With four seats out of seven open on the East Allen County Schools board, the majority of the board could be replaced this election, especially with two of the four incumbents opting not to run for re-election.
Both incumbents who are seeking re-election have spent more than 10 years on the board each. A change in the makeup of the board to spark change in the district is what newcomers are pushing for.
Likely one of the biggest issues facing the future board: the results of a survey conducted by Daryl Yost, director of certified technology at the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center and a former EACS superintendent. That survey revealed EACS employees, parents and taxpayers believe the board doesn’t represent the district as a whole but its own specific communities, and it confuses its responsibility for governance with the administration’s role for managing the district.
The current EACS board has moved forward with a redesign plan that kept all five high schools and created five feeder systems in the district’s five communities: Leo, Woodlan, Heritage, New Haven and Harding.
A plan in some form was required as the district faced a growing budget deficit and shrinking enrollment.
Part of the current plan tried to create uniformity in grade configurations using early childhood centers, intermediate schools and junior-senior high schools in all attendance areas for consistency. In the process, some schools were closed, but others that were slated for closure have remained open because of the failure to secure funding for required construction projects.
The EACS community hasn’t shown complete support of the plan, evidenced in two failed referendums: one for the district’s general fund and one for construction. However, remonstrance processes for the Woodlan and Heritage construction projects were successful.
Whoever is elected to serve as board members will continue to face declining enrollment, at a pace faster than previously predicted, due to increasing options like vouchers for private schools and charters.
Up for re-election are two at-large seats along with Districts 4E (New Haven) and 7E (Leo area). The EACS board approved a new map of boundary lines for school board member districts that varies slightly from the previous map.
District 5R (at-large)
Janice Witte, the incumbent for the 5R at-large seat, moved out of the 5R district and said if she wanted a spot on the board, she would be forced to run against current board member Terry Jo Lightfoot. For this reason, Witte, the current board president, has decided not to seek a second term.
Bob Nelson and Mike Paff will vie for Witte’s at-large seat in November.
Nelson said he began attending EACS board meetings during the process of choosing a redesign plan. He said would like to have more input as the redesign plan moves forward.
Nelson is a small-business owner, a 1975 graduate of Woodlan Junior-Senior High School and has been a basketball and track coach for more than 10 years. He resigned as a coach to run for the board position.
“I love East Allen County Schools,” he said. “I want to make a difference.”
Nelson said there’s a clear communication and morale problem, demonstrated through Yost’s survey, and he says his experience in marketing and communications could help. He said from talking to EACS residents, he’s heard that the district’s test scores and schools’ autonomy are problems to be addressed.
“The board isn’t providing the direction it should for the administration and the administration isn’t staying as hands-off as it should,” Nelson said. “I think everyone who’s served (on the board) has done their best, but it’s time for things to change.”
Mike Paff is also a product of East Allen County Schools. Paff was born and raised in Leo and graduated from Leo Junior-Senior High School. He worked as a business consultant working on turning around, shutting down or starting up manufacturing plants before moving back to the area 14 years ago. He serves as the director of industrial operations at AWS. Now he said he believes its time to give back to the community as a member of the board.
He plans to use lessons learned in business leadership to help put the fragmented board back together.
“The board isn’t showing the type of teamwork we need. That’s not what the public needs to see,” he said. “We need to really look at unifying the school board, not pitting communities against each other.”
District 6R (at-large)
Arden Hoffman will face incumbent Richard Allgeier for one of three at-large seats on the EACS board.
Hoffman understands that he’s the underdog in this race as he tries to unseat Allgeier, on the board since 1996. The Heritage Junior-Senior High School grad has lived in the district all his life and has been teaching Junior Achievement classes in the district for about 25 years. Hoffman is an engineer with Raytheon and holds a bachelor’s in engineering from IPFW.
He said the board needs help and a change. He said he can help with problem solving and team building skills along with experience at Raytheon as a manager leading a team to a common goal.
“That’s what’s needed on the school board: students, staff, the administration, the board as well as the community all working together as a team to make students successful,” he said.
Hoffman said the board has made a number of decisions he disagrees with, but admits that as a newcomer, he’d need to get acclimated and find out why the board made a certain decision.
“I’ve decided that this public school system needs the community’s help, and I’ve decided to put myself on the line,” he said.
Allgeier, who has been a mainstay on the EACS board, said he’s on the board “to make a difference.” He said one major issue in EACS is the flow of information between all groups: employees, parents, students, administration and board.
“There’s too many surprises for everyone,” he said.
He also hopes to remain on the board to be a part of Superintendent Karyle Green’s evaluation, something he said is long overdue.
District 4E (New Haven area)
Incumbent Alyssa Lewandowski in 4E has also chosen not to seek another term on the board. She cited the need to spend more time at home with her children and other personal reasons for not seeking re-election.
Chris Baker, the manager of a local architectural firm, has been a part of the New Haven community for more than 20 years, he said. Baker, 45, holds an associate’s degree from ITT in architectural design.
Baker said the academic and financial issues in EACS are what he would like to address as well as the divisiveness of the board.
“We cannot continue to operate under the premise that there are five areas of East Allen County Schools,” he said.
He also cited the community’s distrust of the district as a problem that requires attention.
“I want to earn that trust back,” he said.
District 7E (Leo area)
Twelve-year incumbent Terry Jo Lightfoot, who was voted this year’s Indiana State School Board Association Member of the Year, will run against Vince Buchanan.
Lightfoot is a business owner and former teacher who said she “has a real passion for the education of children.” She said she would like to be a part of the completion of the district’s redesign plan and help to figure out what will work in the New Haven and Harding areas, where the construction referendum would have addressed problems.
She said she also hopes to help with challenges teachers are facing, the result of changes to state laws that affect collective bargaining rights and performance-based evaluations.
“Teachers feel strapped,” she said. “Over the next few years, I want to work with the district and the state to help teachers meet requirements.”
Buchanan has served on several boards including the Indiana Restaurant Association, Mancino’s Licensing Association and the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana.
“I believe I have a good understanding of the role the board should play,” he said.
The direction of the board puts in place direction for the rest of the district and enables EACS to deal with the problems it faces, he said.
“Public education is in its most challenging environment ever. It’s critical to have a board that is forward-thinking and works as a team to provide the best opportunities for students, teachers and support staff,” he said.
If elected, he hopes to help create an environment that taps into the many resources available in EACS and the surrounding community. He said he commends all that have taken the time to serve on the board, but it might just be time for a change.
“I just believe its time for a new set of eyes and ears and a new approach to how this organization works,” he said.