FORTVILLE — The three candidates vying for two Mt. Vernon School Board seats took part in a candidates forum hosted by the Mt. Vernon Education Foundation on Wednesday.
Eight-year incumbents Kellie Freeman and Shannon Walls are running for a third term, while being challenged by political newcomer Josh Worth. All three have or have had children attending Mt. Vernon Schools.
Foundation director Renee Oldham asked the candidates a series of questions at the hour-long forum.
“With Mt. Vernon’s expected continued growth and limited financial resources, what direction and goals would you like to see Mt. Vernon accomplish in the future?,” she asked.
Worth said retaining Mt. Vernon’s “small town feel” will be challenging but essential as the district faces unprecedented growth.
Both Freeman and Walls echoed that sentiment, saying it was essential to maintain Mt. Vernon’s small class size and family feel as the district prepares for an influx of more families in the coming years.
“I believe these are the biggest challenges we face as a growing district,” said Walls. “We have to continue to make decisions today that will impact this district 10, 15, 20 years down the road.”
She recalled when she first joined the board eight years ago, “We were holding SOS Save our School garage sales to buy paper for the classroom, and my family and I were pulling weeds out of the landscape at the elementary school because we couldn’t afford landscaping for this district. We have come a long way and have worked so hard to put ourselves in a financial position that we can move forward cautiously and responsibly,” she said.
“It’s a delicate balance between what we need and what we can afford as a district to do,” she added.
Worth said it’s essential for the board to be conservative with taxpayers’ money. “We are in a growing area so that’s going to be important. Transparency where we are giving our money and spending that money is going to be important to keep and gain community support,” he said.
“I believe we need to support our teachers as the pillars of our schools, and make sure they’re paid appropriately. Fancy buildings and landscaping look great from the outside looking in, but the heart of our classroom is our teachers,” he said.
Freeman said her eight years on the school board has shown her just how complicated school finances can be.
“Until I got on the board I didn’t really understand how school finance worked,” she said.
“I still have to listen very intently to our (chief financial officer) when he’s giving this information. While we can’t control what the state does, how much money they give us or the hoops we sometimes have to jump through to spend it, we can control how transparent we are and how responsible we are with our finances,” said Freeman, who said it’s vital to manage growth by limiting the number of transfer students as class sizes grow.
“I think we have to continue … looking ahead and making sure we’re planning for the future. What’s Mt. Vernon going to look like 25 years from now when none of us are here anymore? We have to make sure we’ve thought of that (in regard to) where we put buildings and what we spend the money on, so that we’re not leaving a mess to clean up down the road for other people,” she said.
When Oldham asked how the school district can attract and retain high-quality staff members, all three candidates said that continued raises were essential.
“With the recent changes in the job market landscape it only makes sense we can attract and retain staff members by offering competitive wages,” said Worth, who suggested the district also offer professional development and loyalty incentives, “so that employees know we want them to stay.”
Freeman, a longtime educator with Carmel Clay Schools, said that while the school board has been invested in giving teachers raises, more efforts need to be made to attract and retain educators.
“As a teacher I can tell you none of us came into teaching thinking we’re going to get rich … but we have to do better at giving the teachers raises. … We have to support our teachers and let them know that we value and appreciate all the hard things they do every day,” she said.
Freeman said it’s essential that teachers are given the opportunity to build relationships with not just their students but with administrators and fellow staff, and are given the opportunity to speak up when they need help.
Walls said the board has done a good job of supporting competitive salaries for teachers, “but it’s not always about the money, because that’s not why most of our teachers and staff have gone into education. We need to be a district where our staff feel valued, where they feel heard and they feel respected as part of the Mt. Vernon family.”
Oldham then asked the candidates what principles would guide their decision making as a school board member.
Worth referred to his integrity, transparency, and conservative values.
“I know a lot of families that feel tremendously let down by the decisions made during the pandemic,” he said. “I feel that this was a missed opportunity to really come together and show our strength. My voice for conservative values and the need for community collaboration could have benefited the board during such a difficult time.”
Worth advocated for the district to be more transparent and forthcoming when it comes to curriculum and school standards. “I believe we need to consider our parents’ and teachers’ values when implementing new material and reviewing books for approval,” he said. “Our school should be a safe and comfortable space for kids to focus on their studies without having to deal with controversial issues amongst their peers or from influential leaders.”
“As a member of the school board I would make it a priority to do my due diligence in making the most informed decision possible, and solicit as much community feedback as necessary prior to making a decision,” he said.
Freeman said the values she shows as an educator are the same ones that lead her decision making as a Mt. Vernon school board member.
“My guiding principles…have always been do what’s best for students,” she said. “That must be the question we ask and the bottom line in anything we do as a board.”
Walls said she works hard to make decisions based on all the relevant information, rather than emotion. “It can be very difficult in the education environment to not want to make decisions with your heart…We’re here because we’re passionate about education, but…I promise to always make decisions based on the data that I have received,” she said.
“The end result to me will always be the 300 hands that we shake at graduation every year. I stand up there every year and think, ‘Did we do everything possible? Did we give these kids every tool they need to go into the market and to be successful?’ And the answer has to be yes every time,” she said.
When asked what they feel the district has done well over the past five years, Walls said the school board has done a good job of always putting students first.
“We’ve had to make some really difficult decisions over the last few years,” she said. “As a board we’ve been able to cohesively come together to find effective solutions for our students.”
She also praised the board’s transparency in dealing with weighty financial issues.
“In the last five years we’ve been able to finance two bond series, saving us over $7 million in repayments to our tax payers. We have established a debt service philosophy that we only grow our debt proportionately, never borrowing or using more than what we need…(and) we’ve finally been able to establish a healthy rainy day fund,” she said.
Freeman also referred to the board’s handling of finances, including the ability to give teachers raises and establish a comprehensive building maintenance plan.
“In 2019 our tax flow was at a level where we couldn’t maintain our monthly expenses, and now we have cash flow that easily handles that,” she said. “(Teachers) have done an excellent job teaching our students. Our ILEARN scores in language arts, math and science are above the state average in every grade but one.”
Worth praised the district’s ability to communicate effectively with parents, as well as the decision to grant a “much needed” snow day in the wake of the COVID pandemic.
“That was a truly memorable experience and well received by the community during a time when we all needed something positive,” he said.
“The pandemic created unprecedented challenges like learning loss and uncharted social concerns. The struggles that staff and families endured during that time are a reminder of that. It’s important to get back to some of the basics of education, to help students and staff recover and return to some normalcy.”