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Public meeting shows EACS' divisions; now, will it be able to move forward?

Thursday, March 21, 2013 - 5:51 am

A few themes became apparent, and quickly, as I observed Wednesday night's "stakeholder meeting" at New Haven High School, part of East Allen County Schools' search for a superintendent.

The series of meetings began earlier this week and feature district administrators, teachers and support staff, as well as parents, students and other interested parties, and are meant to provide those individuals an opportunity to voice their thoughts about traits they want to see in the next superintendent. Wednesday's meeting was moderated by EACS board members Christopher Baker and Bob Nelson, who took notes and answered questions from the audience.

My takeaway: If the two dozen people who attended are an accurate snapshot of the discord that the district has faced - and still faces - in the wake of Karyle Green's departure, then it's going to take more than a few meetings to solve the issues that forced the board into the search process in the first place.

Why? Because not a single person who spoke at the meeting was happy about Green's tenure, which ended March 1.

Whether blame could or should be assigned to the departed superintendent for those feelings...with a large district that has EACS' unique challenges, it's likely not that simple, and Green certainly was not present to discuss comments made about her tenure.

But at the same time, there's no reading between the lines when you have statements like these made by taxpayers in the district:

*"(EACS is) such a diverse district that has been fragmented to the point that we're almost like five little districts."

*"The detached, aloof mentality (under Green) has hurt this district."

*"There are too many winners and losers (from) students and taxpayers."

*"It's not about the buildings. It's how you treat people."

*(On EACS' failed 2012 referendum): "That thing was dead in the water."

About a few of those sentiments: Karyle Green didn't hire herself. The East Allen County Schools board did, bringing her in from the South Bend Community School Corporation in mid-2009 to replace the retiring Kay Novotny.

The relationship between board and superintendent is crucial, and cracks began to show as early as 2010 when Green and the district were forced to address the potential takeover of Harding High School after years of academic woes - woes that predated Green's arrival and certainly were not a revelation to members of the board.

The district then embarked upon a series of redesign measures that included closing multiple schools and creating distinct feeder areas in its five attendance areas - measures that had to be modified once the board opted to take the proposed $89 million renovation of New Haven Intermediate School (at the current site of Park Hill Learning Center), as well as additions at New Haven High School to accommodate seventh- and eighth-graders and renovations at the former Harding High, to a referendum.

That "dead in the water" referendum was soundly defeated at the polls, rejected by 64 percent of voters.

To be clear: None of those things happen without board approval. Green's leadership style certainly wasn't praised by anyone at the meeting, but at the same time, she did not have the authority to independently pursue those controversial projects. She presented options, and the board had to decide whether to accept those or ask for others.

Education is a difficult business - sometimes, it's downright ugly - and hindsight will forever be 20-20. But the divisions between the East Allen constituents can't simply be laid at Green's feet, moving forward. Nor can EACS' woes - perceived or real - be shifted to "the press (that) paints us in a bad light, no matter what we do," as Baker said - because not a single thing I've written in this column is under my or any other media members' authority to address or fix.

The criticisms brought forth by those at Wednesday's meeting weren't about media coverage. They were about EACS' interactions with people.

The responsibility to address those lies with residents in the district and the EACS board - with the previous version of that body singled out in a "district climate survey" conducted by Daryl Yost, a former EACS superintendent, for giving the perception that board members represented their individual districts first instead of meeting the needs of the district.

Nelson - one of three new members of the board, along with Baker and Arden Hoffman, after last fall's elections - spoke candidly about the challenges that the board faces in moving forward.

"I think the board has to start the process of uniting. We are where it all starts," Nelson said. "I think it will take as long as the members of the board allow it to take, and we've had some open and frank meetings about that."

"We can still have our community identities. We should embrace those things. But the board has to look at the bigger picture and do what's best for the district. We have to do what's best for the students."

If that is what EACS does in moving forward, then it is entirely possible that while not everyone will agree with every move made by the district, a new superintendent will be able to serve the board, the district staff and the community equally and well.

Time, as always, will tell.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Elbert Starks III at estarks@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8266.