HATS IN THE RING: Newcomer challenges incumbents for two at-large Mt. Vernon school board seats

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FORTVILLE — A first-time candidate is challenging two incumbents in the race for two at-large seats on the Mt. Vernon school board this fall.

Political newcomer Josh Worth is running against eight-year school board members Kellie Freeman and Shannon Walls, both of whom are looking to retain their seats.

While Worth says it’s time for some fresh input on the board, Freeman and Walls both say they have the experience and commitment to continue carrying Mt. Vernon schools into the future.

“I am extremely proud of the work we have done over the last eight years,” said Walls. “As a board we have addressed many challenges while collaboratively trying to stay student-centered in our decisions.”

Freeman said there’s much work left to be done as the district manages unprecedented residential growth.

“The biggest challenge in the next five years, from my perspective, is maintaining our small-school feel,” said Freeman, a longtime educator with the Carmel Clay Schools.

Worth, however, thinks it’s time for some new faces on the board.

“With all the challenges that our school community has experienced the last several years, I believe it is time for a new perspective,” he said.

Each of the candidates recently shared a bit about themselves with the Greenfield Daily Reporter:

Kellie Freeman

KELLIE FREEMAN

Freeman and her husband, Joe, are both educators. Joe taught at Mt. Vernon High School for 41 years.

The couple has lived in the district throughout their 32-year marriage, and both of their children graduated from Mt. Vernon High School — Dylan Freeman in 2016 and Tessa Freeman in 2020.

Freeman has worked for Carmel Clay Schools for the past 33 years, serving the first two decades teaching students with mild and moderate disabilities. She’s now the district’s transition coordinator, connecting families with needed services and facilitating two off-campus programs focused on vocational training, community involvement, and independence for individuals with special needs.

Freeman first got involved with Mt. Vernon Schools when her kids were young by serving on the Parent Teacher Organization. She then served on the Corporation Improvement Council, which led to running for the school board.

“Mt. Vernon is a wonderful school system and I’ve always wanted it to remain a great place for students and teachers,” said Freeman.

“The school system is the heart of any community, and even though I didn’t attend Mt. Vernon schools, the people here have always felt like family … It became a part of me, so I wanted to give back to a district that has given my family so much.”

Freeman said she’s proud of the work the board has done over the past eight years in regard to teacher salaries and planning for future growth, which she considers the district’s biggest challenges.

“We have renovated the middle school to increase the size of the cafeteria and band room, and we are currently in the process of building a new elementary. All of this is part of growth management,” she said. “While we as a board don’t always agree on all details, I am proud that we manage to work together as we consider the opinions of students, teachers and the community to make the best decisions possible.”

In regards to growth, “We have to always be thinking ahead. We can’t wait until a school is bursting at the seams and then decide to react. We have to have a proactive approach,” said Freeman. “We need to be constantly looking at class sizes and overall enrollment so that we can keep our class sizes small and manageable. I will continue to speak up to ensure that we monitor class size as we grow.”

Freeman said attracting and retaining good teachers is also imperative to keeping Mt. Vernon schools a district where parents want to send their kids.

“Along with the students, teachers are the heart of the district,” she said. “They are on the front lines. We have to pay them well, we have to support them, we have to recognize the important and often hard things they do everyday, and we have to provide a school environment that allows them to safely do their jobs.”

Freeman said it’s essential for the school board to communicate openly with the community it serves. “We must continue to be transparent as we plan. Parents and taxpayers should be informed and given the opportunity to be included in decisions as we move forward,” she said.

Shannon Walls

SHANNON WALLS

Walls and her husband, Matthew, have lived in the Mt. Vernon school district 18 years and have seen both their children graduate from Mt. Vernon High School — Zakary Weaver in 2012 and Blake Walls in 2020.

Walls has volunteered in a variety of roles for the district over the years, including as a founding member of the Mt. Vernon Education Foundation Board of Directors.

That experience led her to a successful run for the school board, a job said she enjoys. “I am extremely proud of the work we have done over the last eight years,” she said.

Walls said that over the past eight years the board has not only hired two superintendents and managed the COVID pandemic, but also passed an operating referendum “that is giving our staff more competitive raises, additional security, and will help maintain our fund that supports transportation, utilities and more.”

She said she’s proud of the board’s strategic approach to future growth. “We continue to put the needs of our students and staff first, which drives every decision I make,” she said.

Walls works as a sales manager for Commercial Food Systems, an Indiana-based distributor which works with more than 600 schools throughout the state. She said her job experience has been a huge asset in understanding school operations.

“As an eight-year board member I have gained a lot of experience supporting Mt. Vernon operations, learning school laws, and connecting with the community. I will continue to encourage transparency in all operations, community involvement and fiscal responsibility,” said Walls, adding that the needs of all students should be at the heart of every decision.

Building projects and employee hiring and retention continue to be among the district’s biggest challenges, she said.

“My recommendation is that we cautiously move forward with our growth plan and make sure that we are continuing to be fiscally responsible while maximizing our resources. We must continue to be transparent to our community with all decisions while we focus on the learning environment for our students,” said Walls. “It’s more important than ever as we become a larger district that we maintain the values and history of this school corporation.”

Josh Worth

JOSH WORTH

Worth and his wife, Ashlie, met as students in the Mt. Vernon schools, where his wife graduated in 2003 and Worth graduated in 2005. Their older daughter Molly is a freshman at Mt. Vernon High School; their younger daughter Maggie is a fifth-grader at Mt. Comfort Elementary.

Worth said it would be a privilege to serve the school system that has served his family so well.

“I was inspired to run after witnessing the challenges that the students, staff and schools were faced with in the last few years. I felt the need to be a part of the solution and have an opportunity to positively impact the community that I grew up in,” said Worth, a firefighter and EMT with the City of Indianapolis.

Worth said it’s important for the school board to have a current parent perspective from someone with students currently in the schools.

“I have two daughters enrolled in Mt. Vernon schools and will have a child in the schools for the next seven years. After personally experiencing some of the struggles caused by the pandemic, I believe we need to keep any controversy out of our classrooms and focus on academics,” he said.

Worth feels some of the district’s biggest challenges right now include staff burnout and turnover, and effectively supporting students’ social concerns and learning loss resulting from the pandemic.

“One of the biggest challenges facing the school district in the next five years is addressing continued growth while balancing the needs of the school district with all the members in the community, including those who may not have kids in the school,” said Worth, who said maintaining the district’s “small-town, community” feel is a mission that’s close to his heart.

“Because I grew up a (Mt. Vernon) Marauder and have been a member of this community for a long time, I feel that I am well positioned to make a positive impact. I will attentively listen to the community’s concerns while standing up for what I believe in,” he said.

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