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3 school board challengers aim to improve communication and transparency in North West Hendricks

District has faced criticism for past year
Brooks, Morgan and Pyatt
Posted at 6:00 AM, Sep 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-29 20:49:42-04

HENDRICKS COUNTY — The North West Hendricks School Corporation has been under scrutiny for more than a year for how it handled sexual misconduct allegations involving a student and a teacher.

The district’s school board race is heating up with two incumbents and three challengers vying for two open board seats — and one of the challengers is a whistleblower in the misconduct case.

WRTV Investigates Kara Kenney found many citizens who feel the North West Hendricks community is divided and broken, and that’s why the school board race is so important this year.

Campaign signs for school board can be found in just about every corner of Lizton, Pittsboro, and North Salem.

Joe Brooks is taking on incumbent board member Craig Peoples.

“Healing the community is something that has to happen,” said Brooks.

Abbie Morgan and David Pyatt are challenging incumbent and board president Jim Diagostino.

"I'm running for school board because I love this community,” said Morgan. “I feel like right now our community needs change, it needs some healing. I think now is a good time for me to do this.”

Campaign signs for school board can be found in just about every corner of Lizton, Pittsboro and North Salem.

"It's very simple to go in and be transparent,” said Pyatt. “That’s what I’m guaranteeing that I’m going to look at all this. The community has no clue as to all the things that went on in this investigation.”

The current school board has faced criticism for how it handled sexual misconduct allegations involving teacher and coach Tyler Bruce and a then 16-year old student.

PREVIOUS | School board admits oversight in allowing relative to vote on teacher

The board did not fire Bruce until seven months after the alleged victim’s family filed a tort claim against the district, and two months after Bruce was criminally charged with child seduction.

The district had to pay out ex-superintendent Mike Springer’s contract, totaling $116,000.

Springer and the school board parted ways over the handling of the sexual misconduct case.

PREVIOUS | Outgoing superintendent to receive $116K in compensation

In addition, the district also paid two Tri-West High School administrators, Nathan and Stacey Begle, $111,667 while they were on paid administrative leave from February 2020 to September 2020 and July 2019 and September 2019.

The Begles are criminally charged with failure to make a report in connection with the Bruce case.

Springer tried to fire the Begles in September 2019, but the school board allowed them to return to their positions.

The Begles were terminated on Sept. 16, 2020.

All three challengers say they are concerned about the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the fallout, and will look into why the school board waited to terminate the Begles and Bruce.

"Its frustrating to see that spending. In my opinion it's just plain frivolous,” said Brooks. “I don't know why they made that decision. Those are questions, if I am elected, I will find out."

"If I'm elected I will get that information,” said Morgan. “It's sad to me that money was wasted if you will in that way. I wasn't in the room when they got the information they used to make those decisions. But I do think we need to be fiscally responsible."

The starting salary for teachers in the North West Hendricks School Corporation is $44,925, with salary ranges between $38,000 to $67,700.

"We as a community could have better used the money to pay our teachers and hire more teachers,” said Pyatt. “The whole job of a trustee is to watch the budget and oversee how our money is spent. I think any member of the community is angry over that."

Pyatt was an attendance secretary at Tri-West High School and reported suspected sexual misconduct involving Bruce and the then 16-year old student to the Indiana Department of Child Services.

PREVIOUS | Former Tri-West employee shares why he reported suspected sexual misconduct

Pyatt also shared with WRTV surveillance video showing Bruce and the student — a decision he’s been praised and criticized for, and also in part lead to his firing from the district.

"I'm the only one that had that video, and If I hadn't recorded that video on my phone, there would be no video,” said Pyatt. “The staff in the high school made no efforts to keep that evidence and secure it. Had I not done that with my phone, we would not have that evidence."

Abbie Morgan says she wasn’t involved in the situation.

"I'm the option for the taxpayers and the community members who are saddened by the state that we are in,” said Morgan. “That are concerned for the school system and want to move forward together. I'm running without bias, without malice. I provide that option for people that do want to pick up and move forward. "

Many people in the community have also expressed frustration that current board members won’t answer questions and recently eliminated public comment from public board meetings.

"Cutting off public comment is a bad idea,” said Morgan. “When you cut off public comment, when that happens, that's when the distrust starts."

"It's very cold. It's really continuing to divide the community,” said Brooks. “I would like to see the current board make an attempt to apologize to the community for the way they've went about it. I think they went about the approach completely wrong with just radio silence.”

Both incumbents, Craig Peoples and Jim Diagostino, have declined all of our interview requests including for this story.

When WRTV Investigates Kara Kenney approached board president Jim Diagostino last fall, he directed Kenney to the district’s paid communications consultant Donna Petraits.

PREVIOUS | Residents voice concerns to school board about sexual misconduct allegations

“You can talk to our communications director,” said Diagostino.

The district pays Petraits $750 per day, plus mileage, when she’s doing work for the district.

All three candidates say they plan to increase communication, transparency, fiscal responsibility and help the community heal.

Where they differ is how and when to move forward.

"Let's get in there and make sure we've gotten everything, do a full investigation, and get it done with so we can move forward,” said Pyatt. “Now is not the time to heal and move forward. Now is the time to make sure we have all the junk out.”

“We’re not going to forget it and we want to learn from it, but when this is over and the dust settles, there’s business we need to take care of,” said Morgan. “We need somebody on the board who is running for those purposes, who has a clear vision to getting back to the school district that we once were.”

“I really think we can take steps through love and understanding of the situation to fix this thing and bring the community back together,” said Brooks. “It’s going to be a hard thing but it’s really going to take everybody in our community.”

Want to hear more from the candidates? WRTV hosted a one-hour candidate forum with all three challengers.

PREVIOUS | WRTV hosts candidate forum

Tyler Bruce, Nathan Begle and Stacey Begle have denied the allegations against them.

They are expected in court next month in their criminal cases.

The Indiana Department of Education also has pending cases against their teaching licenses.