EDITOR'S NOTE: The following story is based on a live stream broadcast of an Indiana State Board of Education meeting and subsequent interviews.
CLARK COUNTY — Irreconcilable differences.
Zero chance for reconciliation.
That’s what West Clark Community Schools’ board member Brian Guernsey told the Indiana State Board of Education in Indianapolis today, during the final step in pursuing splitting the district in two parts — with Silver Creek schools being one district and Henryville and Borden campuses teaming up for another district.
After decades of battling each other for funds and resources and two years in pursing approval to separate, the state board voted 10-1 in favor of letting the Clark County taxpayers decide, likely in May 2020, if not sooner.
PRIOR TO THE VOTE
“Local taxpayers, parents, students should not have to deal with irreconcilable differences any longer and they should be able to vote to decide their future, because they know what’s best for their children. Efficient and adequate educational opportunities for all students will be achieved with this separation. Educational improvements and equalized educational opportunities will also be achieved with this separation. Each district will be able to decide with their votes and their tax dollars how to best educate their children,” Guernsey said prior to the vote. “The corrupt competition for resources in West Clark and all the arguing will be over and everyone will be happier for it. The bottom line is we can afford to separate.”
State board member David Freitas, who cast the lone dissenting vote, questioned many parts of the West Clark separation plan, including whether it was financially feasible and if it would result in fewer student opportunities.
Kevin Guernsey, whose wife is a Henryville bus driver and cousin is a school board member, spoke to the state board, asking if they were concerned about finances, why didn’t they step in sooner. He told the state board that money was thrown away on growing administration positions, paying part-time teachers full-time pay and ghost employment, where people were being paid but not working.
“I ask this board, where were you when a former superintendent took a huge, $12 million surplus and we’ve turned it into deficit spending in our corporation? Are there any guidelines you folks have for school corporations that allows that? I find that appalling that that can take place in Indiana,” Kevin Guernsey told the state board. “The former and present West Clark school boards have either allowed or approved all this mess with no oversight or help from the Indiana School Board of Education, you folks. …If you put Henryville and Borden in a separate corporation, they will not allow these blunders, because they will have better oversight and management of resources, because it will be on a local basis. Please allow us to choose our future.”
Jonathan Mayes, a lawyer representing West Clark at the state meeting, told the board all the plans drawn out are using figures from a worst-case scenario, meaning student enrollment and finances would likely be better than anticipated.
“I think it’s important to understand our role,” said B.J. Watts, board chair, adding that he has spent more time at West Clark for this issue than any other state board member. “Our role is to let the community decide what they want. Without a doubt, I feel reorganization is what’s best. All we’re doing is giving them the permission to move forward.”
“Schools are the cornerstone of every community,” Katie Mote, vice-chair of the board, stated in a news release. “Local voters should determine what is best for their schools and their community. I encourage local residents to carefully consider all data available to them as part of their decision-making process, including the financial information provided by the Department of Local Government Finance, and do what is best for their students.”
With four of the five West Clark board members watching on in person, the state board voted to allow the separation to move forward.
Doug Coffman, West Clark board president, said he was shocked with the vote.
“I’m very excited that they finally got to that point. We’re excited about the next step ahead of us,” he said.
That step involves either going to ballot in May 2020 and letting the voters decide or, within the next 90 days, getting 55 percent of registered voters to sign a petition in favor of the separation. If the petition is filled out, there will be no need for the vote, Coffman said.
“As a board member, I would like to [pursue the petition]. It has to be a board decision to decide to go with that option,” Coffman said. “I think it gives us a chance, face-to-face, to explain to a voter what the decision is all about and hopefully inform them more than what they’re reading or hearing from other people.”
Within hours of the vote, Coffman said rumors are already starting to spread in the small communities within West Clark.
“There’s a lot of fear-mongering going on that we’re going to cut teachers’ pay and we’re not going to do that,” he said. “We have great teachers in West Clark on all campuses and I don’t think we’re looking at making any changes from the standpoint of contracts. Our job is to educate students and give them the best possible education we can. I’m sure that will be the new boards’ mission as well. We’ve got to keep kids first and to do that, we need good educators and we already have that.”
He said he wants to explain to voters that this separation is about allowing each campus to pursue their own interests, such as Silver Creek needing renovations and Borden and Henryville wanting to expand opportunities for students.
But even if the petitioners or voters approve the separation, it won’t happen overnight.
“It’s about a one-year process,” Coffman explained. “We’ll be West Clark next year. It’ll be the year following that it’ll be implemented, but we may function as two districts [during that time]. … I think the board is being more realistic that we need to walk through this process and not run through it.”
West Clark is the first district in Indiana to be approved to pursue a separation.
After the state board’s vote, West Clark Superintendent Clemen Perez-Lloyd sent a message to parents and staff.
“As your superintendent, I assure you that our staff will continue doing what is best for students,” she wrote. “WCCS will make sure all stakeholders are well informed. West Clark Community staff will adhere to our core values.”
The West Clark School Board next meets in special session at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 11 at Silver Creek Elementary School, Sellersburg.