A simmering tension between teachers and the top administrators at Riverside-Brookfield High School finally came out in the open last week at a school board candidates’ forum held by the Riverside Brookfield Education Association (RBEA) the union that represents teachers and paraprofessionals at RBHS.
About 25 members of the RBEA attended the forum, which was held at the Hollywood Community House on March 16. Four of the five candidates for the District 208 school board answered questions at the forum.
The fifth candidate, Gina Sierra, did not attend because she was at a science fair at the school where she is the principal. Sitting in the first row of the audience was Jill Musil, a social studies teacher at RBHS and resident of Brookfield, who just two days before was not rehired for next year in a controversial unanimous vote that has caused student protest.
Near the end of the forum Musil asked the candidates and board members what made them feel qualified to sit on the school board.
The RBEA held the forum because the union plans to endorse candidates this time around, something it has not done in the last couple of school board elections.
The questions posed by moderators John Fields, the current president of the RBEA, and Marty Sloan, the president-elect of the RBEA, and those from the staff in attendance made clear morale among teachers at RBHS is not high.
Many teachers say that there is a culture of retribution at RBHS. Teachers believe they will be punished if they challenge the administration or speak out.
Incumbent board member Ed Jepson acknowledged the issue and a lack of trust between teachers and administrators.
“I’m well aware of the need to rebuild trust,” Jepson said. “The bottom line is we have to clear the air. We have to be open and honest about what is bothering people.”
William “Wes” Smithing, a resident of the Hollywood community running for a spot on the school board, said he was not surprised to hear that there is a morale issue.
“It doesn’t surprise me that there might be a morale issue,” Smithing said. “It starts at the top; it starts with respect.”
Meanwhile, candidate Ramona Towner seemed surprised that teachers are unhappy.
“I was not aware that this was a big issue,” Towner said. “You have to debate and collaborate.”
At the end of the forum Jepson, using an analogy, said that the board, administration and staff must get along and work together even if they don’t always agree on everything.
“We’re married to each other,” Jepson said.
In response, Maggie Leiteritz, a veteran counselor at RBHS, said that you can’t have a good marriage if you are afraid of going to your spouse for fear of retribution. Leiteritz said she was taking a risk by speaking publicly.
“I will tell you things are being missed,” Leiteritz said. “I would never go to anyone and say I have a problem. I don’t feel comfortable.”
Jepson said that he was troubled by that.
“The idea that you should be afraid or fear retribution is troubling,” said Jepson who encouraged staff to email him if they had particular concerns.
Teachers expressed concerns about falling student test scores, a growth in the number of administrators, bonus payments for administrators and the lack of professional development for teachers.
“We have seen professional development go to an embarrassing, I think, level of spending and level of attention,” said Sarah Johnson, an English teacher and literacy coach at RBHS.
The two incumbent school board members running for re-election, Jepson and Matt Sinde defended bonuses for administrators for achieving certain goals.
“Frankly, nobody is going to get all the bonuses,” Jepson said. “The bar is set extremely high.”
“The bonus is used not as a reward, but as an incentive to keep on pushing,” Sinde said.
Smithing, like Jepson and Sinde, said bonuses are widely used in the private sector.
“I’m a big fan of bonuses in general,” Smithing said.
Towner, a teacher and instructional coach at an elementary school in Berwyn, said she has not seen bonuses used in her district and has yet to make up her mind about how she feels about bonuses.
“At this point I have not made a decision about how I feel about that,” Towner said. “In elementary we don’t have that. I’ve never worked for a superintendent who’s had that and I do want to talk to my superintendent and to some other superintendents that I know about that.”
The candidates were asked about the frequency of unanimous votes on the board and wondered if it indicated that the board was simply deferring to the recommendations of the administration.
Jepson and Sinde responded that the board has vigorous discussions and debate issues fully.
“A 7-0 vote does not mean that we’re kowtowing to anybody or anything like that,” Sinde said. “In closed session there are times that we get very heated.”
Teachers also asked about class sizes.
“We are looking at class sizes to make sure we are meeting kids’ needs,” Sinde said.
Jepson said that being on a school board is one of the hardest volunteer jobs there is.
“We do our best,” Jepson said. “We try to deal with the facts and the information that’s brought to us and make a decision that we believe is correct and something that will serve every constituency: students, faculty, staff, administration, and the taxpayers. That’s what we’re all trying to do.
“There is nobody up here sitting here because this is a stepping stone to become senator from the state of Illinois or anything else. We’re here because we’re civic-minded.”