Last week five of the six candidates for the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Board of Education gathered for a two-hour candidate forum sponsored by Indivisible West Suburban Action League. 

The forum, held at the Riverside Township Hall second floor meeting room, drew an audience of approximately 50 people.

Candidate Bill Durkin missed the forum because he was sick, and incumbent Laura Hruska missed the first 85 minutes of the forum because she had a prior commitment with a youth group that she leads. The six candidates are contending for four seats on the board.

Finances were a big topic at the forum, with all the candidates agreeing that RBHS faces significant challenges with budget deficits being forecast for the future. All agreed that either a referendum or budget cuts will likely be necessary.

Incumbent John Keen, seeking his third term on the school board, was the most direct, saying that he would support going to the community with referendum in the next couple of years to see if the community wants to preserve current programs or wants the school board to make cuts.

“I’d advocate even going to the taxpayers in two years and asking them for a small increase in the education fund if you don’t want us to make cuts, because obviously we can’t keep have deficit spending of $300,000 or $400,000,” Keen said. “Let the taxpayers tell us, yes or no.”

Keen said that he would want to time a referendum with paying off existing bonds to limit the impact on taxpayers. At the end of 2022, $3 million in working cash bonds are due to be paid off, and construction bonds issued in 2006 will be paid off around 2026.

“I think that we should do it sooner rather than later,” Keen said.

Keen said that he is not optimistic that a referendum would pass, saying recent changes to federal tax laws limiting the amount individuals can deduct on their federal tax returns to $10,000 will make passing a referendum even more difficult.

“Personally, I believe that the chances of a referendum passing have decreased since the federal tax change,” Keen said.

Keen said he was uncomfortable letting cash reserves fall below 40 percent of the annual operating budget. He also broached the topic on consolidating RBHS with its feeder elementary school districts.

“One issue I’d like to investigate, I’m not necessarily advocating it, is consolidating all our feeder districts that come into RB,” he said. “There’s no doubt that would save administrative expenses.”

The other candidates at the forum, Hruska, former board President Matt Sinde, Thomas Jacobs and Deanna Zalas were less specific but generally agreed with idea of timing a referendum so that it would coincide with the retirement of the debt.

Keen said that the school board, especially if a referendum fails as it did eight years ago, must tighten its belt. He said board members should have to take a specific vote on any action that results in deficit spending.

Hruska, who is seeking her third consecutive term on the school board and also served on the board from 2005 until 2009, said that some less popular courses might have to be cut to save money. She also said that school district consolidation should be looked into.

There was not much disagreement among the candidates. All agreed that RBHS was a very good school. 

Jacobs said that RBHS generally does a good job with top students and students with special needs, but that more attention needs to be paid to average kids.

Sinde, who served for eight years on the board before he was defeated two years ago in a bid for a third term, called for an increase in vocational education geared toward kids who don’t want to go to college.

“Not all kids are qualified to go to college; not all kids want to go to college,” said Sinde, noting that he didn’t get his bachelor’s degree until he was 31 years old.

Sinde also said that the school must make more of an effort to reach out to Hispanic students and their families. More than a third of RBHS students are now Hispanic.

Jacobs advocated looking into adding a non-voting student member to the school board. He also wants the school to emphasize critical thinking skills and citizen engagement.

“I believe we are not preparing our children enough for the kind of world we live in,” Jacobs said.

Last year, Hruska and Keen had concerns about events at RBHS during a Tolerance Week that they thought had ideological overtones.

Keen made clear at the forum that he thought students had the right to form clubs and promote activities that reflected their views, but he said that he wanted to limit outside influences at the school. 

“I’m perfectly fine with the student clubs and anything that’s student initiated, but we all know that there’s outside organizations that push ideology and push things on schools,” Keen said. “Keep out all outside organizations that are pushing some kind of agenda.” 

Jacobs agreed that schools should not promote a specific agenda but said there is a difference between politics and partisanship.

“We have to have the courage to say that politics is not the same thing as partisanship, and teaching about politics in school is by no means indoctrination and bringing in an agenda or anything like that,” Jacobs said.

Zalas, who works as the director of risk management for Cook County, said the board should initiate a strategic planning process.

“My background is in financial planning and strategic planning,” Zalas said. “I take financial responsibility seriously. I have the experience to deal with financial issues.”

Keen said that with RBHS facing financial challenges it is important to retain some board members who dealt with the difficult financial challenges, and cuts, in the aftermath of the defeat of the 2011 referendum.

“It’s nice that we have new blood coming in, but I also think it’s important, considering what happened to RB eight years ago and the financial problems we potentially will face, that basically someone with experience who knows what happened eight years ago is on the board,” Keen said.