I.V. left without representation at 3 Rivers

Seige Schatza
IVN copy editor

The Three Rivers School District Board of Directors held a special session Wednesday, Jan. 17 to interview applicants seeking to serve the rest of Illinois Valley representative Jenn Searle’s term. Searle resigned in November.
Stacy Yanase, practice manager for AllCare Medical Group, and Neigel Hruska, a self-employed glassblower, were the two applicants vying for the application.
Freshmen board members Pat Kelly and Nancy Reese, whose victorious 2023 campaigns focused on parental rights advocacy and earned endorsements from the Josephine County Republican Party, gravitated toward Hruska, while the longer-serving Jennifer Johnstun favored Yanase.
Board Chair Rich Halsted was uncomfortable with the candidates’ lack of budgeting experience heading into the budget process, which ultimately led the board to unanimously hold off on filling the vacancy.
Despite Halsted’s decision to turn both applicants down until this summer, he called them both “great candidates” in the leadup to the interview process. The board chair also clarified some ground rules for the interviews, such as that applicants would be asked preordained questions that are standard for the board position, with other board members encouraged to ask follow-up questions if desired. Halsted hoped that the interviews could be held to 25 minutes for each applicant, as a regular session was scheduled immediately following the special session.
Yanase was put in the hot seat first, and was initially asked to list professional experience she had accrued that was relevant to the school board. She mentioned being on the board of Illinois Valley Family Coalition for nearly 10 years, where she currently serves as board president. IVFC provides homeless outreach including help with attaining IDs and writing resumes. Yanase said this work is “where I learned to love to help my community.”

Yanase also served as treasurer of Illinois Valley Safe House Alliance and volunteers for Healing Hearts and Hooves.

For policy development, Yanase cited her position as AllCare Medical Group’s practice manager in Illinois Valley and Glendale as well as the practice manager for Clear Creek Family Practice, where she oversaw the budget and employees.

After Halsted asked Yanase to spell out her vision for an outstanding school district, she said community outreach and parental involvement were important factors. Johnstun asked her to elaborate on specific methods to increase parental involvement, so Yanase pointed to the open houses she’s attended for her children at Lorna Byrne Middle School and Evergreen Elementary.

Kelly asked Yanase how she felt about smartphone usage by students – she is opposed to cell phone usage while in the classroom. Reese prompted Yanase to explain why she prefers a five-day school week over four days : Yanase feels maximizing seat time is important and provides flexibility for students in the case of snow days or absences, but added she understands how budget constraints factored into the district’s choice to switch to four days.

Kelly and Reese both pressed Yanase on whether school medical centers should offer advice on abortion, birth control, sex changes, etc. without the consent of parents. Yanase said that with her medical background, she would advocate for following the rules and guidelines in place rather than going off of her personal views.

Other matters touched on during Yanase’s interview included her de-escalation training that would be useful if confronted by a disgruntled parent, keeping a neutral stance and following guidelines when dealing with topics such as critical race theory, and ensuring children are proficient in important areas such as reading and attain good grades before they graduate.

Towards the end of her interview, Johnstun asked Yanase, “Why should we choose you?”

She answered that she comes from a family that values community service, adding, “I’ve always stuck to Illinois Valley. I haven’t been on a larger scale but I would love to serve a board that serves more than just my area. I would love to grow basically, and I think that I have great experience as far as being on a board for over 10 years now. I’ve been on multiple different boards, I’ve set policies, we’ve done grant funding, we’ve done all different situations that I feel that I could help and really give a positive influence.”

Hruska, donning a cowboy hat, approached the board next to answer the same questions Yanase was asked.

For experience relevant to the school board, Hruska cited his role as a soccer coach in the Valley since 2007. “I feel that the way I communicate with the kids isn’t just about sports, it’s about growing up and becoming community leaders so I help people become involved in the community,” Hruska added.

When asked to list his policy making and budgeting experience, Hruska said, “I’m a glass blower so I do my own business and so with glass blowing you’re putting together a piece that most likely has an 80% chance of breaking so you have to think about everything, of course, you’re budgeting because you know if they break, you’re losing money.” He added, “I know my numbers.”

