Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Winnetka's Public Schools, School Board, Supt. and Democracy

About 18 months ago, the Winnetka Public School Board and the Winnetka Public Schools Superintendent, Dr. Rebecca van der Bogert, acted as if they were unfamiliar with how democracy should work, appropriate actions by a School Board, and the appropriate interaction between a school board, the District’s Superintendent and the Community they are supposed to serve. See here and here. The District Superintendent, in this affluent, Illinois, North Shore suburb withheld from the Board relevant, publicly available information about a candidate [Kevin Dorken] for Principal for the District’s Greeley School.

The Principal candidate,Dorken, had been named as one of the defendants in a civil wrongful death action filed by the parents of one of the students at the school where he taught, and Supt. van der Bogert decided not to disclose that to the Winnetka School Board-- or to the Winnetka community. When this breach of community trust was disclosed, the Winnetka School Board essentially said, “so what, we trust our School Superintendent to make assessments of those types of things, we don’t need to know this stuff.”

The Winnetka Community reacted differently and after a number of community interactions with the Administration, Board and newly hired Principal, the School Superintendent, Dr. van der Bogert, sort of apologized to the Community and perhaps the Board in a weepy, tearful school board meeting and subsequently the newly hired Principal [Dorken] decided, before his official start date, that the whole thing was not working and he resigned.

Most of the parents and community breathed a collective sigh of relief, although the distrust of the $300,000/ year Superintendent seemed to linger among many, and the Superintendent was to leave by the end of the last academic year, but that did not happen.

Now, two of the Board members involved in the above fiasco are seeking re-slating by the Winnetka Caucus Council for another four year term on the Board. One, Jeff Hoch, was reslated, but another, Anne Kelly, who was President of the School Board during the above described mess, was not recommended for re-slating by the Caucus School Board Candidates Committee. No official reasons were disclosed, but could it have something to do with Ms. Kelly’s rather aloof, unwillingness to engage the community or the press on the above matters. And, did that attitude manifest itself more generally during the course of the caucus interviews?

Here is a description of one of my exchanges with Ms. Kelly during the height of the fiasco:

The Winnetka School Board President, Anne Kelly, taking a page from her superintendent, said to me [on May 25, 2005] she had only one thing to say to and then read a statement, saying, “As a Board, we were unanimous in acting on Dr. van der Bogert’s recommendation to hire Kevin Dorken last December and after lengthy consideration we remain unanimous in our support of the Superintendent’s hiring process of Kevin Dorken as the next principal for the Greeley school.” When I started to ask Ms. Kelly, “when did you first learn--” Kelly cut me off and said, “That is the only statement I am prepared to make and I really appreciate your calling to get our perspective, but that’s all I am going to say at this time. Beyond that, we will speak to the Greeley community directly.” I responded by saying, “this is a part of the public record. When did you vote—" Again, School Board President Kelly cut me off with, “I really appreciate your call, Goodbye.” [See here]

As reported here, Ms. Kelly, with her supporters, is arguing the Caucus Council should reject, tonight, the Caucus School Board Candidate Committee’s recommendation and slate her for another four year term on the School Board. The 72 member Winnetka Caucus Council will make a decision when it votes tonight at its 7:30 pm meeting at the Little Theater in Winnetka’s Washburne Middle School, 515 Hibbard Road, Winnetka, IL

Whichever way the Caucus Council goes, that decision will be either confirmed or changed at the Winnetka Town Meeting on January 18, 2007 at 7:30 pm at the Skokie School in Winnetka.

Of course, whoever the full Winnetka Caucus, i.e., the town of Winnetka [about 12,000 residents] decides to slate in January must be elected in the village wide Spring election. And, anyone can contest that election by getting 50 valid signatures of Winnetka residents to support placing that person on the ballot.

As Speaker Tip O’Neill once said all politics is ultimately local and there is nothing more local than your local school board. National, state and city of Chicago politics may be a pretty good spectator sport, some would even say "bloodsport." But, Winnetka School Board politics—that’s where the rubber really hits the road.

Has the Winnetka Public Schools Administration involved itself in tonight's consideration of the Caucus School Board Slate and therefore wrongfully entered town politics? That's a good question. Stay tuned.
Jeff Berkowitz, Show Host/Producer of "Public Affairs," and Executive Legal Recruiter doing legal search can be reached at