Our family moved to West Lafayette when our oldest started kindergarten at WLES (then called Cumberland) fifteen years ago. My husband and I have four children who have all attended WLCSC schools. From the beginning, I was heavily involved in the schools serving as: Parent Council President, Vice President, Treasurer, Articipate Chair and Instructor, Book Fair Chair, Grant Committee Member, Teacher Appreciation Chair, Lego Robotics Coach, Math Pentathlon Leader, and Room Parent. During my years serving on the WLES parent council, there were volunteers in the school nearly all the time, helping in the nature center, volunteering in classrooms, running the winter carnival, and preparing materials in the copy center. The parent council had monthly meetings during the lunch hour which allowed a large number of parents and teachers to attend our meetings, and we provided snacks and activities for the little ones who tagged along with parents. We worked hard so that parents and teachers would be heard and valued.
I missed teaching and so started working as a substitute teacher and then took a long-term substitute position for a teacher who was on maternity leave. In 2016 I was hired as a teacher at WLES and taught first grade and then kindergarten until resigning in 2019. The teachers I worked with were amazing and the families and students were supportive and incredible to work with. However, I was surprised at the level of teacher dissatisfaction. It was much higher than a few years before when I was working behind the scenes as a student teacher supervisor for Purdue. I began to meet with school administrators to offer suggestions of how to improve the work environment. My school principal seemed unable to make any change without the superintendent’s authorization and was very hesitant to suggest recommendations to him. So, I met with the superintendent on my own and was shocked at how firmly he pushed back at any suggestion for improvement. So, I turned to the school board for help and described several issues that our teachers were facing and suggested ideas that could help. The school board’s response was that everything is great in our schools, why are you asking questions? They claimed that by raising issues I was going to harm our school’s reputation. No one would listen.
I also turned to the teachers union to see if they could negotiate better working conditions for the teachers at WLES and WLIS. The union leaders listened but did nothing. In April 2019, when the school board voted to fire all the first-year teachers at WLES and WLIS, the union leaders should have jumped into action and defended those teachers’ jobs. Class sizes were higher than ever, the school corporation had millions saved in the referendum fund that was supposed to be used to support teachers and reduce class size, and yet the union sat quietly and sided with the school board.
I loved teaching, but the work environment in our schools was poor and administrators put tons of unnecessary stress on the teachers. After finishing the school year in 2019 and after realizing that the school board had no interest in making any improvements, I resigned my teaching position along with 22 other teachers who left that year. I decided that I would try to help students by working to change the school board and it turns out that there were a lot of people who wanted our school board to change. In 2020, I was one of 15 candidates to run and came very close to winning a seat on the board. It was shocking how contentious that election was. The school board’s PAC caused community outrage by receiving its financial support from the teachers union and from several companies and consultants that earned income from the recent school construction. The greatest community outrage was caused by the PAC’s election campaign communications including an offensive letter claiming that electing a new group of outsiders to the school board back in the mid-90s was what had caused the havoc associated with hiring Dr. Stella Batagiannis as superintendent. The letter didn’t mention that Karen Springer (she is running again this year) was on the school board then, hired Batagiannis, and was her supporter. The letter concluded by implying that outsiders running for the school board were disgruntled and were only running because of their own personal agendas.
One of my plans if I had been elected in 2020 was to provide a summary of school board meetings to the community. I had seen this done in other places to help the community be more informed and feel more connected. It would have been far easier to write a meeting summary if I had school board member access to information, but I decided that I didn’t need to be on the board to try. Initially, it took a lot of effort to figure out what was going on in school board meetings which seemed to be intentionally opaque. I posted my monthly summary to my website and shared it with those I met volunteering in the schools, at my church, as a softball coach, and leading activities for the University Farms neighborhood association. My monthly school board meeting summaries became very popular (my website averages over 1,000 visits each month) and as the community became aware of school issues, they started putting pressure on school leaders. This community pressure has already produced several positive changes:
- The school board is now posting its meeting packet to the school website after each meeting. They had previously denied requests for these documents and when I elevated this issue by taking a case to the Indiana Public Access Counselor, the school board fought to keep these public documents confidential. They lost the case and had to start sharing information (full story in my post: Access to Information).
- The school board switched to a different legal firm for representation which will improve the way the board interacts with the community and will likely save our school district hundreds of thousands of dollars each year (November 2021 7:19, June 2022 8:03).
- School board meetings were changed to the second Monday of each month. They had previously been held on the same day and at the same time as city council meetings in what seemed to be an attempt to limit community participation. Incumbents and current candidates Witt and Springer had both voted to move meetings to this conflicting time in Dec 2015, but changed their minds thanks to community pressure (June 2021 7:38 & 7:42, February 2021 Responses, January Responses 2022 #1).
- School board meetings now feature questions and discussion to a much greater extent than was the case two years ago. Prior to this, it was possible to listen to the entire school board meeting and not have any idea what they were voting to approve (December 2020 7:00, January 2021 6:42, February 2021 6:49).
- The official school board meeting minutes have been improved and now contain more useful information. For example, the minutes now list which school policies were revised or approved (December 2020 response #2).
- The school board toned down this abrasive warning on their meeting agenda to be more welcoming: “the school board will not entertain questions during a school board meeting. All questions should be referred to the superintendent’s office during normal school hours” (April 2021 responses, October 2021 6:32).
- School board meetings are now all broadcast on youtube to allow those not in attendance to watch the meeting (December 2020 7:27).
Without my monthly meeting summaries and community pressure on the school board, I don’t think any of these changes would have happened. These changes have made us a better school district, but just think about how much better things could be if the school board was actively seeking input rather than resisting it.