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Bill to change makeup of appointed Valpo school board gets mixed reaction

State Rep. Ed Soliday is proposing a bill to change the makeup of the Valparaiso School Board from fully appointed to hybrid, with two elected candidates representing unincorporated Center Township, for what he calls equity of representation.

“I’ve had a bill drafted for probably 10 years,” Soliday said. “Valparaiso schools are unique in that 40.25% of the students live outside the city limits.”

House Bill 1360 has been referred to the education committee for a hearing, which Soliday doesn’t expect the bill to get, and added it needs more input. “I’ll be the first to admit this is not perfection,” said Soliday, R-Valparaiso.

Even in its imperfect form, the proposed bill, slated to change the board makeup starting July 1, is drawing a mixed reaction. Mayor Jon Costs, who took office Jan. 1 and previously served four terms as mayor, as well as part of a term on the school board, said the proposal is a starting point for discussion to determine the best school board format for the community.

Center Township Trustee Jesse Harper and City Council President Robert Cotton, D-2, see the proposal differently.

Harper said there have been grumblings about the process since the township board, on a 2-1 vote, selected Erika Robinson-Watkins to serve on the school board almost three years ago. Robinson, the first Black person selected to serve on the board, lives within the Valparaiso city limits and not in the unincorporated area of the township.

Cotton, meanwhile, said the proposal didn’t come from the community at large and rather, Soliday “is trying to usurp” the school board selection process.

The proposal comes when for the first time in years, the township advisory board and the city council both have Democratic majorities; the city council switched from a Republican majority to a Democratic majority after the November election.

That may not be helping the optics of Soliday’s proposal for Cotton and Harper, also a Democrat.

Cotton said he’s not surprised that Soliday would have contempt for home rule.

“I’ve already gotten a letter from a constituent asking us to pass a resolution and even fight downstate” against the measure, Cotton said.

The discussion about moving to an elected board is different this time around than it has been in the past, Cotton said, because it’s not coming from the community, but from a handful of people who want to keep power and take the city and township substantially out of the loop.

“(Soliday) hasn’t had a public hearing to hear what we want,” Cotton said.

The township advisory board gives more weight to applicants from unincorporated Center Township, Harper said, but also can’t disenfranchise city residents. Even when those applicants were given more weight during the appointment process in 2021, Robinson-Watkins still received the majority vote, he added.

“I don’t want it to be done in a way that disenfranchises or nullifies the board choice, nor penalizes the township board,” Harper said, adding he’s gotten “lots of positive feedback” since Robinson-Watkins’ appointment.

In its current form, the school board is fully appointed, with one appointment made by the Center Township Advisory Board and the other four by the Valparaiso City Council.

Under Soliday’s proposal, a five-person commission put together by the mayor, the city council, the township trustee and a parent-teacher association from a school in unincorporated Center Township, would be charged with vetting potential school board candidates.

Their duties would include coming up with three people from unincorporated Center Township to be placed on the ballot, with voters selecting two of them, and five people from within the city limits, with the city council selecting two board members and the mayor selecting one.

For Soliday, the bill is about equity of representation. When the Center Township Advisory Board appointed Robinson-Watkins, “the phone started to ring (from township residents) that we have no representation,” he said.

The bill is not directed at removing Robinson-Watkins from the board, Soliday said, and the way the legislation is written, she could apply for the position and be appointed by the commission for one of the city’s appointments.

In addition to expanding the representation for residents in unincorporated Center Township, Soliday said the bill also strips away the partisan requirement for current appointees, meant to balance the board politically.

The process for selecting school board members, said Costas, has improved over the years to include citizen input and open interviews with prospective board members.

“I think it’s a thoughtful process and a process that’s worked well,” he said, adding selecting school board members is the most important thing the City Council does, especially since the school corporation’s budget is larger than the city’s.

At the same time, “I always said I would support a move to an elected board,” Costas said, echoing Soliday about the growing population in unincorporated Center Township and the need for those residents to have greater representation.

The push for an elected school board in Valparaiso last came up in full force in 2012, as the school corporation’s budget tanked with a $3.2 million deficit and the community witnessed an exodus among the administration.

That also was the year the School City of East Chicago switched to an elected board from an appointed one.

There is only one hybrid appointed/elected school board in Indiana and that is the School City of Mishawaka, according to a spokesperson with the Indiana School Board Association. It has a five-member board — three members are elected, one is appointed by the city council, and one is appointed by the mayor.

“The first thing is to preserve the great school system we have,” Soliday said, adding he’s meeting with a handful of elected officials to determine how to improve the bill.

“I’m starting with small circles and will grow the circles and bring more and more people in,” he said, adding “It’s a complex issue. We’re trying to deal with it in a rational way.”

Harper said Soliday is willing to talk about the proposed legislation.

“I believe there’s some work to be done if this legislation is to be considered at the statehouse,” Harper said.

Costas finds the vetting process for candidates through the commission “too cumbersome” and said he’s talked to Soliday about how the proposed bill needs input from more people, including community leaders.

“It does at least create a discussion, a discussion that’s going to take some time,” said Costas, adding his hope is that the best solution evolves out of those talks.

alavalley@chicagotribune.com