Hruska’s vision for an outstanding school district: “Where everybody is a united front for making the community a better place where these kids can hold their heads up high and walk through town and not be afraid of what’s going down in town – hobos or anything like that – because I believe the whole town can bring the whole town up if we work together so working together, if we can keep that going you know and get these petty differences out of the way immediately and work on truly what is right.”

Kelly asked Hruska if he has ever been rich or poor throughout his life, purely from a monetary standpoint. Hruska said he feels like he is rich, but growing up on a farm he was often “land rich and money poor.”

When Halsted asked what the biggest challenge facing TRSD is, Hruska replied, “I think parents need to have full choice so basically informing the parents 100% of what is going on.”

Like Yanase, Hruska favors a five-day school week, essentially giving an “if it’s not broken don’t fix it” reasoning given how long five-day school weeks and work weeks have been in effect nationwide. He also found it problematic that parents are having to pay for alternative childcare solutions on Fridays.

As for cell phones, Hruska left no room for mistaking his stance: “I’m not fond of cell phones,” he said, later adding, “Lock those suckers in a box.”

As for parents being informed of any medical advice being given to students, Hruska gave an answer that was clearly more in line with Kelly and Reese’s platform than Yanase’s answer: “Those are their kids and they know their kids better than anybody else. They’ve been changing their diapers since they were little kids. They know their character, they know their demeanor, so for somebody else to jump in there and think they know a little more about your children would be just straight crazy and arrogant.”

When Johnstun asked Hruska why they should choose him, he said, “It would be an honor and I don’t take this lightly, you know, this isn’t some willy-nilly decision. I’ve heard people you know trying to get me on the boards numerous times, numerous times, you know what I mean? And then it’s good to actually, you know, to complain a little bit but yet step up to the plate because a lot of people, they talk, but they don’t get out there and do nothing and so I give Stacy (Yanase) credit for coming out here to doing something 100%. And then you know whoever else next time wants to try it, hey I think more, you know, and it’s a shame that there’s only two people down here; there should be 20-30 people here, you know, wanting to participate in being part of our community.”

The board took a brief recess following the interview process, and when they reconvened, Kelly nominated Hruska to be appointed to the Zone I board member position, which Reese seconded.

Kelly said he was more interested in knowing the applicants’ personal views than how well they understand the board’s responsibilities, saying, “I don’t expect anybody to come to this table and really understand what we do. What I’m trying to figure out is… I would like to know what their personal preferences are should the opportunity become available to change state policy or to go a different direction.”

Johnstun said that while she appreciated some of the direct answers given by the applicants, “I think the the issues that face us aren’t always cut and dry, so I appreciate direct answers but I also appreciate a willingness to understand that sometimes things aren’t exactly as they seem once you learn about all the idiosyncrasies so I appreciated also sometimes the pause to consider there might be more to this question than what meets the eye.”

Johnstun went on, “I think as school board members if we are too quick to answer some of the questions facing our district sometimes we miss out on views or input that is needed in the community from our constituents so I appreciated that direct answers and it always makes it easy in an interview but I also was concerned by some of how direct that was and how quick and that sometimes we need to listen and think a little more broadly than what is first to mind.”

Before a vote was taken, Halsted said, “I personally see this process as rushed.” He added that he wants Kelly and Reese to go through the budget process and all it entails before they decide on who to appoint to the vacant seat.

“I’ve seen what happens with boards – I’ve been on several of them – where we have non-elected board members, and it is a path that I am hoping to avoid,” Halsted remarked. “And I think we have four board members right now that don’t necessarily always agree but we do agree that we want to focus on reading, writing, arithmetic and roofs. And there are a thousand subsets to that but I am right now where I stand going into the budgeting process, I am focused on Pat and Nancy’s education as board members. I have four strong board members and I am comfortable where we’re at so I’m just as board chair – and this isn’t anything against Stacy or Neigel at all – but I am not going to affirm either one.”

With that, Kelly withdrew his nomination of Neigel and all four board members voted to move forward without a fifth member. Yanase and Hruska were told they could reapply after the budget process concludes this summer.