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'The ROWVA family has changed' | Resignation letters cite division, changes within school board

Three board members and two teachers have resigned in recent months. News 8 obtained copies of those resignation letters through a Freedom of Information request.

ONEIDA, Ill — Multiple ROWVA school board members and teachers have resigned this year. It comes after a school year filled with heated board meetings, including mask mandate discussions and whether or not to ban a novel

News 8 obtained copies of the resignation letters through a Freedom of Information request. The three resigning board members and two long-time teachers left due to the direction of the board and its division.

This school year, the board split on decisions regarding mask mandates and "The Hate U Give." The three ROWVA board members who resigned were on the minority side of some of the issues discussed throughout this year.

Rob Kalb resigned in February and was followed by Jim Haynes and Melissa Shepherd in March.

Shepherd was the most vocal about a division within the board.

"Over the past nine months, many decisions have been made by this board that greatly upset our students, staff, and community members. It seems we've come to a place where this board (at least four members) feel they need to stand ground with some community members to the detriment of our staff and administration," she wrote. "I have heard concerns with the future of our district and the damage being caused. Our community should be concerned and outraged. Those four votes have been used as threat to those who don't see it their way."

Shepherd had been on the board since 2015. She said now the district has to rebuild.

"I've come to realize, that even with all my efforts to mend relationships with our administration, staff, and students, they are null and void by the majority vote of this board," she wrote.

Jim Haynes joined the board in 2009 and was serving as president. He said he does not share the same perspective as some board members.

"Over the past several months we have been challenged with several unforeseen distractions to the process of education. While we have overcome most, we have left damage along the way," Haynes wrote. "At this point, we have division within our board and clouded perspectives. We need united members with a consistent/common approach to our future success."

Kalb had served on the board for 15 years. He resigned for personal reasons, but did mention the divide in his resignation letter. 

"I especially hope that the divides that have been caused lately can be bridged and movement forward in a progressive manner that accounts for all students' needs can be found," he wrote.

The three resigning members had served alongside the four members who still remain on the board, Scott Lake, John Kuelper, Matthew Johnson and Ryan West, since 2017.

English teacher Traci Johnson also handed in her resignation, effective immediately. She had worked for ROWVA for 13 years and said she never imagined leaving.

"I thought I would retire here 20-plus years from now having put ROWVA on the map," Johnson wrote. "In my mind, I have been the ideal type of teacher that you want to stay in your district long term, and in return, this was my dream job until this year."

Johnson was teaching "The Hate U Give" in her freshman English class. She wrote that she felt like the board respected her opinion in the past. Now, she says it's been a "battle" since she wrote an email in support of following the Illinois mask mandate. She also claims the board banned the novel in a closed session meeting last November and says she was "personally attacked" during another board meeting.

"I have spent countless nights lying awake wondering how it is that in such a short time, a few members of the board of education have been able to rip away my dream job in my dream district," she wrote. "My heart is broken and will forever be for this personal loss... I wish you all luck as you lead through this difficult time."

Her husband, Chris Johnson, also resigned and will leave at the end of the school year. He's been at the district for 20 years and teaches social studies at the junior high and high school. 

"Going into this year, I saw myself retiring from this district when the time came many more years down the road," he wrote. "As this year has gone on, I no longer see that future."

He also cites concerns about the direction the board has taken.

"The insincere and insulting statements made by some of you on this board have done irreparable harm. The ROWVA family has changed from one that supports and nurtures our students to a broken one that seems to care and support a single demographic without concern for the unique and changing needs of the student population," he wrote. "This has become a place that discriminates against diversity and that bans messages and ideas instead of facilitating tolerance and open mindedness. This is not the ROWVA School District that I fell in love with and not one that I want to be a part of any longer."

Superintendent Joe Sornberger and High School and Junior High Principal Adam Seaney will also leave at the end of the year.

Neither Lake, Kuelper, Johnson, West or Sornberger responded to requests from News 8 to comment on the recent resignations. 

ROWVA currently has six open classroom positions, according to the district website. It's also hiring a new district assistant principal and multiple coaches.