What started as an open letter addressed to county officials regarding the future of local education has ballooned from just over a dozen signers into more than 120.

The Plain Dealer published “A joint open letter to Wabash County leaders” on Saturday, July 23. That letter was signed by some familiar names in the community including Richard Church, of Parkview Health; Marilyn Custer-Mitchell, of Waypoint; Howard Halderman, of Halderman Companies; Bob Krouse, of MPS Egg Farms; David McFadden, of Manchester University; and Tod Minnich, of the Honeywell Foundation, to name a few.

In a recent phone interview with the Plain Dealer, another of those original signatories, community volunteer Dave Haist, took time to discuss their group’s founding and their goals for the future.

How the group formed

Haist said the group was “very much a grassroots effort.”

“It was the result of a number of folks just talking about some of the needs for our county or concerns,” said Haist. “So, we ended up getting together and kind of brainstorming.”

Haist said they were inspired by the recent work on the Imagine One 85 comprehensive plan, which was spearheaded by Grow Wabash County and the Community Foundation of Wabash County, to combat the local problem of population loss.

“They found when they surveyed the county that one of the top issues of citizens throughout the county was education,” said Haist. “We certainly heard that and started to think, ‘Well, what can we do to assure that Wabash County has its swagger and really is a county where we can tout that you come and live and work in Wabash County and you’ll have as good a K-12 program as anywhere in the state?’”

Haist said they aren’t an official group and weren’t appointed by anyone else.

“We’re just folks who are interested in the future of the county for all sorts of reasons,” said Haist.

The joint open letter which resulted was addressed specifically to the Wabash County Commissioners; members of the Wabash County Council; members of the councils of LaFontaine, Lagro, North Manchester, Roann and Wabash; Mayor Scott Long; and members of MSD, Manchester Community Schools and Wabash City Schools boards of education.

“As we got together we said what would really be helpful was having a diverse group who was representative of folks throughout the county that would have representatives from our school boards, our town and city councils, our county council, our commissioners,” said Haist. “And then, some at-large folks that would just be a cross-section of the county. Business people, civic people, former educators, whatever. To pull a group like that and really study what might be possible.”

What the group seeks to accomplish

Haist said the group wants what is best for the students in the area by encouraging areas including academics, athletics, arts, band, STEM and advanced manufacturing, to name a few.

“All of those types of things … that could really be evaluated and reviewed. This is what we really ought to have available in our county,” said Haist.

Haist said they would ideally like to put a group together of about two dozen “that would spend whatever time they need” to examine the state of education in the county over anywhere from six to 12 months.

Haist said they would also seek to involve outside professional educational consultants to “provide some insight into what’s available in other parts of the state and other parts of the country.”

Haist said they also wanted to explore the possibility of holding some community meetings and surveys.

Haist said the intended end result of all this would be to create a “vision for what that truly competitive K-12 program would be for the future and develop a pathway to get us from here to there.”

“So, what our group has asked for is for our county officials to support that kind of effort and allow a group of folks, again, representatives of all the political bodies that are addressed in the letter, and then also some at-large folks as well to really discuss this, explore it, get input, get professional advice and then come back with a vision and a road map going forward,” said Haist.

Haist said they were open to whatever form these discussions would take in the future.

“Education is such an important issue for the county in all sorts of ways, most importantly for the needs of our students. It’s just really warrants a real deep dive into exploring what would be possible,” said Haist. “We’ve got a rich history of education. We’ve got teachers and administrators that have dedicated their lives to serving the needs of students and have for years and years. I think we have a lot to be proud of. We just want to be certain we have the resources available to teachers and administrators going forward that is needed for the future and really think that having a group to study what is possible would be really helpful.”

Haist said the group hopes one of the end results of this process would be to serve the needs of the existing employers in the county.

“We often talk about attracting business to the county. And that’s certainly important, but serving our existing businesses is just as important. And being sure that we’re producing graduates that are the graduates they need,” said Haist.

What responses the group has received

Haist said they have had “overwhelmingly positive support from the public officials that we’ve talked to” since the letter was published.

Haist said that they currently have more than 120 additional signatures in addition to the 13 original signatories.

“Each day we get more signatures as more people are aware of this effort,” said Haist.

