EAST CHICAGO | Voters may have chosen new faces for the city's first elected school board, but most have backgrounds in education and all have histories of service to the community.
Of the nine board members who prevailed in a field of 24 hopefuls on Tuesday, only one —current Vice President Frank Rivera, a veteran in job training and development appointed by Mayor Anthony Copeland last year — has previously served on the School Board.
East Chicago is the last community in Lake County where the school board is appointed by the mayor, rather than chosen by residents, and that ends in January when the newly elected board members take their seats.
"There's a lot of work to be done in the next six weeks," said Jesse Gomez, a former City Council member picked by voters in the city's 5th District.
The elected school board approved by state lawmakers last year is comprised of a member from each of six City Council districts, and three members chosen citywide at large.
"The large size of the board will be challenging," Gomez said, "but hopefully things will be kept professional, and we as a group can address major school issues such as the wise use of resources for the benefit of students."
The city's teachers union, American Federation of Teachers Local 511, put out a first-ever slate of recommended board members, formally endorsing and working for a majority of those elected Tuesday.
"I feel very positive about the process," said Local 511 President John Zarlengo. "I think we made a difference."
Through a series of workshops to which every candidate was invited, "we tried to pick people we thought would be fair to the teachers and best for the students," Zarlengo said.
"The children are what this is all about," said Stephanie Ramos, an online curriculum manager in the Hammond school system, one of three at-large board members elected.
With more than 20 years in education, most recently teaching English as a second language, "I ran on my credentials, Ramos said.
Being elected to another at-large seat on the School Board was bittersweet for Mariecruz Segura Perez, also a veteran teacher in Hammond, after the passing of her father, Ignacio "Nacho" Segura last week.
"We're all learning how to be a school board," Segura said. "We have to do it professionally and collaboratively, and make school business easier for the community to understand."
And she will have to do it without neglecting her current middle school students. "Now I have a lot more kids," she said.
The new board members have their work cut out for them, said Copeland, and as elected officials, they have a lot more people to answer to than just a mayor who in the past would have appointed them.