EAST CHICAGO | Candidates for the city’s first elected School Board made their cases Thursday for why they're best qualified to lead the public schools into a new era of accountability.
Gathered at American Legion Post 369, the candidates took turns at the podium, having an initial three minutes to detail their qualifications, community involvement and passion for making significant changes across the city’s educational system. Most, if not all, were educated in East Chicago.
East Chicago's first School Board election Nov. 6 comes in the wake of a state law that created a nine-member board to be chosen by voters. Before the law, the five-member East Chicago School Board was appointed by the mayor.
On the new, larger board, three of the members will be at large, while the remaining six will represent districts that coincide with the six City Council districts. The board members elected in November will take office Jan. 1 and serve four-year terms.
Here’s what the candidates had to say Thursday:
Clifford Freiberger, 1st District
The former East Chicago teacher remembered a time when the city had one the best school districts in the state and one of the largest apprenticeship programs. “Where do our kids who are not going to college go?” he asked. He believes the city’s schools can be great again.
Joel Rodriguez, 2nd District
The unopposed candidate noted the safety of students as a main concern. He said his economic development management experience with Gary makes him a qualified candidate to deal with large budgets.
Ismael Bonilla, 1st District
Touting both undergraduate and graduate degrees, Bonilla said he is the son of immigrants who came to East Chicago and made a better life. “We need educational reform inside the school not outside the school,” he said.
Constance El-Amin, 4th District
With two master’s degree and a license in special education instruction, El-Amin said she has dedicated 30 years of her life to education and has worked on school improvement programs at East Chicago schools. El-Amin also has had a long involvement in parent-teacher organization. “I’m retired, but my focus is still on children,” she said.
Byron “Duke” Florence, 3rd District
“We have to elect people to this School Board who have the concern of our students first,” he said. “Too often, quality time is taken away from our teachers because the teachers have to do counseling, parenting. We are failing badly.”
Terrance Hill, 3rd District
A substitute teacher in East Chicago schools, Hill said he would respect each board member and work with teachers and the union to avoid strikes. Morale in school system is important, he said. “I’m tired of our school system coming in last with test scores and even in sports," he said.
Rosa Vega, 4th District
Vega noted her experience in payroll of Gary Community School Corp. She emphasized cooperation with board members. She believes the School Board “should not be thought of as a not-for-profit organization.”
Elizabeth Campos, 5th District
As a “full-time volunteer for East Chicago schools with plans to attend law school," Campos has three children attending city schools. “Decisions (the School Board makes) will affect my children, and I take that very personally,” she said.
Jesse Gomez, 5th District
Gomez said two terms on the East Chicago City Council and dealing with large budgets is an important qualification for a School Board member. He said little has changed with the schools since he first became a councilman in 1992. “As a School Board member, I will stand up for what is right. I will stand up for you like I did on the City Council,” he said.
Drake Morris, 6th District
“Children have always been on the top of my list, and I’ve always wanted to do things for the kids,” Morris said, noting that in 1999 he launched an after-school basketball program. Accountability for all teachers and administrators are critical to educating students, he said.
Kenneth Clark, at large
Harkening back to his days as a lineman for the East Chicago Washington football team, Clark described himself as a “blocker” to open doors for a quality education. He decried wasteful spending and the need to bring administrators, teachers, parents, students together as one team. “We have a $76 million budget. I wonder how much of that money is helping kids prepare for college,” he said.
Carlyle Edwards, at large
With master’s degrees in library science and information technology, Edwards noted 20 years of experience working with schools. He said that although East Chicago is spending the second highest amount of money in the state, we still have an underperforming school district. “I’m a firm believer things can change,” he said. “The superintendent needs to be a leader, visionary and collaboration.”
Ezell Foster, at large
“It’s about the children,” Foster said. “We have to have accountability ... the superintendent, the principals, teachers, the parents and School Board members, because the students are counting on us. And the bus drivers, aids, secretaries, clerks need us to stand behind them, too.”
John Gomez, at large
Describing himself as a civil rights and educational activist, Gomez said he helped bring the first affirmative-action program to East Chicago. He described a parent patrol initiative he was involved with at West Side Junior High School to stop high school students from recruiting younger kids to gangs. Gomez recently served on the School Board at Our Lady of Grace in Highland and has taught at West Side and Central High School.
Emmett Karl Mosley, at large
Mosley said he was inspired to run for the School Board after attending a church meeting where parents worried about future of the schools. “I felt this was the time I needed to stand up for the children in our city and the teachers and staff,” he said. “We’re not going to just get better, we’re going to transform this school system.”
Mariecruz Segura-Perez, at large
Perez, a teacher at Eggers Middle School in Hammond, described herself as honest and open-minded. “But I’m not afraid of saying and doing what is right,” she said. “I will speak out against polices not right for our students, teachers and our schools.” She said she will stay involved in all areas of the school district and that the work of the School Board must reflect transparency.
Stephanie Ramos, at large
Ramos described her long experience as an educator, including teaching English as a second language in Hammond schools and helping Hammond High School through its state-mandated improvement program. She said her main focus is to meet the needs of students and look carefully at how money is allocated. Pleas for help from parents are falling on deaf ears, Ramos said, and it’s time for the community to stand up and have its voice heard on what is in the best interest of students.
Frank Rivera, 1st District
Rivera, a lifetime East Chicago resident, holds degrees in public administration and criminal justice and noted his work for a new Crime Stoppers TV show to debut soon on local television in Chicago. “We are in challenging times,” he said. “Things are evolving around us that need people on the board who read and understand policy.” The U.S. has a knowledge-based economy and needs graduates with the highest skills possible, he said.
*Editor's note: This story has been corrected from an earlier version. It corrects the spelling of candidate Mariecruz Segura-Perez