With Indian River School District School Board elections around the corner, two Millsboro women have thrown their hats into the ring to represent IRSD’s District 3.
Dana Probert and Leolga T. Wright are competing to serve the voting district, which includes south Millsboro and north Dagsboro, on both sides of Route 113.
Three of the school board’s 10 seats were up for election this year. The election will be Tuesday, May 8.
In District 5, the winning candidate will just serve one year, finishing the full term for another board member who had moved away this winter. Candidates Derek E. Cathell and Carla M. Ziegler are vying to represent Selbyville, Gumboro and parts of Frankford. Jeffrey W. Evans has withdrawn from the race.
Board Vice-President Rodney M. Layfield will automatically serve a five-year term, as there were no challengers for his District 2 (northern Millsboro and southern Georgetown) seat.
All terms begin on July 1.
Residents do not need to register to vote. Eligible voters must be 18 or older; U.S. citizens; a Delaware citizen; and live in the voting district for which they’re casting a ballot.
Absentee voting will be permitted, but people must request from and return an affidavit to the Department of Elections in order to receive an absentee ballot by mail; or they can vote in person at the Department in Georgetown by noon on Monday, May 7.
People can request an absentee affidavit by printing one online, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, calling (302) 856-5367) or visiting Department of Elections Sussex County Office, 119 N. Race Street, Georgetown.
All election details are online at https://electionssc.delaware.gov/school_absentee.shtml.
Editor’s note: In order to give candidates the last word before the election, Coastal Point will publish candidate questionnaires on May 4. The deadline to submit letters to the editor regarding the IRSD election will be April 23 at 5 p.m., for publication on April 27.
Dana Probert, the challenger
Perhaps only an engineer would describe the importance of school like this: “Education is critical infrastructure,” said Dana Probert, a resident of western Millsboro.
“What goes through my head is: How do we best prepare young people for the jobs that are so desperately needed right now, and also the children of Sussex County, if Indian River School District, they are the future of our region… How can we best prepare them for a sustainable future for our community?” Probert said. “That’s the biggest thing. I see education as critical infrastructure,” equally as important as good roads, she said.
Probert and her husband, also a civil engineer, moved to Delaware in 2002, seeking a small-town, rural atmosphere. She grew up in Pennsylvania, married and moved to Canada for a while, then returned to the U.S. to be closer to family.
Probert has worked in road, drainage and stormwater management projects. She left active practice after becoming a parent and became a consultant, now with software at Autodesk Inc.
In her own professional experience working for large engineering companies and interacting with architecture, aerospace and defense firms on a regional and international scale, Probert said “They’re in a talent crisis right now.” CEOs, she said, are wondering if there are enough skilled people for their workforce, from hands-on, trade and technician skills up to the engineers, accountants and businesspeople.
Probert’s engineering experience could help as IRSD considers building new schools in the near future, since she’s worked with county and state agencies on construction projects. In particular, she has done site searches, feasibility studies and reviews for traffic and access.
“I think there’s a lot I can bring to the table. … Being able to navigate those conversations can be very helpful,” said Probert, who also holds an MBA.
She said she also wants to help navigate the budget challenges “and work with the constituency to put together solid referendums that will be supported,” Prober said. “I think that referendum did a lot to wake people up. … You can’t just take for granted that things are going the way you want, if you are a parent or someone who values education,” she added.
“A big part of what I can bring to the table is real understanding of return-on-investment in business. I did this [as a civil engineer]: make intelligent investments so the project is profitable,” she said.
“Part of what got me interested [in the school board] … were things around the referendum last year, conversations around special programs” that were considered for budget cuts. Although the administration says every line of budget was reviewed for potential savings, Probert said she wants to “take a hard look at the numbers” regarding return-on-investment for IRSD’s educational programs.
IRSD has led school safety initiatives in Delaware, placing an armed and trained constable in each building.
“I feel they are safe when they go to school,” Probert said of her children, but she wants to hear community and police perspectives, plus learn what has worked well elsewhere. “How can we make sure that parents and teachers and principals and everyone feels safe, while also making sure that we are providing a positive educational environment?”
Probert’s three children attended district schools, although the oldest chose to continue at a charter school. The youngest two are in the Spanish immersion program at East Millsboro Elementary School.
The family is very involved in the Sunset Branch of 4-H in Dagsboro, which Probert helped to found and still leads. She was named Delaware 4-H Sussex County Volunteer of the Year for 2018.
“I’m passionate about education — clearly, since this is something I’m taking on with the school board — and building leadership skills, long-term life skills in kids, and the more hands-on, the better, so that’s a big part of what drives me,” she said.
