When Deanna Zalas ran for a seat on the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Board of Education back in 2019, she hadn’t expected to be its president, much less its president in the midst of a pandemic.
But that’s what happened in 2021, when the school board president at that time, Wes Smithing, lost his bid for re-election. After a 6-1 vote, Zalas stepped into the vacancy and the spotlight.
The high school managed to get through the end of that first pandemic school year and the second in 2021-22 with a minimum of public controversy. While there were points of disagreement about the extent to which the school should open its doors to more students, the school board generally followed state and federal health guidelines.
“We didn’t debate matters that were not ours to debate,” Zalas said. “We had people on both sides of the spectrum, but for the most part people want their kids to get the best education possible in the safest possible environment. And that’s what we had to respond to.”
At the same time, the school board ratified a new contract with the teachers’ union and got a long-term commitment from Superintendent Kevin Skinkis who signed a new four-year deal last July, giving the next school board space to concentrate on meeting district goals.
That should be the focus of the board that’s seated after the April 4 election, Zalas said.
“I have no dramatic agenda for you,” Zalas said. “I firmly believe RB is an excellent school, and going back to a culture of continuous improvement needs to be the board’s job. What are we doing well, how do we do it better?”
Zalas, a 50-year-old Riverside resident with twin boys attending the school, is one of five candidates, and one of three incumbents, seeking four four-year terms on the District 208 Board of Education.
Apart from incumbent Laura Hruska, who is running for her fifth term on the school board, and Mike Welch, who is one of two people seeking a two-year term, the RBHS school board does not have a wealth of experience.
Carolyn Lach, who was appointed to the District 208 board last November and is Welch’s opponent for the two-year terms, served previously on the Komarek Elementary School District 94 Board of Education.
No other incumbent has served more than four years on the RBHS school board.
First-time candidates, says Zalas, often bring enthusiasm and look to bring change. They quickly find out, however, that being a volunteer school board member means long hours and decisions on often unglamorous matters, like heating systems, roofs and – at least for the past two years – navigating a pandemic.
“We are bound by statutes, we are bound by labor contracts, we are bound by our enrollment, we’re bound by our finances,” Zalas said. “We as a board can engage all of the partners and try to figure out how to put those pieces together, but we don’t have carte blanche.”
Zalas pointed to the school board’s adoption of a new mission statement in 2021 and then revising the district goals in 2022 as a roadmap for the incoming school board for the next four years.
“This was the first year of having measurable goals based on the mission statement,” Zalas said. “We need to augment those goals for the next year, make them more robust and ensure there’s accountability. Goals are only as good as the accountability you attach to it.”
Among those goals were ongoing training and engagement in diversity, equity and inclusion and, especially in light of the challenges the pandemic brought, providing opportunities to address the social-emotional needs of students.
Regarding equity, Zalas said, “It’s not a change you make overnight. It’s about increasing awareness to what it means to be equitable and then how do you chip away at, how do you build an organization that values equity?”
She acknowledged the high school’s efforts to provide students who may not be on a college track to access dual-enrollment programs that could lead to employment opportunities after graduation.
Asked if the school should expand those offerings, she said the school board needed to dig into data to see exactly how to proceed.
“We do have dual-credit opportunities on the books [and] they are utilized,” Zalas said. “Understanding who is utilizing them, when and what the future opportunities are is really important.”
There has been a good deal of enrollment in career development classes, Zalas said.
“How do we then partner that interest with opportunities that are out there?” she asked. “I don’t think it’s a matter of diminishing the requirements or the rigor of RB’s academic catalog.
“But I do think those dual-credit arrangements are attractive to many people. And as college becomes more expensive, their attractiveness only goes up.”
In terms of social-emotional needs, Zalas pointed to initiatives rolled out as students made their way back into classrooms to address mental health and learning loss.
“We used federal dollars to capture programs out of West 40, so we provided additional supports there, additional school social workers, reporting software to capture people’s social-emotional health in addition to their academic [performance] and attendance,” Zalas said.
While Zalas won election for the first time in 2019, she is no stranger to public service. After working for the CTA for 14 years, she for the last decade has been the director of the Cook County Department of Risk Management.
“I’m a big believer in public service jobs,” Zalas said.