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Schoolyard Scrape

Code Blue Schools make their bid for Fort Wayne Community School board. And it could get ugly.

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-10-21


“Do you want to talk about buildings?” asks Evert Mol, Fort Wayne Community School board candidate. “Sure, I guess I can talk about buildings…”

Frankly, Evert Mol seems a little tired of talking about buildings. But it’s because of buildings that Mol finds himself as a contender for the 5th district seat on the Fort Wayne Community School Board, running against 27-year FWCS board veteran Steve Corona.

Last year, Mol led a remonstrance against Fort Wayne Community Schools’ $500 million bond for a building and renovation project, claiming the project was extravagant, wasteful, and most importantly, a distraction from FWCS primary missions — academic performance and raising test scores. The organization that campaigned against the project, Code Blue Schools (named in reference to the blue petitions they used), gathered over 26,000 signatures, almost three times the number of signatures collected by the project’s supporters.

Supporters of the project claimed it was necessary in order to fix schools that were in dire need of repair and maintenance. Mol, a retired chemical engineer who for the last five years has volunteered at Indian Village Elementary School and Elmhurst High School several days a week, says that his stance on the state of FWCS facilities is the same as it was in 2007. “Nobody ever said the buildings didn’t need work. The people who signed blue petitions never said they didn’t need work. They just thought it was outrageous and it was too much money.”

At the time, people against the project proposed a $300 million compromise, but the school board turned it down. “All I can tell you is that out of all the people who signed blue petitions, the people that I talked to, which was probably close to a thousand, were pretty much in accord with what I was saying,” Mol says. “They were willing to spend some money on the buildings, but they just didn’t believe what the district was telling them.”

This distrust of the way FWCS officials and board members are running the district is a constant theme with those behind Code Blue Schools, which this year launched a political action committee with the goals of increasing academic performance to comply with federal mandates and promote fiscal responsibility.

Mol ran for FWCS board back in 2004 but lost. What’s changed in 2008 is that Mol and Code Blue Schools have some public recognition and, they believe, support for what they’re trying to accomplish. What hasn’t changed — not since Mol’s first run for school board in 2004, and not since the remonstrance last year — is FWCS lack of progress in addressing the district’s academic problems. Mol says that until this year, when FWCS introduced their “Balanced Scorecard“ system of objectives, they had done nothing he could see to turn things around. “I was upset four years ago about the lack of progress in test scores, particularly among the minorities that I see in the schools,” Mol says. “Even though we’re facing federal mandates to have 100% of the kids passing the test (ISTEP) by 2014, which is not going to happen, but I think the schools knowing that there’s no way anybody was going to make that happen, they just blew the whole thing off. They made no effort, really, or set any sort of schedule or timetable for even getting close to those objectives, so they’ve made no progress whatsoever.”

“Mr. Corona has not insisted on doing anything up until (Mark) GiaQuinta (FWCS board president) got on the board and insisted they do something, at least set some objectives,” Mol adds. “They were content to stick with the status quo and stay the course. That’s exactly what (FWCS superintendent) Wendy Robinson said. We’re going to stay the course because we think this is going to get us there.”

Mol says he has been saying all this at FWCS board meetings for years, and got nothing in response. That’s why he started the remonstrance, he says, and that’s why he’s running for the school board again. “It’s like talking to a bunch of stone statues,” Mol says. “You have to piss people off to get anything to change, and then you’re the enemy.”

Even if he didn’t have the remonstrance to point to, Mol has certainly accomplished that last point — people are angry at him. “I don’t understand a platform that says you’re going to return to the 1950s,” says Mark GiaQuinta, president of FWCS board. “I don’t understand how you can educate and prepare people for 2050 by going back to 1950. The 1950s was a racist decade in this country. That gave us Brown vs. Board of education. What exactly do you want to go back to, Evert? What about the 50s is it that you want to see? Because we don’t live in the 1950s anymore, and we better understand that, and adapt ourselves to the year and the century in which we live, and make the necessary changes to benefit these children and their parents and society.”

Mol says thinly veiled accusations of racism have been leveled at him since the remonstrance. “It’s ironic, because the kids that are suffering in this system the worst are the African-American kids, but that doesn’t seem to bother anybody,” Mol says. “They’re the ones that are passing at rates 30% lower than the white kids, but no one seems to want to do anything about it. I’m trying to fix that, but in raising objections to what I see, I’m being called a racist. I don’t understand it, but if that’s what they want to do, I can’t stop them.”

GiaQuinta is just as unsparing when talking about the remonstrance and the rejected $300 million compromise. “I was the one who made the motion to reduce the bond issue from $500 million to $300 million,” he says. “Evert didn’t. He wasn’t involved in the discussion. I got everybody to buy in, but I didn’t have the votes. It was either zero or $500 million, neither of which were acceptable. My compromise would have, and should have, been approved. It wasn’t. Well, you don’t look back, you look forward.”

