The quiet contest for four seats on the Fort Wayne Community Schools board is a clue residents are satisfied with the direction the state's largest public school district is moving. Board President Julia Hollingsworth does not face a challenger for her District 1 seat. Incumbents Anne Duff and Maria Norman have one challenger for their at-large seats; Jordan Lebamoff faces a single challenger for his District 4 seat. Each should be re-elected.
The next four years hold a major task for the school board: Superintendent Wendy Robinson has announced she will not seek an extension after her contract expires at the end of June 2020. As the search process begins next year, it's important to have experienced, committed board members.
Duff, a former FWCS teacher and guidance counselor, is seeking a second term. As a member of Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education, she's well-versed on state and national education policies and has been a strong public schools advocate for many years. She continues to speak against education privatization. Duff said she fears school vouchers could create a system of haves and have-nots, with public schools the only option for students with special needs or students whose parents can't afford private tuition costs exceeding a voucher reimbursement.
“Public education is the one shot every child has,” she said. “They may not get that the rest of their lives, but at least from age 3 to 18, they can.”
Norman is seeking her first full term as an at-large member. She joined the board 18 months ago after being unanimously selected by the school board from among 20 applicants seeking to fill Mark Gia-Quinta's seat.
“I've loved it,” she said of her board post. “I went to the Indiana School Board Association conference in October, and I just tried to absorb as much information as I possibly could. ... Even the complaints – I think those are learning issues for me.”
Norman, who manages the student information portal for Purdue Fort Wayne, said a diverse family background has given her an appreciation for the broad spectrum of abilities the school district must accommodate in serving students.
“I know we have that group of students who need an advocate who is watching out for them,” she said.
Brian Thompson is the third candidate for one of the at-large seats. A route driver for Aunt Millie's Bakeries, he said he was inspired to run out of concern for his daughter's safety. He believes the district should have metal detectors at each school and he is a critic of the Common Core curriculum, which is not used in Indiana.
“I would be someone to ask questions on the board,” he said. “When we have bids that come up – food bids or construction bids – I would ask the pros and cons.”
Lebamoff, an attorney in his family's law firm, is seeking his third term on the board. He said finding Robinson's successor will likely require a national search.
“Given the nature of our district, we need someone that has some familiarity and has their feet on the ground in similar urban settings,” he said. “We're a very diverse urban district. It's a different creature than a rural district or a small suburban district.”
Lebamoff's challenger is Rachel Rayburn, associate professor of public policy at Purdue Fort Wayne. An educator for 15 years, she was inspired to run for school board by her own experience with the foster care system and said she hopes to become a foster parent and eventually to adopt.
“There are so many kids in foster care that temporarily need a safe place to stay or someone to be their advocate – and perhaps long term,” she said. “That's one of my top priorities in life.”
While Rayburn has not familiarized herself with issues specific to the district, her enthusiasm for addressing bullying, nutrition, school safety and more would be a tremendous asset. We hope she'll become involved in district schools and return as a candidate.
For now, the school district needs the steadying influence of its incumbent members. We recommend Duff, Norman and Lebamoff.