Riverside-Brookfield High School

The vacancy on the Riverside-Brookfield High School Board of Education created last month when Tom Jacobs resigned after moving out of the district has drawn a dozen applicants to fill out the remainder of that term.

On Aug. 3, the six remaining members of the RBHS school board will meet in closed session to interview eight of the candidates, with four others to be interviewed on Aug. 10.

The special meeting will convene at Riverside-Brookfield High School, 160 Ridgewood Road in Riverside, at 6 p.m. After establishing a quorum, the school board will hear any public comment before retiring to closed session to interview the applicants.

School board President Deanna Zalas said officials initially received 14 applications, but that two people subsequently dropped out.

“I’m just happy we have such a wide variety of qualified candidates,” Zalas said. “It means people are invested in the process.”

The school board may or may not vote to select an applicant to fill the vacancy when officials meet on Aug. 10. The school board has until Aug. 26 to make that choice, so it’s possible elected officials could call another special meeting prior to that date for that purpose.

“Time certainly is ticking,” Zalas said.

Among those seeking to replace Jacobs on the school board are three former elected officials, including a man who until this spring served as the president of the District 208 school board, William “Wes” Smithing.

The other former school board members who are seeking to fill the vacancy are North Riverside resident Carolyn Lach, who was formerly a member of the Komarek School District 94 Board of Education and who decided not to run for re-election in April, and Riverside resident Juliet Boyd, who served for about a year after being appointed to the Riverside District 96 board in 2014. She was unsuccessful in her bid to retain that seat in 2015.

In April, voters rejected Smithing’s bid for re-election, choosing two newcomers with backgrounds in education, Lorena Gasca and Ryan VenHorst, and incumbent Ramona Towner, who also works as an educator.

Despite finishing fourth in that race, Smithing has not only thrown his hat into the ring to replace Jacobs, he’s actively campaigning for it. The decision on replacing Jacobs lies in the hands of school board members, not voters, so Smithing is asking residents of the school district to support him by writing letters to the editor and writing to school board members voicing support for him.

On July 20, Smithing sent out a mass email, a copy of which the Landmark has obtained, that lays out talking points for supporting his candidacy and includes a sample letter to school board members.

Shortly after the vacancy was announced, Smithing told the Landmark he believed he was the best choice to fill it, pointing to his candidacy during the April election, where he received 1,898 votes – 130 shy of the number Towner, who finished third, got.

“I was the next largest vote getter, right?” Smithing said last month. “I mean, that’s democracy. Why are you going to pick anybody else? I got more votes than anybody you’re going to pick.”

It remains to be seen whether that particular argument will sway enough of the school board members choosing Jacobs’ replacement. Two of those elected in April, Gasca and VenHorst, actively challenged Smithing, who came under fire for an aggressive push to re-open classrooms during the winter and, along with Towner and school board member Laura Hruska, for what was viewed as intimidating RBHS faculty member James Baum during a school board meeting last November.

Jacobs, in particular, criticized the confrontational rhetoric during discussions over how quickly and to what extent RBHS’ classrooms should have opened their doors last fall and winter.

Some local activists have sought to counter Smithing’s push to be appointed to the RBHS school board by writing a letter to the editor of their own, calling for the school board to choose a candidate whose views align with those of the residents they will serve.

“We expect our elected officials to listen and act in alignment with the community’s priorities,” wrote four members of the Indivisible West Suburban Action League in a letter to editor published in the Landmark on July 28.

One of those presenting herself as a candidate for the vacancy is Riverside resident Lisa Garay, who has been active with Indivisible West Suburban Action League. However, according to Lindsay Morrison, one of the signatories to the Indivisible letter, the group is not endorsing any applicant.

“We haven’t done any local endorsements before,” Morrison said in a text message. “Generally our group tries to inform and engage our communities, work with elected officials and forward equality and progressive issues.”

Others to be interviewed for the Jacobs vacancy are Anaese Vega, a Brookfield resident who works as a reading interventionist at Congress Park School in LaGrange-Brookfield District 102; Cathy Daun, a Riverside resident who was publicly outspoken in her support for re-opening RBHS’ classrooms last fall and winter; Chloe Pederson, an employment litigation attorney; Annette Milleville, an assistant Cook County State’s Attorney who has been deputy supervisor of the sexual assault/domestic violence division; Joe Doyle, a Riverside resident with an incoming freshman at RBHS; Annette Peterson, who also has a child attending RBHS; Matt Gugliciello, who works in retail management and is on the school board at St. Odilo School in Berwyn; and Loriann Duffy, a Riverside resident who is director of property operations at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and has an incoming freshman at RBHS.