The Journal Gazette
Sunday, May 08, 2022 1:00 am

Video highlights NACS tensions

Superintendent flees angry crowd in hall

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

Superintendent Chris Himsel ended his final in-person regular board meeting forced into hiding at Carroll High School, where he eluded more than 30 men, women and children intent on a confrontation, video obtained by The Journal Gazette shows.

No audio accompanies the security footage, which shows multiple, simultaneous camera angles in real time. A woman holding an “Unmask NACS students now” sign spots the Northwest Allen County Schools leader from down the hall and alerts people off-camera, who quickly enter the frame in their rush toward Himsel.

He eludes the group – which includes a man with an apparent gun and badge at his hip – by ducking into a side hallway and pulling the doors closed behind him. Moments later, the woman who first spotted Himsel points to his escape route, but the crowd can't breach the doors.

Undeterred, the crowd persists and races outside before ultimately loitering for an hour in the parking lot where Himsel and other Northwest Allen County Schools leaders, including central office administrators and board members, return to their cars under police escort.

The video obtained through a public records request illustrates the tensions between Himsel and opponents to measures designed to stop the spread of COVID-19.

At least one person faced criminal charges in connection with the Sept. 27 meeting, which was the first without public comment and was held in a classroom with overflow seating in the cafeteria. A 34-year-old woman was charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass after a sheriff's deputy asked her about 13 times to leave an area that at the time was open only to students attending after-school activities and staff, according to a probable cause affidavit.

Himsel, who declined last week to comment about that night, went on medical leave for undisclosed reasons about three months later. The board formally accepted his retirement on March 28; it takes effect June 30.

The 8,000-student district hopes to name Himsel's successor by then. The board is considering two candidates from an applicant pool of two, spokeswoman Lizette Downey said last week.

The search has garnered public comment from Himsel's critics, including Travis Striggle. On April 25, Striggle told the board that this superintendent hire will be among the district's most important given everything that's happened over the past year. He encouraged the elected leaders to consider candidates' character as well as their experience and credentials.

“I think that that could keep us from kind of making the same mistake over again,” Striggle said.

Respected statewide, Himsel is a member of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents in good standing, Executive Director Robert Taylor said, adding Himsel's peers selected him as the 2017 Indiana Superintendent of the Year.

“He is a well-respected educational leader throughout the state,” Taylor said by email. “Dr. Himsel is recognized both regionally and nationally as an educator who is committed to facilitating and providing an optimum learning program for all students.”

Taylor declined to speculate whether events at last year's school board meetings may have affected NACS' applicant pool. The superintendents association does not comment on individual situations relating to local issues.

But Phil Downs, a former Southwest Allen County Schools superintendent, said it's likely the contention affected interest.

“I think it's affecting the candidate pool everywhere,” Downs said, referring to the vitriol that became common nationwide during the coronavirus pandemic.

The mask debate was especially heated at NACS, where board meetings last year attracted disruptive, unruly audiences. The board suspended public comment in September and shifted to a virtual format Oct. 13 as safety concerns increased. In-person meetings with public comment resumed in January.

Much of the unrest seen during the pandemic seems to be ebbing, Downs said, and the summer should help to further restore normalcy, which bodes well for superintendent searches.

Districts use various approaches to fill superintendent vacancies, Downs said. Some hire search firms, some conduct targeted searches and others nurture internal candidates.

NACS advertised its opening through its online jobs board from March 29 to April 5.

Job seekers are likely considering districts' past performances – specifically regarding the board and superintendent, Downs said. Districts with board turmoil and high superintendent turnover are less attractive.

“Those are definitely warning signs that that is not a place you can go and actually hope to get a lot done,” said Downs, who led SACS for seven years and is now a faculty member at Trine University's Franks School of Education.

But Himsel's 12-year tenure at NACS is a “very good sign” for those aspiring to lead the district, Downs said.

During the April 25 meeting, board member Steve Bartkus assured Striggle that the board is being thorough in its selection process.

“All those topics that you brought up as far as what we're looking (for in) a new superintendent, those are all issues we're taking into consideration,” Bartkus said.

Whoever leads NACS next will likely have a rosy start. Downs said there's usually a honeymoon period where the superintendent and the board want everybody to think the right decision was made.

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