As Linda Jonaitis took her oath of office for school board Jan. 5, alongside her fellow members, she realized what a significant moment it was. After serving on the board for 11 years, she knew from this day forward, things were going to be a little different.
For the first time in the history of the Merrillville Community School Corporation, women hold the majority on the board of school trustees. With two existing female members, Mrs. Jonaitis and Judy Dunlap, and one newly elected member, DeLena Thomas, the makeup of the board is now three women and two men.
“During Women’s History Month, it is important we celebrate and acknowledge the contribution of girls and women in our district especially at this moment in our history,” said Mrs. Jonaitis, who was elected board president.
“We have a great board that works well together in the interests of our students,” she continued. “The significance of a female presence and, at this time a majority, is important in order to have a board with various perspectives and life experiences.”
Mrs. Jonaitis said she’s lived through periods of history in which a female majority on the school board and most governmental bodies just did not exist.
“So for me, it brings joy and an opportunity for our students to see that gender should not limit anyone from doing what their passion is,” she said.
James Donohue, who has served on the board for 17 years, said the Merrillville School Board has been a cohesive board with respect for each other.
“Our focus has always been ‘Kids First,’” he said. “I anticipate our school board will continue to govern with the same successful governance practices with input from the community and collaboration with the superintendent.”
Newly elected board vice president Ms. Dunlap is beginning her second four-year term on the board of school trustees. In 2017, Ms. Dunlap made school corporation history.
“I am the first African American to serve on the board and the first to hold an office,” Ms. Dunlap said. “I am humble and grateful.
“I feel that gender diversity plays an important role in supporting innovative activity and organizational change,” she added. “I appreciate that we now have a diverse board of backgrounds, gender and ethnicities.”
“Representation is very important and true visibility matters,” said DeLena Thomas, the second African American to serve on the board. She won her seat in the November election and is beginning her first four-year term.
Administrators of the corporation agree that the continued diverse makeup of the board could only be a win for students.
“It is always a great thing to have a diverse board, as it brings a deeper understanding of what the students and community may need,” said Superintendent Nick Brown.
Dr. Danny Lackey, executive director of student support services for the corporation, believes a majority female representation represents how the community that the schools serve continues to change.
“I think that it is a great change because it only increases the diversity on our board,” he said. “The more diverse in composition, the more diverse in thought which is a critical component to creative and innovation thinking and problem solving.”
Making history with a female majority isn’t this board’s only historical feat this year; both the board president and vice president are women, another first for the corporation.
In addition, for the first time in the corporation’s history, two educators hold the top two leadership roles: Mrs. Jonaitis worked for various school districts including Merrillville, where she was principal at Pierce Middle School; Ms. Dunlap was a principal with the Gary Community School Corporation.
“The board leadership has been terrific and always focused on doing what is best for our students,” Mrs. Jonaitis said. “We have mutual respect as board members and as a result, in making a decision about this year’s officers, the board supported a different team at the top.
“I don’t know if it was gender-driven as much as the fact that we were both ready to do the job and everyone agreed,” she continued. “It’s an honor.”
Mark Lucas, member of the corporation’s board of school trustees for 29 years, said it shows the quality of leadership of both women.
“It means that barriers are being broken, and the board trusts the leadership they have shown and believe they will continue to move the district forward in the right direction,” Mrs. Thomas said.
In addition, Mrs. Thomas said it shows the trend toward more female leadership already occurring in the corporation.