Michael D. Clark reports:
It’s a single seat on Lakota Schools’ governing board, but while holding that elected chair no one had more and longer impact on the giant school district than Joan Powell.
Half of those 16 years Powell were spent as school board president, where she guided four other members in overseeing Lakota’s explosive growth transforming the once rural Butler County district into the eighth largest in Ohio.
In Lakota’s 56-year history, only one other board member held a seat longer.
Outside of the five Lakota superintendents during her career who controlled the daily operations of the district, no board member has steered the school system more often than Powell.
And area leaders said she moved the district in the right direction, serving both school families and the business communities in the 63-square-mile district that encompasses West Chester and Liberty townships.
“When navigating tough decisions, I have observed her compass to be her commitment to educating future generations’ citizens, leaders, and workforce,” said veteran West Chester Township Administrator Judith Boyko.
“Joan’s leadership on the Lakota School Board has spanned a decade and a half of expansive, market driven residential growth in West Chester and Liberty Townships. She has always grasped the greater picture and understood the correlation between economic development and a sustainable tax base for the community and the schools,” Boyko said.
Joe Hinson, president and CEO of the West Chester-Liberty Chamber Alliance, said “Joan has played a key role in many projects that have led to Lakota being the excellent performing school district it is today. “
“From transitioning from one high school to two, to increasing the number of school buildings – now totaling 22, from working with five superintendents, to Lakota being honored as a school district of excellence for 11 straight years, Joan has worked tirelessly for our students and our communities of West Chester and Liberty Townships,” Hinson said.
Powell’s longevity on the board has been one of the few constants in an ever-changing Lakota.
Lakota school parent Kathy Cook said “my family moved from Dayton to Liberty Township in 1998 and have thankfully never known a Lakota without Joan Powell. Joan’s in depth knowledge of the public education system and the Lakota school district is unparalleled and the community has been extremely fortunate to have her guidance through the many challenges and changes over the years.”
Acknowledged even by her critics for her sharp intellect and powerful personality, Powell looks back on her public service and sees both historic accomplishments and trends that surfaced and continue as she leaves.
“I first ran for the board (in 1996) because I disagreed with actions being taken by the board at that time to limit students’ exposure to various types of instructional materials,” recalled Powell. “But once the board membership changed, those issues went away. It seemed like I could make a difference.”
“The biggest change is really a societal one: Lakota has many more students from other countries, more students from poverty, more students from single parent homes, more racial diversity, fewer stay-at-home moms, more students dealing with stresses beyond their years. All these things affect what schools need to do and how they do them.”
Powell, said fellow board member Ben Dibble, has handled those and other sweeping changes well.
“She has been a steady and strong voice advocating for the children, and for our community, during a time of great change in public education (and) she has a tremendous wealth of knowledge about education and Lakota,” said Dibble.
The top-rated schools have long been a centerpiece of the two townships, which remain among the fastest growing in Ohio. But Powell leaves with concerns about the level of community commitment to Lakota schools.
“Back in the 1990’s and 2000’s, the community and staff appeared to have a higher sense of ownership in the district. Almost everyone moved here for the schools and Lakota was the center of community,” Powell said.
“There was no shopping, no movies and almost no restaurants. There was no Union Centre (Boulevard), no (Butler County Veterans Highway) and Voice of America was still broadcasting. Community and schools worked together to build the best district possible,” she said. “Whether it is all the improvements that came or the aging of the community or going to two high schools, I am not sure, but more people now seem to expect excellence but are unwilling to work for it or pay for it.”
But overall Powell remains optimistic in part because Lakota finally broke its eight-year losing streak at the ballot by winning passage of a school tax hike in November that ends historically deep budget cuts of recent years.
“Lakota is in good hands. As in the past, the board and administration are committed to running a fiscally responsible organization. The just-passed levy will allow Lakota to improve technology and restore some much-needed academic services,” she said. “Whether it is a band-aid or a sturdy bridge will depend much on the commitment that Columbus (Ohio Legislature) has to public education.
“I will miss the people and the work. I enjoy the challenges and critically considering solutions to the problems at hand,” she said.
But Powell, who has occasionally found herself at or near the center of school district controversy, added “I will not miss the drama and the politics.”
- Elected four times in 16 years, first in 1996, to the governing board of Southwest Ohio’s second largest school system. Joan Powell leaves the Lakota school board on Dec. 31 having served longer than all except on member in the district’s 56-year history.
- Before joining the Butler County school board Powell earned a degree in chemical engineering from Vanderbilt University.
- Her family moved to West Chester Township in 1988.
- Before being first elected to public office, Powell worked as real estate professional in West Chester and Liberty townships and continued that work while serving on the school board.
- On the board she served with 14 other members and served eight of her 16 years as board president and four years as vice president.
Powell has been married to Mike Powell for 39 years and together they have two grown children and four grandsons.
Historic changes while Powell on Lakota board
Starting in 1996, Joan Powell and other Lakota board members oversaw historic changes to Lakota Schools including:
• A 34 percent increase in enrollment from 12,746 to 17,100 students. Lakota is now the eighth largest district in Ohio.
• The building of 11 of Lakota’s 22 school buildings, including the unique to Southwest Ohio construction of two, then identical high schools – Lakota West and Lakota East.
• Redistricting of thousands of students to more than a dozen different schools in 2008 that saved Lakota millions of dollars in facility and transportation costs.
• The longest operating tax levy losing streak in Lakota history. From 2004 to this fall, voters rejected six of seven school tax hikes. But in November voters narrowly approved a new school operating tax.
• Historically deep budgets cuts of more than $20 million in recent years including the elimination of hundreds of teaching jobs and busing for thousands of students.
• Until Ohio changed its academic rating system for the 2012-2013 school year, Lakota earned the state’s top two ratings of “Excellent” and “Excellent with Distinction” for 11 consecutive school years and was the largest district in the state to achieve that honor.