James Baum

At last week’s District 208 school board meeting, Riverside-Brookfield High School music teacher and band director James Baum took the opportunity to recognize the accomplishments of music students and praise the local arts community for keeping the arts alive and active during the coronavirus pandemic. 

At the end of his comment, he asked the board to make an exception to board policy and give a round of applause to the arts community. He got the applause, but then he got a lot more than he had expected.

Three school board members — President Wes Smithing, Laura Hruska and Ramona Towner — pushed Baum to say that he agreed with them about having students come back to school at least twice a week. 

“So, you’re in favor of coming back to school then, because that was a powerful statement about you’re really here for the kids,” Smithing said.

Before Baum could answer, Towner also jumped in.

“We want the kids here to make art, for you to teach them how to make art, and how do you feel about that?” Towner said with emphasis on the word “that.”

Baum didn’t give the answer the board members wanted.

“Well, I’m going to disappoint you. I’m in favor of full remote, because that’s where my students can actually participate in rehearsal,” Baum said. “When they’re in person they can’t.”

Baum noted that because of social distancing requirements he cannot fit all his band students in the music room.

Smithing noted that during band camp this summer he had seen Baum on the football field with the band.

Baum replied that was when the students were just practicing their halftime marching routine without instruments.

Many are worried that blowing on brass instruments, as well as singing, transmit the novel coronavirus.

“I think that you’re asking me to respond for the whole faculty and I’m not prepared to do that,” Baum said. “I can only talk about the music department and the music department. We’ve done the math on our rooms, we know that playing inside would be not safe.”

That really set Smithing and Towner off, as they noted that Baum was featured in a WBBM-TV News report in August, when teachers held a rally in front of the school protesting a hybrid plan to start the school year. 

A few days later, after the teachers deliberately staged a slow entry to the school during an Institute Day, Superintendent Kevin Skinkis changed course and started the school year remotely, a move that Smithing, Hruska, and Towner are still unhappy about. 

Smithing and Towner let Baum have it. 

“So, you can speak on Channel 2 News for the entire staff, but you can’t speak here at the board meeting for the entire staff, is that what you’re telling me?” Smithing asked.

“I spoke out of turn for Channel 2 News,” replied Baum, who is not part the teacher union leadership.

Towner had a quick response.

“But we all heard it and the last thing that anybody wants is for their school to be on the 5 o’clock news, because their teachers called for some big rally because they don’t want kids around,” Towner said.

Baum noted that it was board policy not to respond to public comment. But both Superintendent Kevin Skinkis and Towner noted that Baum had just asked for an exception to that rule to applaud the arts community. 

“You opened up the door, and here you sit,” Towner said.