As they build a family farm, Probert said she hopes to raise horses to ride, plus livestock for the 4-H kids to study.
Probert has not held elected office before, although she brings financial and civil engineering experience, plus her own experience teaching in 4-H.
“Not only am I a parent, I am a professional woman that … I like to think of myself as a good balance between small-town, grassroots, local 4-H leader mom you see at the soccer field, and also having the unique opportunity to have international perspective, especially as science and technological education — you know: ‘What are employers looking for?’” she said.
“I don’t think every kid should grow up and move away to have a great job,” said Probert, who emphasized the need for college-prep and hands-on learning. “We need to find more ways to educate folks for the long-term sustainability of the community…”
Leolga Wright, the incumbent
On the Oak Orchard side of Millsboro, Leolga Wright was appointed to the school board in 2012 and kept her seat in the 2013 election.
“I take pride in being able to represent my community and be part of the board and be out in the public and let people know I am a board member,” said Wright, who occasionally casts a vote dissenting from the majority, often regarding spending. “I am more than willing to sit down with anyone and review my voting history.”
Even when she disagrees, Wright said she will still enact the will of the board, upholding the decisions they make.
“I like to think that, as board members, we can go to the administration with concerns we hear out in the public and they would be willing to listen to it, and if it is warranted, we would make changes,” she said.
“I’m choosing to run for re-election this time because we’ve gone through some difficult times in the district, a difficult few years, but I believe we are turning the corner, with great effort.” And Wright said she hopes to help “put Indian River back on the map, where it should be,” with finances and education.
The IRSD’s overcrowding problem is “bittersweet,” because “It’s nice to have kids that want to come into our district because of the opportunities they have to learn, but at the same time, we have to take care of our own students,” she said.
And with the likelihood of new buildings being built, the IRSD has to prove itself good stewards of the money. She said she believes the IRSD has already renovated where possible, so new schools might be the next step — perhaps just one at a time, to reduce the impact on taxes.
“In the northern end, in Georgetown, we have the Hispanic population, we have the [English language learners], and it takes its toll. However, I’m of the opinion that you are in this county, you are in this state, you are in this county, you should be afforded this opportunity to learn,” Wright said.
“You can’t slight these children for a decision that maybe their parents made, so it would be my hope we educate the younger ones and help them familiarize themselves with what they have to do to become a citizen.”
In the future, she said, those very children might be earning their U.S. citizenship, paying taxes and giving back to the community “because we afforded them the opportunity to learn. But I think every child should have the opportunity. I don’t think the race or anything should have bearing on it. If they choose to be successful, we can pat ourselves on the back” for a job well done.
Other challenges nowadays include mental health, although Wright said she doesn’t yet know how that may impact IRSD’s changes in curriculum, safety or administration.
“Right now, I think we are at the top of our game as far as the comprehensive safety plan we have implemented in Indian River School District, but I would think there’s always an opportunity to maybe expand upon it,” she said.
Wright said she supports the district’s progress in securing building entrances and only arming safety monitors who have law-enforcement training.
“I am not a proponent of having teachers and administrators carry handguns in school. That is a personal opinion of mine,” said Wright, adding that she has imagined the nightmare of several students overpowering an armed teacher who has her head turned. “Then you’ve got a handgun in a classroom with people who aren’t even familiar with how to use it.”
As the IRSD considers population growth and overcrowded schools, the State has approved a new Howard T. Ennis School for students with severe special needs, as the current facility is very aged.
“The biggest thing right now for me is to see Ennis with a new school, because I’ve walked the schools of Howard T. It’s unfortunate that the students are in the health issues that they are, but if there’s something we can do to help them learn and be self-sufficient, that’s something we need to do. The school we have now… It just doesn’t fit.”
Right now, the IRSD is just hoping for money in the state’s budget to begin engineering for the project.
Outside of her involvement in education, Wright was appointed to Delaware’s Citizen Involvement Advisory Committee (CIAC), doling out environmental grants from a state fund businesses pay into for environmental violations.
Wright also serves the Delaware Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Advisory Committee for implementation of federal education law.
Wright graduated from Sussex Central High School in 1972 and raised her own son to graduate in 2008.
Retired after 34 years at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (including around 15 years in management), Wright’s current “day job” is volunteering for Cheer and as a Meals on Wheels delivery person.
She is also a member of the Nanticoke Indian Association, the Indian River Volunteer Fire Company and its ladies’ auxiliary.
By Laura Walter