By Bob Skolnik
The next superintendent of Lyons-Brookfield School District 103 wasn't interviewed by school board until late January, but once board members met Kristopher Rivera, it didn't take long for them to decide that he was the right person to lead the district.
At a special meeting on Feb. 5, the District 103 school board voted 5 to 1 to hire Rivera as its next superintendent.
Rivera, 43, presently works as assistant superintendent for human resources for the Hammond, Indiana, school district. He will officially start work in District 103 on July 1.
"He just kind of spoke to our district," said board member Sharon Anderson.
Jorge Torres cast the only vote against hiring Rivera. Michael Bennett did not attend the meeting.
Rivera was not among the initial seven candidates interviewed by the school board in December. But when the board's first choice turned down a job offer last month, the board asked its consultant to bring in additional candidates.
Rivera interviewed with the board on Jan. 24 and had a second interview on Jan. 29. He won over board members with a direct, engaging manner. His background seemed to fit the district.
"He seems to be a go-getter; he seems to be somebody who will sit and listen," said longtime board member Joanne Schaeffer.
Before his final interview with the board on Jan. 29, Rivera spent the afternoon touring District 103 schools and being interviewed by separate committees of teachers and other staff, administrators, and parents who then gave input to the board.
Brookfield resident Krystal Steiner, one of the parents on the parents' advisory committee, praised the decision to hire Rivera.
"I think he'll be good," Steiner said. "He doesn't have political ties. I hope he brings a fresh perspective."
Rivera said he quickly felt at home in District 103, which in many ways seemed similar to Hammond, which has a majority minority student body and lots of students from low-income families.
About 70 percent of District 103 students are Hispanic. In the Hammond district 46.6 percent of students are Hispanic and 34.8 percent are black.
"I feel this is the type of community I want to work for," Rivera said. "It just felt like a complete fit."
Rivera grew up in Hammond as the youngest of six boys, the son of a Mexican mother and Puerto Rican father. He has spent his entire career in the Hammond school district, working for one year as a special education teacher, then teaching English as a second language before becoming assistant principal and then principal at a middle school. Rivera has been in his current job for the past six years.
Rivera speaks Spanish well enough to carry on conversations but doesn't consider himself completely fluent. Board members says that Rivera's background fits District 103.
"He's coming from a similar district, so I think he's going to know the challenges that we're facing, the challenges our kids are facing, the challenges our staff are facing," Anderson said. "I think we're going to be moving in a really good direction."
Board member Shannon Johnson said that Rivera will be a good role model for District 103 students.
"He overcame poverty, he overcame adversity and what not, and he was able to be very successful at it," Johnson said. "I think that's an inspiration for these kids to see."
Board President Marge Hubacek thought Rivera being Hispanic was a plus.
"It wasn't the determining factor, but I think it's good," Hubacek said. "I think it's reflective of our community."
Rivera said that his background and experience fits District 103.
"They have that economic dynamic that I'm familiar with," Rivera said. "I have a lot of background in working with children of poverty … growing up through that and being familiar with those types of scenarios."
Rivera understands that he is coming into a politically charged district. In a brief statement to the school board after the vote to hire him, he vowed to be an inclusive leader.
"Everybody's voice, everybody's opinion, everybody's commitment to this district is important," Rivera told the board.
Talking to reporters, Rivera said he knows the District 103 school board has been divided for the past few years and said that he wants to address that.
"It certainly is something that needs to be dealt with," Rivera said. "Can it be an issue, a dilemma? Sure it can. But being collaborative, I think my leadership style will help squelch some of that."
He says that he believes good communication can solve a lot of problems.
"Strong communication is important as well as including individuals in the decision-making process so you get buy in," Rivera said. "A lot of times the best laid out plans can fall apart if you didn't front load individuals with the seat at the table."
Rivera is very popular in Hammond and his colleagues there will miss him.
"I think he has a lot initiative, pretty assertive and pretty aggressive in terms of wanting to learn, so I think he's going to bring a lot vitality and energy to the position," said Walter Watkins, the Hammond superintendent and Rivera's current boss.
Patrick O'Rourke, who has led the Hammond teachers' union for the past 50 years, is sad that Rivera is leaving Hammond. So sad that, in a display of what he called Irish humor, O'Rourke wore a black suit on Feb. 5, when Hubacek and District 103 Co-interim Superintendent Robert Madonia visited Hammond to interview some of Rivera's co-workers and other district officials.
"I put my suit on that I normally wear to a wake, because I'm in mourning," O'Rourke said. "I'm happy for him, but I'm unhappy for the Hammond system, because he was a real rock in our district. … I saw him as a future superintendent here in Hammond."
Rivera received a three-year contract and will be paid $155,000 next year. He earned his bachelor's degree at Purdue University-Calumet, now Purdue Northwest, and a master's degree from Indiana State University. He is working on his doctorate in education at Oakland City (Indiana) University.
Torres said that he didn't vote for Rivera because he preferred another candidate.
"I do like you a lot and I'm pretty sure we're going to get along just fine," Torres told Rivera in a short statement from the board table after the vote. Rivera went up to Torres and had a brief conversation with him after the meeting.