Portage County NAACP President Geraldine Hayes-Nelson (right) and Rootstown Board of Education President Amanda Waesch speak to Rootstown residents during their first community forum about racism on Oct. 11. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

Citing ‘no real commitment to change,’ NAACP backs away from Rootstown schools partnership

Portage County NAACP President Geraldine Hayes-Nelson (right) and Rootstown Board of Education President Amanda Waesch speak to Rootstown residents during their first community forum about racism on Oct. 11. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

Citing ‘no real commitment to change,’ NAACP backs away from Rootstown schools partnership

The board passed over three women with master’s degrees in education to select two men with ties to youth football

The Portage County NAACP condemned the Rootstown Board of Education’s decision to appoint two white men involved in youth football to fill its vacant seats, despite receiving applications from highly qualified women and pressure from the community to diversify its leadership.

Three women who applied for the open seats hold master’s degrees in education, one specializing in youth mental health and two others with more than 15 years in special education each, according to applications obtained by The Portager.

Neither of the two board members appointed on Oct. 19 holds a college degree, though they are active in the community and have skills that Board President Amanda Waesch says make them best for the role. One is the chief of the Brimfield Fire Department. The other is general manager of a Garrettsville car dealership.

“The Portage County NAACP had been working with the Rootstown Local Schools in good faith, believing that there was enough traction to address the real experiences of racism and other forms of bullying in the schools,” Portage County NAACP President Geraldine Hayes-Nelson said in a statement to The Portager. “But now we wonder if the time and resources of the NAACP were just being used to provide ‘cover’ where there was no real commitment to change.”

The NAACP’s statement threw into uncertainty a community conversation process initiated by the school board after the district mishandled incidents of racism on the high school football team and two board members resigned after the controversy became public. Leadership from the local NAACP chapter agreed to help the board conduct a series of meetings with Rootstown residents to talk about racism, bullying and diversity.

Portage County NAACP President Geraldine Hayes-Nelson (right) and Rootstown Board of Education President Amanda Waesch speak to Rootstown residents during their first community forum about racism on Oct. 11. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

“The school board had an opportunity in this moment to diversify their membership, but chose not to,” Hayes-Nelson said. “Having a second or third female member would have enriched and expanded the board’s ability to deal with diversity issues.

“One female applicant had extensive experience with youth mental health and also project management. Two other female applicants were school teachers in other districts. Instead, the school board chose men whose work experience was with adults, and their experiences within the schools was mainly through athletics. One of the narratives after the resignation of Coach Spiker was the existence of an ‘old boys network’ in Rootstown that protected certain community members and students. The choices of the school board did not disrupt that narrative.”

Waesch and the board have repeatedly emphasized their willingness to listen to and learn from the NAACP and Black community members. But in response to the NAACP’s criticism, she accused the organization of having political motivations.

“The statement by the NAACP is a disservice to the other applicants as it deflects from their willingness to voluntarily step up to the plate and serve our community,” Waesch said in a statement to The Portager. “Rootstown is honored to have them as citizens, and their commitment to the community should be celebrated — not used to further a political agenda or social platform. We committed to partnering with the NAACP to identify opportunities for improvement within our community. A true partner does not seek to unfairly scrutinize a situation for exploitation and furtherance of an agenda.”

The board was thrust into a “no-win situation” after former board members Scott Krieger and Steven Vasbinder resigned late last month, Waesch said. Anticipating scrutiny, she said the board “intentionally and painstakingly followed a uniform and impartial” appointment process.

It interviewed nine candidates of the 12 who expressed written interest. One didn’t fill out an application form, and one woman with two decades in special education wrote down the wrong time for her interview and missed it. Kevin Kaut, a neuroscientist at the University of Akron and frequent critic of Rootstown schools’ leadership, rescinded his application because he had heard rumors that the board would not seriously consider his candidacy.

Jennifer Curall interviewed but didn’t make the cut despite her master’s degree in special education and more than 15 years as an intervention specialist at Beachwood’s Bryden Elementary School. Curall’s family of seven moved to Rootstown 10 years ago, and she has since gotten involved with the soccer club and parent teacher association.

Nicholas Schneckenburger, a lawyer and secretary of Rootstown’s Chamber of Commerce, also applied.

