Western school board hears from candidates

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Jul. 14—RUSSIAVILLE — The Western School Corporation Board of Trustees interviewed five candidates during a work session Tuesday evening for an open seat on the board.

The opening and interviews come following the resignation of Pam Carter.

Carter stepped down from the board after Barrett Bates was hired as assistant superintendent. He is her son-in-law. While Carter did not have to resign, she chose to do so to avoid any appearance of nepotism or favoritism.

Candidates interviewed were Cindy Hurst, Scott Sutton, Joey Dyer, Greg Stephens and Dean Leicht. Each was allotted a 20-minute interview with the school board, where members took turns asking questions.

The board will make a final decision at its meeting July 19. The selected candidate will fill the remainder of Carter's term, which expires at the end of this year.

Hurst was the first person to be interviewed. A resident of Kokomo, Hurst works for Equitable Education Solutions, an education consulting company. She said part of her job is writing grants.

Prior to her consulting gig, Hurst worked 16 years for the Indiana Department of Education, mainly in Title I, a program that provides financial assistance to schools with a high number of students in poverty.

Candidates were asked the same few questions, not counting follow ups.

Asked what she would improve at Western, Hurst noted the school district's high academic achievement and ensuring that continues while making sure "traditionally underserved" students, such as special education kids, don't fall slip through the cracks.

"As we move forward, particularly away from COVID, how do you continue to maintain high expectation and achievement for all students, but then how do you look at those different groups and make sure that gap isn't widening ..." she said. "I think there are opportunities to look deeper."

Hurst described herself as a question asker and said it would be "negligent not to" as a board member.

Scott Sutton followed Hurst. Sutton works at Somerset CPAs in Indianapolis, and his wife is a Western teacher.

He mentioned school finances — Sutton's background is in finance — when asked about what could improve at Western. Speaking generally, he mentioned making sure the school district operates as efficiently as possible.

"It is not a business but, in some aspects, it does run like a business," Sutton said. "... I feel like there are always policies and procedures to improve."

Sutton said board members do not have a role in day-to-day operations of the school. It was a question posed by board member Scott Gaskins, who also asked candidates what they thought the role of superintendent was.

"Mainly, because we don't know the day-to-day operations of a school, whether it's in the classroom, in the hallways, we aren't involved in that standpoint," Sutton said.

Joey Dyer was the third interviewee. A recognizable name in the Western and Russiaville communities, Dyer touted the most community involvement among the group.

Dyer is a pharmacy manager at Walgreen's and has worked with Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman on fighting the opioid epidemic.

In addition to being the public address announcer for Western basketball games, Dyer has been involved with Russiaville Twisters and Russiaville Youth Baseball League, among others.

Dyer said disagreements lead to progress and change, in response to a question about how he would handle not agreeing with other board members about a decision. He also said as a board member he'd serve as liaison for the community.

"It's not just my vote; it's the community's vote," Dyer said.

Responding to a question about how he'd handle controversial issues, Dyer said he supported masks last fall, though policy could have been "more fluid."

Dyer intends to run for school board in the fall, according to a Facebook post from June.

The candidate said Western could improve its communication. Dyer said he didn't know about Carter's resignation and the opening until someone told him. He also suggested using social media to reach a younger demographic.

Local business owner Greg Stephens interviewed for the school board seat.

Stephens founded Stephens Machine, a machine fabrication shop, with his wife.

He's also a board member at Bona Vista and involved with Distinguished Young Woman of Howard County program. His wife leads the local chapter.

Stephens mentioned his experience working with different people and personalities in his career in response to a question about supporting a board decision he personally wasn't in favor of.

"That's a tough one sometimes ... you try to go with what's best for the majority," he said. "Winning is not always the bottom line. Making the right decision, sometimes, means you have to work together."

Stephens said it is important to take different accounts into consideration and gather as much information as possible. "A well-rounded evaluation of information," as he put it.

While talking about continuing teaching science and history, he also mentioned "the federal government regarding sports."

"I think we stand true to what has always been, that girls have girls' sports and boys have boys' sports," Stephens said.

It was part of his response about continuing the academic trend at Western.

Rounding out the interviews was Dean Leicht, a project manager who has grandchildren at Western.

Leicht is a regular at board meetings and has been for the last year.

Leicht offers public comment at nearly every meeting and has pushed the school board to be more transparent. He's also raised concerns about transgender students and the high school band traveling to Disney.

The latter issue was raised after Disney opposed a Florida bill that banned classroom discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The legislation has been referred to as the "Don't Say Gay" bill.

During his interview, Leicht stressed that "transparency is a very big deal to me."

Pressed on how the school and board could communicate better, Leicht mentioned a newsletter that used to go out to the community. He said this could be a way to reach older people, especially grandparents who are raising children.

"I think we have to tell the community we are here; we have to tell them what we're doing and give them an opportunity to have a voice," Leicht said.

Leicht also floated the idea of sending a text to people reminding them of board meeting dates and what will be discussed.

He said he wants to be a board member who people are comfortable approaching with concerns and questions, while helping Western be a "go-to school."

Spencer Durham can be reached at 765-454-8598, by email at spencer.durham@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at @Durham_KT.