What it all comes down to, says GiaQuinta, is that Mol and the people involved with Code Blue Schools are too negative. They’re all about pointing fingers and blaming people. GiaQunita concedes that maybe district officials haven’t quite figured out how to get today’s students interested and engaged, but in that, FWCS is not that much different from school districts all across the country; in fact, considering the sheer size of the FWCS system, we’re probably in better shape than most. That’s something the public doesn’t really get — FWCS is a huge enterprise. It’s the largest employer in town, GiaQunita says, with 53 schools; over 32,000 students and more “special needs” students than the entire student population of Southwest Allen; over 4,000 employees… “I don’t blame people, because I didn’t really get it either,” says GiaQunita. “What’s Northwest Allen County paying for a high school and an elementary school? Over $100 million. That’s two schools. We’ve got 53. When you start talking about fixing 53 schools, you’re going to end up with a huge number. Now, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be efficient, and it will be, but it’s a huge number, until you see NWACS do Carroll and a new elementary. So people look at the absolute number, and they get kind of upset, and I don’t blame them.”

GiaQuinta says FWCS are making progress at addressing the needs of today’s students, pointing to the new “high tech school” initiative at Wayne, all-day kindergarten (“We’re getting kids in to school earlier. Playtime is over, They’re not in full-day kindergarten to play games anymore. We teach in kindergarten. Now, we teach at an age appropriate level, but there’s teaching going on.”). They’re seeing great results, he says, but they’re doing it through collaboration with the superintendent, the teachers, the teacher’s union, parents, and school leadership. “(Mol) builds himself up by tearing other people down. He’s just a very bitter person who can’t see the benefit of working with people.”

Mol’s opponent Steve Corona also claims it’s easier for him to figure out what Mol is against than what he’s for. “Evert Mol has a difficult time saying any positive things about our school corporation. He really struggles. I’m not sure if he offers or sees any hope within our district.”

More to the point, he says the solutions he has heard from Mol are too simplistic and expensive. A 27-year veteran of the FWCS board, Corona says obviously some issues the school system struggles with have changed dramatically since he joined in 1981. Fort Wayne was still a manufacturing community then; a student could leave high school and still get a decent paying job in town. “There wasn’t that intense focus on what schools were doing to prepare people for life after high school,” Corona says. “Things, economically speaking, were okay.”

But the never-ending battle has always been school funding. “So when (Evert Mol) says ‘we’re going to have to spend more money in the classroom…’ well, it’s a hell of a lot easier to say than to get accomplished.”

Corona notes the success they’ve had implementing full-day kindergarten. Not only have reading scores improved, but results like that mean the possibility of more funding from state legislators. “I think legislators are looking for good educational investments and I’m not sure that our district, or any district, has been able to show them something that works until now,” he says. “What we need to do is go back to the members of the general assembly and say ‘we need your help to fully fund kindergarten.’ And the next step after that is to begin a conversation regarding funding pre-school learning for more children. We remain one of the 11 states in the country that gets no state support, or very little support, for preschool learning. The fact is, those kids are ready to learn.”

Yet Code Blue School supporters detect a familiar trend in a lot of the criticism directed at their efforts. They say FWCS officials like to paint “with us or against us” picture of the issue; you’re either a cheerleader for the district or you’re anti-school system. “It’s not only that,” says Lockwood Marine, a retired businessman who has served on numerous boards in Fort Wayne (he currently chairs the Metropolitan Human Relations Commission) and is one of the key people behind Code Blue Schools. “I’ve been painted as a racist all over this community because Dr. Robinson is African-American and I opposed the capitol program so they say ‘that’s against inner city kids, so by definition you’re a racist.’ Yeah, I’m frustrated by that, but my skin is thick.”

Marine has over 30 years experience in business, and a resume that includes a successful career in senior management at some major corporations. Much like Mol, Marine came from humble beginnings (Mol is from Fort Wayne; Marine says he came from a “very poor Appalachian environment”) and went on to great success, and says he owes it all to public education. He says the Fort Wayne Community School board could be doing a lot more to address issues like discipline in the schools, academic excellence, and teaching staff. “Whatever changes need to be made, the school board can set the tone, mandate those changes, and take the political heat for whatever needs to be done.”

Mol is also stung by criticism that he’s anti-school district, and of course offended by implications that he’s racist. The latter, he believes comes from questioning the effectiveness of the FWCS’ “Racial Balance Fund,” a 1989 program designed to increase the test scores of African-American students. Mol said he hadn’t seen any evidence that the program worked.

As someone who has volunteered his own time at the schools for five years, and worked as an unpaid substitute, he’s puzzled by accusations that he doesn’t know what today’s schools are like, or that he just likes to criticize. But he simply doesn’t believe the FWCS board is really doing all it can to get test scores up and improve the district. There are creative and efficient ways to solve the problem of how to get more teachers in the classroom — he points out programs where college students work as assistants in the classroom, and other volunteer programs that should be looked in to. He also believes residents of the district would not mind a small increase in taxes if it meant results.

“The problems are systemic problems,” Mol says. “They’re not the fault of the people that work in the district, they’re not the fault of the teachers. I’ve been in the schools, I’ve talked to the teachers, so I think deep down the teachers know I would be good for them on the board. I don’t think the teacher’s union is going to say that, but the teachers know that I know what they’re faced with in the classrooms. Their biggest complaint is social promotion, kids coming in and they still aren’t ready. Why aren’t they ready before (the teachers) get them? I’ve also been in the elementary schools. I know that if we don’t get them before third grade, we’re probably not going to get them at all. On the board, I can advocate for the teachers without fear of repercussions.”

And of course, it’s not going to be simple or easy. “I think it’s going to be a full-time job, like being un-retired, because I’m going to have to go to every building in the system,” he says. “I’ve only got four years to do it, and I think it’s going to be very intense.”

It’s already pretty intense.

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