EAST CHICAGO | Few elections in many years have energized the community quite like this season's first-ever popular vote for candidates to lead the city's expansive school system.
Long dictated by mayoral appointment, a decades-long effort to bring the School Board to popular accountability finally succeeded last year when state lawmakers approved the establishment of a nine-member board to be chosen by the citizens.
Supporters envision a School City — with its $70 million-plus budget — no longer a program of patronage jobs and lucrative vending opportunities for political cronies, instead concentrating on education.
Six members of the new panel will be elected by City Council district, with an additional three at-large members.
"There's much to be done," said Fernando Treviño, this century's longest-serving board member with 16 years as trustee, the past four as board president, when his final appointment expired in June.
Shrinking budgets, new state requirements for scoring schools and teacher evaluations, challenges presented by charter schools and vouchers, and changes in the collective bargaining rights of teachers all mean some tough decisions will have to be made, Treviño said.
Now reduced to a three-member "caretaker" panel in anticipation of this election's victors taking office in January, the remaining trustees must demonstrate to voters — and not just the mayor — that they are worthy of their positions just like every other candidate.
The 24 hopefuls for the new school board seats have spent he past months pitching at more than a dozen forums, sending direct-mail fliers, placing prerecorded telephone calls and walking door to door in a good old-fashioned canvas.
Nearly all are the products of East Chicago public schools, most have children or grandchildren currently attending city public schools, and many have work experience in the East Chicago or neighboring city public school systems.
"My focus is still on the children," said Constance El-Amin, current School Board president, who spent 30 years as a teacher and administrator in the city school system before her retirement in 2010.
El-Amin, whose last assignment as principal of Carrie Gosch Elementary School earned a Most Improved School in the State award for increased language and mathematics test scoring, said she wants to ensure that board business is transparent and ethical.
Communication also should be improved among parents, teachers, administrators and the community, said El-Amin, who is running for the 4th District board seat.
Running in the 1st District, current board Vice President Frank Rivera also said he wants to make the system more transparent, as well as "reduce the drop-out rate and increase the graduation rate."
Rivera, a member of the Indiana University Northwest School of Public and Environmental Affairs and former executive director of Workforce Development Services in Gary, said he would advocate for open communication, and help students develop a "lifetime commitment to excellence."
Emmett Karl Mosely, the current board secretary who is running for one of three at-large seats, said partnerships must be forged with all stakeholders — parents, students, teachers, churches, business and community organizations — to "transform the system."
"We have the resources and we have the talent," said Mosely, a longtime community activist and licensed financial agent. "Our children deserve better."
Mosely, a former president of the East Chicago Boys & Girls Clubs, said he would like to see newly elected board members start preparing for their jobs on Nov. 7, and not wait until their terms begin next year.
All three sitting board members were endorsed for election by the American Federation of Teachers Local 511, the East Chicago teachers union.
Seven other candidates are running for the three at-large seats, including Stephanie Ramos, a longtime educator in the nearby Hammond school system, who worked on the state-mandated online curriculum program there.
"There is a disconnect between the best interests of students and the current leadership," said Ramos, who currently teaches English as a second language and has pledged to promote transparency is school finances.
Mariecruz Segura Perez is a middle school teacher in Hammond, and also said that the School Board must be transparent in dealing with residents.
Both Ramos and Perez received endorsements from AFT Local 511.
Also running at large is Kenny "Coach" Monroe, a former city parks director, who said his passion for working with youth led him to the school board race, and that "strategic planning" can best create a "beneficial environment" for students and teachers.
Former City Councilman John C. Gomez, who helped implement the city's first affirmative action program nearly 40 years ago, also recently served on the School Board of Our Lady of Grace in Highland.
Gomez, a former union representative for the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Local 7-1 and past president of the West Side Junior High Parent Teacher Association, said there's a need to "coordinate the city's school administration with teachers and the community."
*Carlyle Edwards has spent 12 years on school boards in Pennsylvania, Texas and Illinois with a master's in library science degree.
