The four candidates competing for three spots on the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Board of Education got together on March 10, via Zoom, for a candidate forum last week sponsored by the Indivisible West Suburban Action League.
Running for the school board are incumbents Wes Smithing and Ramona Towner and newcomers Lorena Gasca and Ryan VenHorst.
Gasca stepped forward to call for more to done to achieve equity at the school, saying that she would look to eliminate administrator’s bonuses to save money, if that becomes necessary.
RBHS Superintendent Kevin Skinkis and Principal Hector Freytas both have performance-based incentives written into their contracts which allow them to earn bonuses if those goals are met. Skinkis has a retention incentive bonus of $10,000 this year and $11,000 for the next two years. He can also earn up to $20,000 in additional bonuses if various goals are met.
“I don’t know where that bonus comes from, but even if it’s $10,000, would you want to give it to someone doing his job, or would you want to give it to students?” said Gasca, who works as project manager for Northeastern Illinois University. “Our money is for students. It’s not to be giving bonuses.”
Smithing, the current president of the school board who works as a manager of facilities design and construction for United Ground Express, defended bonuses as commonplace in the corporate world as a way to encourage accomplishing shared goals.
Towner said if cuts need to be made they should be kept away from students, although she acknowledged that cuts affecting students are usually the only way to get a referendum approved.
“I have to say, it’s been my experience in public education that nobody will vote for a referendum until you cut to the bone and show them what life would be like for students, if we have no money,” said Towner, an instructional coach who has worked in the Berwyn School District 100 for 31 years. “My biggest mantra through that whole thing would be no cuts close to kids.
Smithing said that he had no stomach for any new taxes.
The topics of equity and the achievement gap dominated the forum. All the candidates agreed that more needed to be done, but Smithing and Towner pointed to the hiring of Freytas as an example of progress being made.
“One of the best things that we have done in the last four years is to hire Dr. Freytas as the educational leader of RB,” Towner said. “He brings a whole other perspective, a whole lot of diversity. He definitely puts the kids first, which is what you want in a school leader. We have a female business manager. We have a male Hispanic dean. We have a female dean. So we have added diversity to the admin team.”
But Gasca said the school needs to hire more Hispanic teachers.
“That’s great that there’s a Latino principal who has been who has been selected, but 6.9 percent of the teachers are Latinos or Hispanic with versus the 36 percent of students that are [Hispanic],” Gasca said. “Let’s make sure that the staff is also representative, right? There’s tons of research out there that states, especially for boys of color, that they will thrive in an educational environment where the adult in charge looks like them.”
Gasca distinguished equity as something different than equality, saying hiring a Hispanic principal is not enough.
“Equity is each group gets what they need in order to survive and thrive and to find their way,” Gasca said. “It’s not just because you have this Latino principal you’re all of a sudden the model school.”
VenHorst, an industrial arts and engineering teacher and assistant wrestling coach at Oak Park and River Forest High School, said he is familiar with issues of equity working at OPRF.
“The best way to make race disappear as a problem is to create a community that strives for one goal,” VenHorst said. “If you have a common goal that you work toward … once you do that, you wind up understanding their own humanity, their story, and where they’re going in life and how that intersects with your own goals as well.”
Smithing touted innovation. He said he would like to see new foreign languages taught at RBHS by using technology that allowed German to be taught remotely this year.
“How can we have 10 languages through the process that we just learned?” Smithing asked. “I don’t know if 10’s a number, I’m just saying through the process we just learned … kids are comfortable in a blended learning environment. Our blended learning program has been excellent. We’ve just built two new rooms, pre-COVID for that to expand that program.”
Smithing emphasized his push to get kids back attending school in person. He said that leading the school board through a pandemic has been challenging.
“Our kids’ mental, social and academic health is best served within the school environment,” Smithing said. “I’m proud of our accomplishments with opening for in-person learning. As president of the board, I led a collaborative process working through obstacles to the educational environment, such as staff vaccinations, COVID testing, stipends, sick days, work flexibility for at-risk employees, childcare, flexibility and enhance cleaning procedures and special education.”
VenHorst criticized the school board for failing to rename the Columbus Day holiday, a day off in the school calendar. The school board discussed changing the name of the day to Indigenous People’s Day or combining the two titles but, after extensive discussion, declined to make a change next year. VenHorst criticized Smithing for not effectively leading on the issue.
“I was aghast watching an inability to lead on the discussion of Indigenous People’s Day,” VenHorst said. “I recognize that it’s recognized by the state as Columbus Day right now, I recognize that it is a non-attendance day, but if you stand up for what’s right, you talk about the fact that we are setting a precedent for our children to understand the situation. And it’s something that’s important to me.”
A recording of the full forum can be watched through a Zoom link on the Facebook page f Indivisible West Suburban Action League at facebook.com/westsuburbanactionleague.