The seven Muncie School Board members were selected and announced during a Board of Trustees meeting Monday, June 25. Front row, from left, are David Heeter, WaTasha Barnes Griffin and James Lowe. Back row, from left are Brittany Bales, James Williams and Keith O'Neal. Not picutred is Mark Ervin. Brynn Mechem, DN
Muncie School Board shares hopes for future of MCS
On Sunday, members of the recently elected Muncie Community School (MCS) Board began their role.
When narrowing down the pool of the initial 88 applicants, President Geoffrey Mearns said the Board of Trustees looked for applicants who were involved with the community and had a passion for public education.
Now, the group is touring buildings throughout the district, learning the ins and outs of the school system and completing team-building exercises.
During the meeting on June 25, Mearns said the original goal when forming the school board was to “assemble a school board that consists of people with complementary skills and experiences that reflect the diverse perspectives of the Muncie community.”
Here is a quick look at the members of the new school board:
Having graduated from MCS and Ball State, numerous family members living in the Muncie community and two children attending MCS, Brittany Bales, instructor of special education at Ball State, said Muncie “has always felt like home.”
Bales, who is a former MCS teacher, was selected to serve a four-year term on the Muncie School Board. She said it was her first year as a teacher that inspired her to reach out into the community more.
“I started to feel like I know I can do more outside of the four walls of my classroom,” Bales said. “It’s really easy to complain about the things that are wrong but it’s totally different to try to get in there and get your hands dirty.”
Bales’ experiences as a teacher and a parent in MCS have allowed her to form relationships and a perspective she hopes will make the board feel more accessible to the community.
“I have that kind of insider perspective and I really still have my ear to the ground as far as teachers and their needs go,” Bales said. “I still have several friends who work in the system, so I think that helps and then I also think having all of those connections help because I can have conversations with people.”
She also hopes to create a transparent school board and help others understand how schools earn grades to combat the negativity around MCS.
“The financial component is probably going to be our biggest challenge because really, there’s nothing else wrong with Muncie Schools,” Bales said. “I mean academically they’re great, faculty and staff are out of this world, I mean there’s nothing else.”
Bales also hopes to use her knowledge of the resources Ball State has to offer to further improve MCS, like having Ball State students tutor students from MCS or utilizing Ball State’s technology and professional development opportunities.
Dave Heeter, the CEO of Mutual Bank, comes “from a household of teachers.”
From his parents, his daughter and his sister, who are all teachers, Heeter has seen first hand that “education is everything,” which is why he wants to invest in the future of the community by serving on the school board.
As a graduate of MCS and Ball State, Heeter said his pride in the community was another factor that led him to apply for his new position.
“There’s been a lot of negative press about this, there’s been a lot of criticism, there’s been a lot of negative banter about Muncie, about the Muncie Community Schools, so for me, I think this is an opportunity to try to be part of the solution,” Heeter said.
Throughout his years in the community, Heeter, who was selected to serve a three-year term, said he has “a pretty good feel” for the socioeconomic realities of Muncie and hopes to consider both the history of the city as well as fresh ideas when finding solutions for MCS.
“It will be important for us as we work to get our arms around the very biggest issues first and foremost,” Heeter said. “We need to have a very clear understanding of the financial conditions of the system, and I don’t know that I have that. I’ve heard a lot of different things, but I think spending time just to know exactly where we are is going to be very important because that will influence some of what we can and can’t do.”
Once the board has a more detailed grasp of the challenges MCS is facing, Heeter said a “top priority” of his is learning how to best use the talents of faculty and staff at MCS.
“This is an opportunity for us to do something that’s never been done,” Heeter said. “We want people to be engaged, we need to be transparent — we’re going to try really hard to be, but there are going to be some tough decisions that are going to have to be made, and I think those decisions will be made on what truly is thought to be best for everybody.”
As the board prepares for their new roles and works toward revitalizing MCS, Heeter said patience is important.
“The challenges that we have didn’t happen overnight, and I think it's going to be important to realize that things aren’t going to change overnight either,” Heeter said.
While his children attended MCS, James Lowe, associate vice president for facilities planning and management at Ball State, said he was confident they were receiving a “great education.”
After being selected to serve on the Muncie School Board for a year, Lowe said he wants to provide help and support that will ensure parents in the school system feel the same.
“It’s wanting where you’re from to be respected,” Lowe said. “We all should be involved in fostering that, that this is the community where we want to live, this is where you want to raise your family.”
Lowe, who also attended MCS, has been involved in many projects that aim to help Muncie adjust to the changes it has seen throughout its history, including the Muncie Community Schools 2010 Blue Ribbon Consolidation Committee and the Advisory Committee for Project Lead the Way High School, and said he is honored to have been selected.
“I want to get to know the teachers, I want to get to know how to help the teachers,” Lowe said. “I wouldn’t call that fix, but it's learning what we can do to support, and it's all those, it's the teachers, it's the parents, it's the students — they all need support and they all need our involvement”
Eventually, Lowe said he wants to find a way to support students in a similar way to Ball State, on a step by step basis.
Starting at age five, Lowe said it is important that the school reaches out to children and their families and “guide and support them to middle school, then high school, then college” in order to help retain students.
He also said funds are an important aspect to consider, and hopes to reach out to businesses, organizations and alumni and encourage them to find a way to contribute to improving the community.
