The story of the Riverside Brookfield High School District 208 school board is not so much who won, but who lost.
Voters sent a clear message of dissatisfaction with recent events at RBHS, defeating the two incumbent school board members who ran for re-election while voting in three newcomers.
Two educators led the field. Gina Sierra, an elementary school principal and member of the Komarek School District 94 Board of Education led the field with 3,244 votes while Ramona Towner, an instructional coach in Berwyn School District 100, finished second with 2,645 votes.
The race for the third and final spot on the board was close, with Hollywood resident William “Wes” Smithing edging incumbent Ed Jepson by just 69 votes. Former board president and current vice-president Matt Sinde finished last, 306 votes behind Jepson.
The recent decision of the school board not to rehire popular social studies teacher Jill Musil was a factor some voters cited in explaining why they voted against Sinde and Jepson. Many voters who spoke to the Landmark on Election Day said they specifically voted against the incumbents.
Danielle Sanchez, a 2012 RBHS graduate, said the school board did not listen to the students and community members who spoke up in support of Musil.
“It’s really sad that people who are supposed to be leaders of the school aren’t listening to what the community wants,” Sanchez said after voting against Jepson and Sinde. “I think they should have listened to everyone; that’s their job. They don’t listen; they get voted out.”
Eleanor Byrne of Brookfield also said that she deliberately voted against the incumbents.
“I think what they did to that teacher was very bad,” Byrne said. “I figured they needed a different board, with a little better common sense or something.”
The defeat of Jepson was telling. Jepson, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a longtime partner of the large Chicago law firm Vedder Price, was according to fellow board member John Keen “the smartest guy in the room.”
In addition to being smart Jepson also was low-key, with a thoughtful, amiable disposition that made him well-liked by fellow board members and many in the community.
During this campaign Jepson appeared to distance himself somewhat from the RBHS administration, saying that he was troubled that teachers said morale was low and that they were afraid to speak out because of a culture of retribution. In an endorsement interview, Jepson questioned the decision to sue the village of Brookfield.
But, low turnout in his home turf of Riverside was perhaps the biggest factor in Jepson’s defeat. In Riverside, which did not have any contested village races on the ballot, turnout was a paltry 13 percent of registered voters. Brookfield and North Riverside both had contested village races and had much higher voter turnout, 30 percent in Brookfield and 39 percent of voters in North Riverside.
Jepson led the field in Riverside outpolling Sierra 517 to 473 there. But even in Riverside some who know and like Jepson didn’t vote for him this time.
“He’s an extremely bright guy and I’m absolutely certain that he had the best interests of the school at heart, but I thought this current drift, this battle with the teachers, just wasn’t a good thing,” said Steve Powers of Riverside.
Jepson took his defeat in stride.
“I’m honored to have served the community for the last four years,” Jepson said. “I’m looking forward to having my Tuesdays and many other hours available to me again.”
In his two earlier victories Sinde benefited by the indefatigable door to door campaigning of slate mate Mike Welch, who chose not to run for a third term and was not active in this election.
In his two wins, Sinde had the backing of Jerry Buttimer and Chris Robling along with Jill Hennessy managing the slate’s campaign. But Hennessy and Buttimer have since moved away and Robling was not active in this year’s campaign.
Sinde did not return calls asking him to comment about the election.
Smithing won his seat on the board thanks to his strong showing on his home turf in Hollywood, where residents were very upset with the school’s original plan for a large parking just north of the Hollywood School.
That was the issue that propelled Smithing into the race. Many Brookfield voters were angry that RBHS sued after the village board rejected the parking lot, leaving taxpayers to pay the bills of lawyers on both sides.
“I chose not to vote for the candidates who wanted to sue my village,” said Patrick Boyle after voting for Sierra, Towner, and Smithing at Hollywood School. Smithing was the leading vote-getter in the Brookfield portion of Hollywood.
District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis said Jepson and Sinde would be missed.
“Matt Sinde and Ed Jepson have been great board members,” Skinkis said. “Their work on two collective bargaining agreements, fixing the finances at the district, and working on all the facility improvements be reflected for many years to come and they’ve been great to work with.”
Skinkis said that he didn’t view the election as a repudiation of his leadership of the district.
“The superintendent works for the board and I think, looking back, there wouldn’t be anything done differently,” Skinkis said. “I look forward to serving with the newly elected school board members.”