Edwards, a City Council appointee to the East Chicago Redevelopment Commission, said he would like to see new members receive training in board responsibilities prior to taking office and improve accountability and performance of the district.
Also running for School Board at large are Indiana Harbor resident Kenneth R. Clark and Ezell Foster of the East Calumet area.
Challenging Rivera in the 1st District are Ismael Bonilla and former East Chicago teacher Clifford Freiberger, who spent 16 years as maintenance supervisor for the school system.
Freiberger said that East Chicago once had the state's most effective apprenticeship programs, and "wants to bring the system back to what it was."
Former Gary Economic Development Director Joel Rodriguez is unopposed for the 2nd District School Board seat, and was endorsed by AFT Local 511.
*Running in the 3rd District are Byron "Duke" Florence, former city director of community affairs, longtime community activist Wanda Gordils, and Terence "Terry" Hill.
"Every parent wants their children to do well," said Florence, who, as a retiree, said he can devote his full time to the job. "The school's budgets, services and programs should all be student-centered."
Gordils, who was endorsed by AFT Local 511, said her past dealings with previous School Boards and administrations led to her decision to run.
School officials must be transparent and engage the community, she said, to maintain a productive educational atmosphere and particularly strengthen programs for disadvantaged students and bilingual education.
Hill said a comprehensive plan for kindergarten through grade 12 students needs to be put in place to keep them in school, and should also include some incentives for parents.
"Students have a right to a quality education without fear," Hill said, which should include uniformed police officers on duty and a school nurse in every building.
Fourth District candidates in addition to El-Amin are veteran East Chicago schools paraprofessional Stacy Dixon-Winfield, social affairs advocate Alfonso Martinez Jr. and Gary Community School Corp. employee Rosa E. Vega.
Dixon-Winfield, currently executive secretary with the city's Street Department and a regular School Board meeting attendee, said she would like to see the re-establishment of a mentoring program in a safe environment for after-school hours which would include open gym in the evenings.
*Martinez, a member of Sociedad Cultural Civica La Feforma who organizes annual fundraisers for local scholarships, said city schools need an ethics policy to help build positive relationships with parents, businesses and industries.
Cooperation is needed among board members, said Vega, whose experience is in accounting and payroll. Schools should not be thought of as a "not-for-profit" corporation, she said.
Competing in the 5th District are veteran city teacher Verdell Anderson, longtime volunteer Elizabeth Campos and Jesse Gomez, a former City Council representative.
"Building students' self-esteem creates positive relationships and brings out the best in them," said Anderson, an elementary school teacher in East Chicago for 34 years. The schools and parents need to work together to develop strategies for encouragement and motivation.
Campos has three children attending public school in East Chicago, and said decisions made by the School Board "affect my children, and I take that very personally."
Gomez said little has changed with the city's schools in the past 20 years. He was endorsed by AFT Local 511.
The 6th District race pits city basketball standout Drake Morris against budget analyst and current city substitute teacher Beverly J. Tate.
Accountability by administrators is crucial, said Morris, a former Parks Department employee and Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame honoree who organized the city's annual after-school basketball tournament.
Raised in East Chicago and now back home after years of travel through her accounting work in the manufacturing industry, Tate is completing her graduate studies in elementary education.
"This is an exciting time to be involved," she said, "There are no teachers living in the 6th District, but lots of school children."
Training for new trustees through programs offered by the Indiana Association of School Boards would definitely benefit the community, she said.
School Board veteran Trevino is not seeking another four-year term, however.
"I have two little girls now, and quality involvement in their schooling demands a lot of time," he said. "It's my opinion that if parents were more proactive rather than reactive in their kids' education, 90 percent of our problems would be solved."
*Editor's note: This story has been corrected from an earlier version. At-large candidate Carlyle Edwards does not work with special needs students; 3rd District candidate Terence "Terry" Hill no longer works as a substitute teacher; and 4th District candidate Alfonso Martinez Jr. is a member of Sociedad Cultural Civica La Reforma.