James Williams, a lawyer at Defur Voran, was selected to be on the Muncie School Board for four years.
While Williams has not yet been able to speak with The Daily News, he discussed his vision for MCS in the coming years in his application.
“Over the next three to five years, MCS should become an innovative and forward-thinking system that provides a broad range of educational opportunities to its students and the community,” Williams said in his application.
As a former state court judge, Williams has experience working with children and developing educational programs.
He suggested ways that he would help improve the school system, including creating a partnership with Ball State’s Teachers College, and said it is urgent that action be taken quickly.
“If we don’t tackle this with an unrelenting and innovative verve, the children suffer, the community suffers and ultimately, the burden will sink us all,” Williams said.
This section will be updated.
As a Bishop at Destiny Christian Church and vice president of the Collective Coalition of Concerned Clergy, Keith O’Neal, who was selected to serve a four-year term on the Muncie School Board, has felt a responsibility to stay up-to-date with MCS and the Muncie community.
“I just love Muncie, I love this community, I feel like I’m called here,” O’Neal said. “I’ve been all around the world, but everything emanates from here as a home base, and of course now that I’ve planted a church here, I plan to remain.”
O’Neal said he has been following the discussion surrounding MCS and has noticed the shift of students out of the district due to “dissatisfaction with the city schools.”
Now, being part of the school board, O’Neal said he is ready to “put in the work” to aid the school system.
“My interest is to help,” O’Neal said. “I’m an advocate for the city, I’m an advocate for the schools, and so I've seen an opportunity to come in and use my influence and my background.”
Part of what will aid O’Neal in his decision-making is the advice he has received from friends and family who have worked as teachers and administrators.
With one of his main goals being listening to the Muncie community, he has sought advice on how to do so and how to get the best outcome from the suggestions.
“I am not naive enough to think that I know what I’m doing and I know all the answers and I know how it needs to be done, I don’t, but I have the foundation and the capacity to learn and to be able to — based on what I learned — make some sound decisions,” O’Neal said.
Because of his and the rest of the new board’s commitment to the community, O’Neal said he hopes the community will apply one of his personal mantras: “let’s expect the best.”
“This may sound a little harsh in some ways, but it is what it is now,” O’Neal said. “We’re in charge, there is a new school board, we’re not going back, that’s not going to happen, so OK, you can either give us some time, give us a chance to move it forward, or you can complain and talk about the good old days and talk about how it used to be and all that, which doesn’t help at all. So what we’re asking is that you give an opportunity.”
Throughout his life, Mark Ervin, an attorney who will serve two years on the Muncie School Board, said he has felt as if he had “one foot in the Ball State world and one foot in the Muncie Community.”
While he now lives in Selma, Ervin graduated from MCS and Ball State and saw joining the school board as an opportunity to use his talents to give back.
“It’s been a number of tough years with the economy and other things locally, but I think Muncie is a great place with great people,” Ervin said. “It's a special place also where kids growing up can have great opportunities, can learn a lot, can have great opportunities that would serve them both if they continue to stay in Muncie or if they go elsewhere, and the schools are an important part of that.”
Ervin hopes to use his knowledge of the history of Muncie and Ball State to “bridge the community, the schools and the university in a way that can leverage great things to happen for the schools moving forward.”
While his work is just beginning, Ervin said it’s important for the board to become engaged quickly and to use their diverse backgrounds to their advantage.
“We need to be visible. We need to be supportive of everything that the schools are doing — that leads to a goal of excellence,” Ervin said. “I think also, it's going to take a little bit of time, but I think our actions will speak louder than our words.”
Ervin said excellence should be the “benchmark” the board “strives for in everything.” To be able to accomplish this, he said it is first important to understand the economic state of the school system.
“Until we have a sound financial foundation, it's really difficult to move forward toward excellence,” Ervin said. “Until we can do it in a way that is financially responsible and we can do it within our means.”
WaTasha Barnes Griffin
From growing up on the corner of Macedonia Avenue and First Street to sending her children to MCS and being an advocate for families within the public school system, WaTasha Barnes Griffin, Executive Director of the Muncie YWCA, said she is “committed to the stability, education and future of our youth.”
Griffin said she sees serving on the Muncie School Board for four years as an opportunity to share her experiences and represent different groups in the community.
Her ability to bring “diverse groups of people together across race, gender, class and sector in timely calls of action” is something she feels will help both the board and community come together.
Through working on the board, she hopes to ensure “sound governance, evidence-based decision-making, focused return on investment and schools that work for our whole community.”
“I am willing to be a part of this unique opportunity to improve the educational experiences for all of the children, the families, the educators within the MCS system,” Griffin said in an email. “I will be a strong advocate for our children, a strong voice for our community and an effective steward of our dollars. I will proudly uphold the values and morals of this great city of Muncie, Indiana, provide all of my skills to help stabilize our district, create innovative educational opportunities, engage our families in the process and create an educational structure to be envied.”
Griffin also said she hopes to bring “measurable impact, sound governance and servant leadership” with big decisions that need to be made, including balancing the budget, re-imagining facilities and strengthening relationships between parents and the community.
While she expects the different backgrounds of the school board members to compliment each other, Griffin said she hopes the community will “respect the process.”
“Give BSU, the MCS Board and administration a chance,” Griffin said. “Our kids, quality education and supporting our teachers are all equally important.”