Heather Baker applied and interviewed, but ultimately the board did not select her, either. She earned her Master of Education degree in marriage and family therapy in 2011, and now works extensively in youth psychological health care. She is a licensed counselor at an agency that provides psychological services to schools and families, a director at a youth behavioral health hospital and a healthcare provider at Massillon’s Department of Youth Services.

Baker’s family moved to Rootstown about three years ago. She said her son’s experience in the township has been great, and she has involved herself in the school’s parent teacher association and Cub Scouts. She applied for a board position because she would like to see the community come together for the sake of its children, she said.

“It really was my belief that we’ve got to address some of these issues that are clearly happening in our school: the division, the inequalities,” she said. “Not saying that there’s an easy solution to it. … I believe in the value of strong mental health services, and having a strong advocate for getting mental health services, social, emotional learning curriculum into the school system because that’s where we’re gonna reach the majority of our kids in our community. And that’s where we’re gonna have the most impact.”

Baker said hearing about students struggling to fit in, being bullied and transferring out of Rootstown Local Schools disappoints her. She was surprised, she said, that the school board did not ask her about bullying or racism during her interview.

But Waesch said the board juggles other responsibilities besides tackling racism and bullying. It needs to develop a hybrid online and in-person class schedule, negotiate with teachers, address the upcoming levy and distribute CARES Act funding. She said she sought someone who could both communicate well and “roll up their sleeves and get the job done.”

“I’m not looking for someone that’s going to be an echo chamber,” Waesch said, noting that she does not speak for the other members of the board. “Because you have to have a healthy discussion. You have to have that tension, that conflict, to get to the right decision. So we may disagree or come at it with different opinions, but that’s what you need to have to get to the right decision.”

On Oct. 19, Waesch made the motion to approve Brimfield Fire Chief Craig Mullaly and Paul McEwuen, general manager of Charles Auto Family, and the other two board members agreed.

Mullaly and McEwuen cited their devotion to the community as primary reasons for seeking out board positions. McEwuen said spending nearly his entire life building relationships in Rootstown puts him in a position to help ensure community members have a voice in board decisions.

“The bottom line is Rootstown is a part of who I am today,” McEwuen said in his cover letter. “This community means so much to me and my family.”

McEwuen spent 16 years working his way up to general manager at Charles Auto Family. Portage County Leadership, a local year-long professional and personal growth program, selected him as a participant in 2018, and upon graduation, appointed him to serve on its board. He’s also been a part of Rootstown’s wrestling, football and baseball youth groups.

Mullaly said he’d like to see the district’s levies passed and its outdated buildings renovated.

“In my position as a fire chief, I deal with a lot of issues on a day-to-day basis,” Mullaly said. “And I think one of the things I enjoy is … challenges of trying to help fix things. So you know, of course there’s issues, but you know, I enjoy doing those kind of things to hopefully move it in the positive direction again.”

Mullaly has served as an administrative supervisor in Brimfield since 2015, and he has spent more than 15 years working various positions in the township’s fire department.

When asked about racism and bullying in the school district, Mullaly emphasized the importance of listening to the community. “Soaking that in is a good thing,” he said.

Charles Auto Family has made large donations to the school district and to the athletic program. This year, the dealership donated $7,000 to the Rootstown Sports Boosters and $4,000 to the school district. Waesch said that because of the timing of each contribution, she was not aware of either donation at the time McEwuen was interviewed for his role.

School board members are paid $125 per meeting, up to 24 meetings per year. The appointments are temporary. If Mullaly and McEwuen wish to remain on the board, they will have to stand for election next year.

Waesch said she was disappointed that a woman didn’t make it into her top two. She selected McEwuen in part because he has received leadership training that has strengthened his communication skills, an area where she admitted the board has been lacking. And Mullaly’s experience in township administration and accounting, particularly with the CARES Act, lends the board knowledge it needs right now.

“We’re not going to make everybody happy,” Waesch said. “But I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that because I know that I’m making decisions that not everybody will agree with, but that I think are in the best interest of the district and the students and the teachers and the community.”

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Michael Indriolo is a visual journalist based in Kent. He is a contributor at The Portager covering a range of topics, including local government and community.