William Durkin, an incumbent Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Board of Education candidate, is a longtime insurance broker who co-manages a century-old firm. He’s not in a union and doesn’t work in the trades, but when it comes to high school education, that’s where he focuses his attention.
While the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily derailed some of the initiatives Durkin was interested in pursuing, he saw one particular breakthrough in March 2022, a trades and career fair for RBHS students that introduced them to a wide range of opportunities, including union apprenticeship programs in trades like plumbing, pipe fitting, carpentry and others.
It was Durkin’s advocacy for the high school building closer relationships with apprenticeship programs that served as the impetus for the trade fair.
“What really caught me was the amount of energy and excitement and engagement from the students,” said Durkin, who is running for a second four-year term on the RBHS school board on April 4. “It was so rewarding to experience.
“I think it opened up a lot of eyes.”
Durkin, 56, is one of five candidates running for four four-year terms available in this spring’s election. His opponents include fellow incumbents Deanna Zalas, who is school board president, and Laura Hruska, the longest-serving member of the school board, as well as first-time candidates Nicholas Novak and Kenyon Duner.
He recently sat down with the Landmark for an interview at the Linda Sokol Francis Brookfield Library to discuss his bid for another term. And while he touched on a variety of subjects, from equity to a board member’s role in school governance, Durkin often returned to the subject of engaging with students who may not be interested in pursuing a college degree.
“We do a great job getting kids to college,” Durkin said of the education provided at RBHS. “Something that I just wanted to help with is to try to help that 10 or 20 percent that won’t go to college.”
Particularly in the wake of the pandemic, which had a profound effect on many people’s lives and careers, Durkin said there’s an opportunity for those seeking careers.
“The trades are really hungry,” Durkin said. “They need new blood, a new generation, because there’s a lot of retirees.”
If he’s re-elected, Durkin said he wants to continue to advocate for expanding student access to opportunities in the trades and other non-college track employment. He pointed to the school district’s hire in February of a veteran family and consumer sciences teacher, who will also head up that division, as a positive move.
“I hope she can hit the ground running,” Durkin said.
Durkin’s passion for apprenticeship opportunities in the trades comes from his family background. His grandfather immigrated to the United States from the west of Ireland. A farmer with little education and no training, Durkin’s grandfather worked as a laborer and later as a streetcar conductor.
With the high school’s demographics changing over the past two decades – RBHS is now roughly 40 percent Hispanic, some of whom are the children of immigrants or are immigrants themselves.
“Our job, I feel, is to present them with opportunities to allow them to make their own choices,” Durkin said. “We have families where maybe there’s language barriers. You have single-parent families. I think this helps out an area that may not have been realized in the past. … It’s more of a sleepy area I’d like to awaken.”
Apart from that area of interest, Durkin believes Riverside-Brookfield High School’s faculty and administration do an admirable job. The husband of a Catholic elementary school teacher, Durkin said he empathized with what teachers, who were sometimes vilified for resisting reopening classrooms sooner than some wanted, endured during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They were getting hit from all different places,” Durkin said. “At the end of the day, there were so many unknowns – health-wise, transmission-wise.”
The high school board did not experience some of the aggressive opposition to their COVID policies seen elsewhere, Durkin said, because it chose to follow state and federal health guidelines.
“I think the people here appreciate and know that the school is being run pretty well,” Durkin said.
He said the school was making strides in meeting goals regarding diversity, equity and inclusion, saying the board is learning from its own students and their families.
“We need to know where the problems are, so we can address it,” said Durkin, who acknowledged it was surprising no one had thought to make the school’s automated phone answering system bilingual until it was suggested by a student representative to the school board.
“After all these years, we’re like, ‘Why didn’t anybody think of that?’” Durkin said. “It opens up our minds to different area that maybe we need to look at and either address or improve.”
Durkin said he didn’t seek a seat on the school board four years ago because he believed things were headed in the wrong direction.
“I never went in with the intentions that I’m going to be able to change this or that,” Durkin said. “My intentions were to be an advocate for that population that would not be going to college.
“That was one of my goals when I originally ran. Then things got sidelined – life, business, everything — for a couple years.”