PORTAGE — Following recent controversy over school security and the placement of school resources officers in the district, voters heard directly from five candidates vying for two seats on the Portage Township School Board on that topic and other issues Tuesday night.
The candidate forum was hosted by the Portage Association of Teachers and moderated by association president Deb Porter.
Candidates for the District 1 seat are Portage Police Chief Troy Williams and retired special education director Joan Machuca.
Candidates running for a District 2 seat include incumbent Rhonda Nelson, architect Scott Falk and marketing coordinator Mary Clancy.
District 1 at-large incumbent Andrew Maletta is unopposed and did not take part in the forum.
Porter did not steer away from local controversial issues, including the best handling of school security, or national issues, including whether teachers should be asked to carry guns in schools.
The handling of school security came to a head when the school year started after months of sometimes heated discussions between school and city officials.
The controversy over school security and the placement of SROs began in the spring when Williams announced a school safety plan, including providing two new SROs to the school district without cost. The district, under Superintendent Amanda Alaniz, introduced its own safety plan which included part-time rotating SROs from neighboring police departments.
At the beginning of this school year, Williams, the city's chief since 2012 and former SRO, sent two additional SROs to Portage High School and Fegely Middle School at no extra cost to the school district and without the district's approval. Administrators sent the two officers away, citing the school board's own safety plan which included hiring officers outside the city. Eventually, the district cut ties with the Portage department and is now using SROs managed by the Porter County Sheriff's Department.
At the forum, Williams reiterated his concern for school safety and his cost-saving plan of having four Portage police officers as school security officers versus bringing in officers outside the city.
He also spoke of his desire for transparency.
"I'm committed to bringing transparency to the school system. It's critical we get your input. I'll not be a rubber stamp to issues," Williams said
Machuca, who has more than 30 years of experience in school administration, spoke of her excitement about running for a position on the School Board.
"I'm really excited to run for office for the first time. I want to make a difference and feel I have the qualifications," Machuca said.
Falk, an architect in Portage for the last 30 years, said his qualifications including serving on the Portage Board of Directors of Student Builders, being married to a second-grade school teacher and serving on numerous boards.
Falk spoke of his bringing his unique experiences to the board, including designing school buildings in the Midwest.
He also spoke of better transparency by the School Board and better communication to residents.
"We need to open it up more," Falk said.
Clancy, who works as a marketing coordinator for North Shore Health Centers in Portage, said at age 21 she has an advantage of serving on the School Board since she is a recent graduate of Portage High School and has a young son who will be attending Portage schools.
"I'm honored to run against the other two candidates. I went through the system myself and graduated in three years with academic honors," Clancy said.
Nelson, who has served on the school board for eight years, said she is "constantly trying to improve myself" as a board member.
That improvement includes attending a Crisis Response Class for K-12 security and seminars on professional development.
All candidates agreed teachers shouldn't have to be armed with guns and instruction of students should be their priority.