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EACS board’s new faces look to break the mold

Hoffman
Nelson
Baker

One opposes the district’s iPad initiative and plans to avoid “joining the good old boy network.”

Another favors a highly involved school board, both in district operations and in the community.

The third believes board members bring attendance-area rivalries into the boardroom.

On Jan. 8, Arden Hoffman, 56, Bob Nelson, 55, and Chris Baker, 45 – newly elected East Allen County Schools board members – will become official members of the board during its first meeting of the year.

The three – all East Allen graduates who campaigned for change – join a board that made significant changes in the past four years, including the passage of a redesign plan that closed and consolidated schools and a technology initiative that put iPads in the hands of almost every student in the district.

But in recent months, the board’s meetings have become a public arena for disagreements and bickering over contracts, policies and past board decisions.

Current board members are Stephen Terry, Bill Hartman, Neil Reynolds and Terry Jo Lightfoot, who was the only incumbent re-elected in November.

Hartman, a six-year board member, said he’s excited about the new members. He hopes Nelson and Baker, both Adams Township residents, will help finalize the redesign project in that area after a failed referendum for construction projects.

“I’m looking forward to the energy and commitment to East Allen County Schools of the three new members,” he said.

All three have acknowledged the challenges facing not only the board but also the district. They hope to bring a fresh perspective, each from a different view.

Arden Hoffman

Hoffman said it’s too early to comment on the learning curve he faces as an incoming EACS board member. While on the campaign trail, he ran into Leland Etzler, a former one-term board member and veteran teacher of 43 years who said it took nearly two years to feel comfortable in his role as a board member.

“I’ve been drinking from a fire hose so far,” Hoffman said of the two months from election night to the first board meeting.

Hoffman has lived in Hoagland all his life. The Heritage Junior-Senior High School graduate is the father of three children and is an engineer for Raytheon. He’s also taught Junior Achievement in the district for 25 years.

His presence at board meetings as an observer and elected member has been consistent. But he hasn’t been as vocal publicly as Nelson and Baker, except for a three-minute presentation at the last board meeting about a book he believes would be beneficial for board members and Superintendent Karyle Green to read.

“I’m really kind of the wild card,” he said of his presence among the seven members.

He said his presentation Dec. 18 on “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” a book by Steven Covey, was the beginning of a plan to help create a more effective district. While campaigning, he heard many complaints from constituents about areas where they’d like to see change.

“Voters are mad and do not want business as usual,” said Hoffman, who defeated 16-year incumbent Rick Allgeier in the November election.

Hoffman said it’s already become clear that the board’s new members must be cautious “not to let ourselves get into the trap of joining the good old boy network.”

“(Current board members) want to mold us into little tin soldiers. I want to break that mold because it could hinder all of us from having the out-of-the-box thinking I think we need,” he said.

Hoffman said part of the battle for him will be learning how to step out of the managerial role he’s used to and into a more collaborative one.

“I look at it as a challenge to be convincing and persuasive,” he said.

Hoffman said those qualities are currently missing on the board. Many members have strong opinions and good ideas but fail to garner support for them or to even speak up at the right time, he said.

Hoffman has already taken issue with the district’s iPad initiative, specifically what he said was the board’s lack of analysis on the program’s long-term effects. He called the plan a “dismal failure” and cited board policies that were violated because board members fast-tracked the idea. Hoffman has refused to accept the iPad given to all board members, saying it would be hypocritical.

The iPad rollout isn’t a plan Hoffman believes can or should be reversed, but he said it represents a greater problem of the board setting the direction for the district yet not following its own established policies.

He said he hopes board members will read the book he suggested and that it will help members in dealing with one another and building life skills and character.

“I’m hopeful that the other four board members will assume their proper roles given some time,” he said.

Bob Nelson

Nelson, a graduate of Woodlan Junior-Senior High School and coach in the district for about 10 years, believes the district has fostered a serious lack of trust among taxpayers, board members, administrators, principals and teachers.

He takes the seat formerly held by Janice Witte, who opted not to run for a spot on the board. He is in favor of a board that is involved in the goings on of the administration, at least until that trust returns.

He hopes to use his skills as the owner of a marketing firm for his role in what he calls the board’s “healing process,” which includes more cooperation and communication among members.

But Nelson isn’t naïve enough to believe it will happen overnight, he said.

He believes the process starts with electing the right leadership, including board president. That election will take place at the board’s reorganization meeting Jan. 8. He also hopes to get the community more engaged in the board’s work, including the strengths and weaknesses of the district.

“We have a tendency not to respond to negative things,” he said. “We have challenges and what we’ve done is ignore them; … we need to address the negative with honesty, … and (discuss) what we’re doing to improve.”

Nelson has been actively involved in the community and wants to continue to be active throughout the district as an at-large member.

He said in his discussions with constituents, he’s heard the warnings: be careful, don’t be naïve, stand your ground, don’t make it personal, don’t get emotional.

He hopes these relationships will serve as a system of checks and balances to keep him focused on improving the board and the district.

He said an important thing all board members need to do is read the information they’re provided before the meetings.

“There needs to be a commitment to doing your homework,” he said.

Chris Baker

After a short stint of what he dubbed “buyer’s remorse” about his newly elected position, Baker said he’s looking forward to representing the New Haven area.

He replaces Alyssa Lewandowski, who chose not to run for re-election.

A longtime resident of the city, Baker manages an architectural firm in downtown New Haven.

He said the new members will bring change, despite still being a minority on the seven-member board, because the three share similar views for changes in accountability and transparency.

“There’s going to be change regardless of a majority vote,” he said. “We’re already dysfunctional. I can’t make it any worse.

“We can only hope that when we’re done, there’s improvement.”

He believes his personality won’t allow him to succumb to the dysfunction of the board.

“The way things are done, … it’s not working,” he said. “That’s not to say we’re not going to function as a team, but I’m not going to be pressured into voting one way or another.”

The board as a whole, he said, needs to improve the way it functions to set an example for the rest of the district.

“I think our board has lost focus as to who they serve,” Baker said. “First and foremost, they serve the taxpayers, and I think they’ve forgotten that.”

But Baker stressed that the board serves all taxpayers, not just those from a certain area. He said too many members bring a “them-against-us” mentality into the boardroom.

“We are EACS. Period,” he said. “The community needs to understand that rivalries belong on the athletic field. I fully believe (unification) is possible, but I believe it’s going to take a lot of work.”

sarah.janssen@jg.net

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