To learn more about each candidate and their priorities, read our Monroe County voter’s guide to the local school board elections.
The Monroe County Community School Corporation School Board Candidate Forum on Monday night began with a quote:
“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”
Moderator Lisa-Marie Napoli read this quote from author Margaret Wheatley because she said the MCCSC school board candidates were gathered at Tri-North Middle School to do just that — field the public’s questions, explain their campaign platforms and ultimately define the major community issues on the ballot Nov. 8.
Topics such as school safety, the upcoming MCCSC referendum and racial equity dominated the conversation.
The Indiana Coalition for Public Education–Monroe County invited all six candidates running to represent District 1 and District 3 — the two contested MCCSC school board seats up for election.
Six MCCSC school board candidates showed up — but not necessarily the expected ones. District 1 candidate Byron Turner’s reserved seat sat empty on stage all evening, while District 7 incumbent candidate Brandon Shurr watched from the audience as he is running unopposed.
Candidates answered questions submitted by the ICPE and audience, with the following topics emerging as priorities:
While all candidates cited safety as a major concern, they disagreed over whether School Resource Officers should be armed. District 1 candidate Tabetha Crouch and District 3 candidate Jon Hays supported arming SROs.
The MCCSC school board voted to disarm SROs in May 2021, but some community members have been asking the school board to reevaluate in response to incidents of weapons brought inside MCCSC schools.
A Batchelor Middle School student was arrested after bringing a gun onto a school bus Sept. 13. In May, a 17-year-old boy was taken into Bloomington Police Department custody for posting a Snapchat video waving a handgun and threatening a school shooting at Bloomington High School South. A gun was found in Bloomington High School South on two separate occasions last year.
Crouch said recent incidents involving MCCSC students bringing weapons to school demonstrate the need for a robust SRO program. In addition to arming SROs, Crouch said she wants to provide additional mental health support to students, hear student perspectives on safety and develop a partnership between SROs and the Bloomington Police Department.
“We know there are guns in our schools,” Crouch said. “It’s evident. We need to be more proactive in figuring out how to stop this from happening.”
District 3 candidate Daniel O’Neill said he does not have a firm position regarding arming SROs. His opponent Ashley Pirani said she is firmly against arming SROs and advocated for addressing violence with increased mental health services.
District 1 candidate Erin Wyatt expressed doubt about arming SROs but said she’s open to discussion as long as there is research to support the idea. Wyatt also proposed educating families on how to safely store their weapons.
“We know it didn’t work in Uvalde. It didn’t work in Parkland,” Wyatt said. “By having policy in place involving social workers, mental health professionals and perhaps law enforcement, we can end the cycle of violence before it starts.”
Candidates found themselves all in agreement after an audience member asked if they support the MCCSC referendum. The answer was a resound yes from all parties.
Related: [Referendum to increase teacher salary on the ballot this November]
O’Neill acted as the campaign manager for the 2016 “Yes for MCCSC” Referendum Campaign. He began his opening remarks Monday night by encouraging the audience to vote in favor of the referendum and continued to advocate for the referendum throughout the evening. O’Neill also said he does not like that Indiana public school funding relies so heavily on referendums.
“Public schools properly supported are the greatest engine of social justice and upward mobility that exists,” O’Neill said. “We flat out need this. It’s not an add on or a bonus; it’s a crucial part of our ability to remain a competitive school system.”
The rest of the candidates all said a referendum provides funding necessary to pay MCCSC teachers competitive wages and combat the Indiana teacher shortage.
“If it doesn’t go through, we lose a lot of teachers,” Hays said.
In addition to paying teacher salaries, Pirani said she supports the referendum because it allocates funds to MCCSC special education programs. As the parent of a child with an Individualized Education Plan, Pirani has continuously advocated for special education funding.
Related: [MCCSC fills all teaching positions, but Indiana teachers face nationally low pay, public criticism]
“I’ve been in tune with MCCSC for the last decade,” Pirani said. “Whether that’s working on school board campaigns, showing up at school board meetings to speak, or canvasing for referendums, I’ve been there.”
An audience member asked candidates their goals for addressing racial equity in MCCSC schools. Pirani cited equity as one of her main priorities. If elected, she hopes to reimagine MCCSC’s districts to ensure diversity within all schools and equal opportunities for all neighborhoods.
Pirani also said she appreciates MCCSC’s strategic plan and its efforts to eliminate bias in disciplinary actions, something Pirani hopes to continue focusing on.
“We must continue to address the disciplinary discrepancies we have with our marginalized population,” Pirani said.
O’Neill said he devoted two decades to increased minority student access to medical school, an experience he said prepared him to advocate for equal academic opportunities for MCCSC students. Now the Chair of Anatomy/Physiology and Physical Science at Ivy Tech–Bloomington, O’Neill helped found the IU Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students.
“I’ve made meaningful inclusion an important part of my career from the start,” O’Neill said.
Controversial Indiana Legislation
The ICPE asked candidates their thoughts on how the district should address teaching concepts of race, history and gender in light of the controversial education bills that were shot down in the Indiana legislature. For instance, Indiana Senate Bill 167 would have banned teachers from teaching divisive concepts, but it died in the state senate after the bill’s author said teachers need to remain impartial when teaching about Nazism.
Crouch, O’Neill, Pirani and Wyatt all expressed contempt for the bills. Pirani said she feared the bill would have gone further if not for backlash against the viral Nazism comment.
Wyatt said teaching students the United States’ complete history, although it may not all be fun or easy, is crucial to creating functioning members of society.
“We would be remiss not to recognize the history of our country,” Wyatt said. “There’s a saying ‘Those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.’”
Hays did not express a firm opinion on this topic.
“I don’t know what you guys are talking about, I apologize,” Hays said. “I’m not up with the legislative bills.”
Another audience question asked candidates to explain how they would respond if a group claiming to represent parent interests asked the board to remove certain books from MCCSC libraries. All candidates reached a consensus on this matter — they would all hear the group out during the public comment portion of a school board meeting, but none of them support book banning.
Related: [IU School of Education to host tour of decorated doors honoring Banned Book Week]
Crouch, whose platform includes increased parent involvement and school board transparency, said it is important to respect the public’s right to speak at school board meetings. However, she opposes removing books from MCCSC libraries due to parent complaints.
“I would also listen and seek to understand, but in general, I don’t support banning books from libraries,” Crouch said.
The unanimous agreements between candidates ended when an audience member asked the candidates’ thoughts on how charter schools and vouchers impact public funds.
Pirani and O’Neill took the firmest stances against charter schools, both likening the use of taxpayer dollars towards charter schools to “taxation without representation” due to the lack of publicly elected governing body.
Crouch took a more sympathetic perspective. She said she needs to do more research, but she supports parents’ right to make the right educational choice for their child without money acting as a barrier.