Haist said those who would like to add their names to that growing list should email wabashcountyeducation@gmail.com.

“The timing is right,” said Haist. “We’ve either reached out to or had county officials reach out to us and I’ve had some really good conversations with them. And many of them are very supportive of this. They think this will be a very productive way to really look at what’s really needed and how we can provide what’s possible and what’s needed for our students, for the future. We’ve been very encouraged. … I think we’ve gotten off to a good start, but we’d love to have more folks indicating their support of this direction.”

At the Wabash City Schools (WCS) board meeting on Monday, Aug. 1, board president Rod Kelsheimer read a statement in response to the group, which was provided to the Plain Dealer by WCS superintendent Amy Sivley.

“The Board of Wabash City Schools feels compelled to respond to the open letter from local business and community leaders, “ said Kelsheimer. “We want to thank the leaders for their vision for the future of education in Wabash County. It is refreshing to know that we have community members that are willing to take time out of their busy schedules to invest in our children and the future of Wabash. We would like to reaffirm our interest in coming together. We hope that the leaders of MSD of Wabash County and Manchester Community Schools will be willing to come to the table to begin discussions to better serve the children and community of Wabash County.”

On Tuesday, Aug. 23, MSD board president Todd Dazey read a statement at the end of the school board meeting regarding the group, in addition to sharing a letter with their current families and staff, said director of communication and community engagement Laura Langebartels.

“On behalf of the 2,217 students and the associated parents and guardians, teachers, and staff who selected the (MSD) as their educational choice, we wanted to respond to a recent letter published by some members of the community. The letter advocated for educational reforms to ensure a positive future for our community and our schools,” read the MSD letter. “Our goals as board members of MSD are to be inclusive, transparent, and make decisions that are in the best interests of our students; both those enrolled now and those who will join us as future graduates.”

The MSD board pointed to a series of community meetings in fall 2019.

“(We) continued to receive considerable input before presenting the public in 2020 with a long-range strategic plan for our Wabash County schools,” read the letter. “That plan realizes the goal of ‘Dream Big,’ a key element of our commitment to public education here in Wabash County. It was predicated upon making sure that we offered the taxpayers of the community a vision that provided quality educational options, maintained a priority on the use of tax dollars, and charted a future that used all of our resources to ‘Dream Big’ for our students.”

The MSD board stated, “the plan zeroed in on several tangible and realistic goals.”

“First, we will continue to develop and enhance quality programs to improve student achievement by ensuring that our curriculum offerings prepare students for life after graduation. Our students will continue to achieve at or above the state level on various measurement tools,” read the letter.

“Second, we will continue our efforts to attract and retain students. That means we will develop the organizational capabilities to expand our marketing/branding for the Wabash County school community and highlight the quality of life in Wabash County to attract new families. Third, we will build upon our strong financial resources and ensure fiscal responsibility and stability for the residents and taxpayers of our community. By doing that, we will recruit and retain highly effective faculty and staff, and continue transparency on fiscal obligations and solutions via all operations. Finally, we made providing safe and efficient learning environments a significant priority. We researched ways to optimize facility utilization and security. We explored ways to reduce duplication and increase efficiency. These potential upgrades would support our students in the classroom and save taxpayers’ dollars by making the investments needed now and not delaying them and facing spiraling costs in the future.”

The MSD board stated those reviewed led them “to make the decision to invest now in a new high school with the goal to make our Wabash County schools viable and sustainable for our community’s future.”

The referendum will appear on the ballots of eligible voters during the November general election.

“The new high school will combine the latest in designs to ensure constructability and sustainability for generations. We will make better use of our facilities. We will offer our students the latest in state-of-the-art classrooms,” read the letter. “The new high school will be a welcome ‘front door’ in our effort to make Wabash County a place where our present families will want to continue to live and an inviting place for future families. The new high school will be ready to serve our community if voters approve in November. We realize and agree that every one of us, both the public and private sector, should work together for what is in the best interest of our schoolchildren. Our Wabash County schools are ready to turn ‘Dream Big’ into reality. We welcome the active support of everyone to help us achieve that goal for this and future generations.”

Besides the WCS and MSD boards, the members of the other organizations which were listed in the open letter did not return a Plain Dealer request for comment as of press time. This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

Copyright © 2022 Wabash Plain Dealer