Gina Sierra had sort of a coming out party last week for her candidacy for a seat on the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Board of Education.

On March 21 Sierra joined the other four candidates at a candidates’ forum at the Hollywood Association’s Community House. Three seats on the District 208 school board are being contested in the April 4 election.

Sierra missed a candidate’s forum the previous week that was held by the Riverside Brookfield Education Association, the union that represents teachers and paraprofessionals at RBHS. She also did not appear for a group endorsement interview session with this newspaper. Incumbent Matt Sinde also did not appear the Landmark’s endorsement interview session.

Sierra is a current member of the Komarek District 94 Board of Education and the principal of Pennoyer School in Norridge. In her opening statement, Sierra noted that no one from North Riverside has been on the District 208 school board since 2009 and said that North Riverside is traditionally underrepresented on the RBHS board.

“I think sometimes we do have a little different perspective on things,” said Sierra.

The North Riverside resident said that her background as a board member, principal, teacher and PTA member would allow her to bring diverse perspectives to the school board.

Sierra and Ramona Towner were the only candidates who had campaign literature at the event. They both had a single piece of four-color campaign literature, a rarity in past District 208 races. 

Sinde said that he was proud of what the school board accomplished in his two terms on the school board.

“We have done a lot to make RB great,” Sinde said. “We have brought in a strong administration. Our team at RBHS is very strong.”

Addressing an issue that came up in a prior forum sponsored by the teachers’ union, Incumbents Sinde and Ed Jepson both said that they did not believe that retaliation against teachers who speak out occurs at RBHS, but Jepson acknowledged that perception among teachers and said it needs to be addressed.

Sinde said that the both the administration and teachers need to be open and honest with each other.

“I don’t feel like there is retaliation at the school with the administration itself,” Sinde said. “There has to more open communication, and it has to be honest communication on both sides.”

Sierra said if teachers are uncomfortable and afraid to speak out that is a problem that the administration, not the school board, must solve.

“I don’t really know what role the board plays in that,” Sierra said. “That’s really on the administration. If there is a total breakdown in trust, the administration has to look to what they are doing, how are they communicating.”

Sierra said that undertaking a strategic planning process could be helpful.

Hollywood resident Wes Smithing said that morale among is important.

“Morale is a big deal,” Smithing said. “We have a longtime, very professional, good staff. If their perception is that nobody’s listening to them then that’s reality of the situation.”

Towner recommended creating a stakeholders group to examine the issue.

“The teachers feel like they are not being heard,” Towner said. “They need to feel like they are being heard.”

Asked about the recent decision of the school board not to rehire social studies teacher Jill Musil, Jepson and Sinde said the board considered the matter seriously and in depth.

“We are independent board members and not the puppets of the administration,” Sinde said. “We take this very seriously and listen to all the facts.”

The three non-incumbents showed no inclination to second guess the board’s decision.

“I wouldn’t want my personnel decisions out in the public,” Smithing said. “You have to trust that investigation was taken seriously and to conclusion. And it was a 7-0 vote, so there we go.”

Asked the decision of the school board to sue the village of Brookfield after the village denied a special use permit for the construction of a new parking lot, Jepson said the lawsuit was largely a negotiating tactic and the final compromise agreement is a good one.

“It took longer than I had hoped but I think the resolution is a good one,” Jepson said.

The lawsuit was subsequently settled but many, especially Brookfield residents, are angry about taxpayers paying the legal fees for both sides.

Smithing said that the controversy over the parking lot was what got him thinking about running for the school board and that the school board, at first, ignored the concerns of Hollywood residents such as himself and his neighbors.

“I was basically ignored, put off by the board,” Smithing said.

Towner blamed both the village board and the school board for the lawsuit.

“There could have been better leadership shown,” Towner said. “I think both sides should have gotten out in front of the issue a little better. There was a breakdown in communication and communication is very important.”

Sierra said she couldn’t say whether the board make the right decision when it filed the lawsuit, but added the money spent on the suit could have been better spent on “multi-passenger vehicles” to transport students from North Riverside and other parts of the district that have no direct route to RBHS. 

One question asked about the lack of minority teachers at RBHS. Sinde and Jepson acknowledged that it is an issue that administrators are aware of, but said it is not easy to find minority applicants.

“I do know that the board has instructed the administration to redouble its efforts to surface minority candidates and it’s especially important as the demographics of our district change,” Jepson said. “But whatever we’re doing, it hasn’t been working.”

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