The Riverside-Brookfield Township High School District 208 school board is back to full strength.
After operating with only six members for nearly three months after the resignation of Tom Jacobs, on Sept. 24 Mark Klaisner, the executive director of the West 40 Intermediate Service Center, appointed former RBHS school board member and former board president Mike Welch to serve out the remainder of Jacobs’ term.
Klaisner chose Welch after the District 208 school board could not agree in August on a replacement. In picking Welch, Klaisner went with someone who had served on the school board for eight years from 2009 until 2017 and was its president during his final two years.
Welch was one of 10 people who applied to fill the vacancy. Klaisner said he was blown away by the quality of the applicants and that any of applicants could have been good, but he felt Welch stood apart.
“I did not see an axe to grind,” Klaisner said of Welch during an interview with the Landmark. “He said very clearly, ‘I’m not like on one side or the other. I come down the middle with what’s best for kids and what’s best for the district.’”
Welch, 60, has lived in Riverside for decades. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting and has worked as an IRS agent for the past 37 years specializing in criminal investigations.
“He has an amazing resume, he knows the district very well. He’s got a financial mind and there’s a couple things ahead,” Klaisner said. “There’s teachers’ contract ahead; there’s a superintendent’s contract is on the horizon. Mike works for the IRS, knows numbers, has been the board president.”
Welch said that he didn’t initially apply to replace Jacobs, because he felt the board could pick a replacement. But after the board deadlocked, he read in a Landmark story that Klaisner valued experience, so he decided to apply.
“I want what’s best for the community,” Welch said.
In his eight years on the school board Welch was quiet, cautious and always very careful in what he said. He typically studied an issue in depth before saying anything about it. One of his colleagues nicknamed him “Mr. Careful.”
The only member of the current school board who has served with Welch is Laura Hruska, who did not respond to a request for comment.
Last week, Klaisner interviewed Welch and the other nine candidates for the vacancy. Two other people who did not apply directly to the school board, former District 95 teachers union president Lynda Nadkarni and Brookfield resident Lisa Romero, applied to Klaisner.
The other people who applied to Klaisner were former D208 school board President Wes Smithing, former District 96 school board member Juliet Boyd, former Komarek school board member Carolyn Lach, attorney Chloe Pederson, Assistant State’s Attorney Annette Milleville, Cathy Daun, and Lisa Garay.
“There was no one I could rule out because our interview didn’t go well,” Klaisner said.
Welch’s appointment became effective on Sept. 24 and he was sworn in at the board’s Sept. 28 meeting. Welch said he told Klaisner that there was a 90 percent chance that he would not run for a full term when his term expires in 2023.
One of the candidates not selected was Smithing, who served as school board president from 2019 to 2021 and was defeated when he ran for a second term in April.
Many progressive activists in the community strongly opposed Smithing and a few sent letters to Klaisner urging him to pick someone else, pointing out that Smithing was defeated when he ran for re-election.
“We directly ask you to respect the will of the voters in the district by appointing someone other than the previous board president William Smithing,” said a letter to Klaisner sent by the three co-leaders of the Indivisible West Suburban Action League, Lisa Janunas, Lindsay Morrison, and Kendra Curry-Khanna, which the Landmark obtained by filing a Freedom of Information request.
Klaisner said he was aware of the controversy but that it didn’t play a significant role in his decision to appoint Welch.
“I didn’t feel like [Smithing] needed to be discounted or we needed to avoid controversy, in or out, I just laid out all the candidates and for me Mike rose a step above,” Klaisner said.
After Welch was appointed, Morrison told the Landmark that his appointment was a missed opportunity.
“Dr. Klaisner made a pretty neutral choice and as a former board member we know that Mr. Welch can ramp up quickly to participate in what the board needs to right now,” Morrison said. “However, there was an opportunity to move towards a board that reflects the changing demographics of our community.”
Smithing told the Landmark that he was fine with the appointment of Welch.
“I have a lot of faith he will carry any torch that I was going to carry,” Smithing said.
One person pleased with Welch’s appointment might be RBHS Superintendent Kevin Skinkis, whose contract expires in 2023. It is no secret that some teachers at RBHS and others in the community are hoping that Skinkis won’t get a new deal.
Welch was on the board that first hired Skinkis in 2011 and worked closely with him as board president. But in an interview with the Landmark, Welch rejected the notion that he was chummy with Skinkis or that he would necessarily support giving Skinkis a new contract.
“I won’t say that I’m a vote for him to stay,” Welch said. “Give me all the facts and information so I can make an informed decision in the best interests of the community.”
Welch said it is not surprising that some teachers don’t like Skinkis.
“There’s always certain teachers who don’t like the administration,” Welch said.
Klaisner said he did not get any input from Skinkis about the decision.
“I intentionally did not talk to Kevin [or] get Kevin’s opinion,” Klaisner said. “I did not want this to be about Dr. Skinkis or the administrators. I wanted it to be about kids, I wanted it to be about the district.”
CLARIFICATION: The reference to “some activists” hoping that RBHS District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis does not receive a new contract in an earlier version of thsi story was not meant to refer to Indivisible West Suburban Action League as a whole or to the opinion of any particular member of the group. The Landmark regrets any confusion.