CHURUBUSCO — Churubusco High School played host to a candidate forum for the district’s three open board seats, which will be decided in November’s General Election.
Each board seat has two candidates — Don Amber and Emily Putt in District 1; Jane Elliott and Jacob VanWagner in District 2; and Joseph Collins and Jermiah Johnson in District 3.
Each candidate was presented with a series of questions by Churubusco High School students. There weren’t many attendees in the auditorium due to social distancing guidelines; however, the event was streamed live on the Smith-Green Community Schools website.
Amber has lived in Churubusco since 1955, and has roots deep in the area as he, his wife, children and grandchildren all attended Smith-Green schools. He began his career as the owner of a Chevrolet dealership in Churubusco. He changed careers in the 1980s when he became a paramedic with Whitley County EMS, where he worked for 30 years, including 15 as a director. Amber has also served as a Smith Township trustee and a Whitley County commissioner, and spent 20 years on the Smith Township Fire Department, including some terms as chief.
Amber said he has wanted to be a board member for a long time, but has not had the opportunity because he has been an elected official. “What a glorious opportunity,” he said. He is looking for an opportunity to get involved with the school, and said he could use is contacts with elected officials around the state. “We have a great administration right now and I would be really excited to be a board member.”
Amber said his goal for the district isn’t to educate every student to go to college. “I want to make sure they know what’s out there and allow us to train them for what they need,” he said.
“I would be honored if I’m elected, and if not, I’m still a big fan of the school,” he said. “I really like this administration we have now.”
Putt is a 2005 graduate of Churubusco High School, and is raising three daughters in the community. She has been an educator for six years, teaching science to middle and high school students both in then public schools and digitally. She said her family made the choice to come to Churubusco to raise their children, and she wants to give back to the community by serving on the board.
Putt said the district did “great things” for her as a student, and she wants to help to provide the same. “I want to do right by my children and want to do right by the community that did me so well,” Putt said. “I’m drawn to the service and have a passion for education. It’s exciting and its something I’m really ready to pour my heart into.”
Putt said her goal is to “meet students where they are.” She wants the district to keep its small feel, but attract more students so the district can retain highly qualified educators and have programs that are desired.
“This is a service position and that’s what I want to do for the community. I have a passion for education and for making things right. I want to give back to the community — you’ve done a lot for me and I want to do that as well.”
Elliot grew up in Fort Wayne but married a Churubusco native. She has three children in the district — sophomore, 8th-grader and 6th-grader. She has served on the PTO and is involved with the schools in various ways. “I’m invested in how our schools do and would like to continue to help move our schools forward,” she said.
Elliot is happy with the education her children are being provided with, and has enjoyed her various roles in serving the board. “I feel education is so important. The current school board has done a really good job in developing a plan and putting it into action, and I want to keep moving forward.”
Elliot said her goals are to continue updating the school buildings and making sure teachers are getting what they need. “I think we have a solid leader in Mr. Hile and he will help direct us where we need to go,” she said.
“I just want to say I love our schools and we’re heading in a great direction. I want to help keep us moving forward,” she said.
VanWagner is also not a Churubusco native but married someone from Churubusco. He has three children, and is a 14-year educator teaching 6th, 7th and 8th grade social studies. “I feel like education is an extreme passion of mine,” he said. “I want to make an impact on education in the community.”
VanWagner describes himself as a passionate educator. “I understand that our kids are the bloodline and source of our legacy,” he said. “We want to make sure what’s happening is good and effective, and we’re creating kids who are ready for real-world problems.”
VanWagner said he wants to see the district produce “high-achieving students” to improve the community as a whole. “There is a trickle down effect … thinking upward and outward instead of inward and downward.”
“I have recently put down Turtle Town roods and I’m excited to be a servant leader in this community and make an impact in any way that I can,” he said.
Collins is a 2004 graduate of Churubusco High School. He has two small children and is a lifelong entrepreneur. He said he looks to use is business experience to help the school board. “Every dollar you put into education you get back several times,” he said. He wants to make sure funds are being used economically and ethically.
Collins wants to become more involved in the community, as he has already been a PRIDE mentor and on the Chamber board of directors. “A good education is the best way to create economic mobility for the community.”
Collins would like to see CHS become a magnet school, with more students coming to Churubusco from other districts every year. “We’re already seeing people start to move away from larger schools and come into smaller communities where they get the attention they desire.”
“I have always been very civic-minded. I believe if you have something to share and give, you should do that. I’ve been wanting to find another avenue to support the community. There are two great candidates in our district and in the others, and I think our school is in great hands either way.”
Johnson was born and raised in Churubusco and is a 1998 graduate. He has four children, two who have already graduated from CHS and two who are currently in the school system. His wife is a Columbia City graduate, but the couple had “no question” that they wanted to raise their children in Churubusco. He and three partners started a company in their garage, and he has been running that company full-time as of recently.
Johnson’s interest to become a board member started during the referendum a few years ago. “I was scared for the wellbeing of our community and kids if something didn’t happen and we were forced to close the school. There would be a deep impact on the community and kids.” He wants to become a board member to “ensure the viability of the school moving forward.”
Johnson wants students to be equipped with the tools to do what they desire. “If they want to pursue further education, I want to make sure they’re equipped to do that. Some kids don’t always look to go to college. I want to make sure they’re equipped to do what they want when they leave here.”
Johnson said he is a person who “asks all the questions and leave no stones unturned.” He prides himself in being a good listener, and feels it takes perseverance to be a good board member, “being willing to stick through difficult times as they come about.”