A fresh face may mean a fresh start for the Peoria School District 150 Board of Education.
The district on Thursday announced Jon Bateman had been selected to fill the school board seat vacated by Sue Wolstenholm in early July. Wolstenholm's name was used by Change150, a group formed in protest of district leadership, to beat incumbent Laura Petelle in the March school board election. Wolstenholm, who decided she didn't want to serve too late to get her name off the ballot, resigned immediately after being sworn in.
The school board had eight applicants to choose from, including Change150-endorsed Dan Adler, when interviews began this week. The decision to go with Bateman was made late Wednesday night, but the news wasn't released until Thursday afternoon in order to give district officials enough time to call the applicants who didn't make the cut.
Bateman joins the board during one of the most tumultuous times the district has seen in recent memory. While many issues, namely surrounding the leadership style of Superintendent Grenita Lathan, have been roiling beneath the surface for quite some time, things came to a head late last year when ISAT score irregularities at Charter Oak Primary School came to light. Popular Charter principal John Wetterauer was put on paid administrative leave during the ISAT investigation, and was ultimately assigned to a different school when the board ruled he failed to provide adequate training to teachers administering the standardized test. Wetterauer resigned before he could take his new assignment.
The ordeal put the district into a tailspin, with community members rallying around Wetterauer. Many claimed Lathan was a bully who really just wanted to punish a good principal who failed to fall in line with her agenda. Other claims that Lathan is ruling the district with an iron fist have since come out, and many opponents want her to be removed from the district altogether.
Over the past several months, school board meetings have been packed with protestors looking for a chance to rail against Lathan, the board, or both. At times, Lathan and a couple board members have bitten back, calling comments offensive, disrespectful, or even racist.
In an official statement, Change150 says it's "cautiously optimistic" about Bateman's appointment. But the group's president, Jim Powell, told 1470 & 100.3 WMBD he's leaning more towards the cautious side, citing what he felt was a concerning interview Bateman did a couple of months ago as his reason.
"He made some critical comments about people that were upset at the district," Powell recalled. "That's the only thing I know about him, which would say he's very sympathetic to the administration."
Powell was also disappointed that the board decided to not go with Change150's candidate to fill the open seat, especially since it was Change150 that was responsible for the seat being open.
"Whether it's pride, whether it's foolishness, whether it's whatever, they just keep moving forward. I feel like that's the pattern we've seen," Powell said. "He may be a tremendous, outstanding candidate. But the reality is there's a groupthink among certain board members and Dr. Lathan, and that hasn't changed."
Bateman, a Caterpillar employee who served for 29 years in the Army, recognizes it's an uphill battle the district faces as it tries to mend community relations shattered by controversy. He says he's more than willing to work with everyone to try to smooth everything over, but only under the right conditions.
"Running over plowed ground is a rough ride," Bateman said. "I would definitely be open to a dialogue, but not necessarily a one-sided conversation."
He says he'd like to see both sides take a step back, then come back together to work towards the common goal of providing a quality education for Peoria's youth.
"When you wanna hold on to bitterness, then there's no opportunity for healing," Bateman said.
Bateman says he's planning on running next spring when his special term is up. However, he says that could change if he feels he's not being an effective leader. For now, he says he's just ready to take on the new challenge of helping to make District 150 the best it can be.
"It's going to be an interesting ride," he said.