at the time,” Mangia said.