GOSHEN — It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but Elkhart County commissioner Mike Yoder said it was the right move to cancel a request for the county to contribute money to the area’s newest education group.
To the surprise of a packed room at Friday’s Elkhart County Council meeting, Yoder withdrew a request for the county to pay almost $64,000 in benefits for two Horizon Education Alliance employees. Horizon launched earlier this year to link public schools with the business community, nonprofit organizations and hospitals through educational programs.
Yoder, Horizon’s county government liaison, said the alliance’s leaders asked him to cancel the request because “the level of support is not where they would like it to be right now and feel like it’s not a good time for this partnership to happen.” Horizon executive director Brian Wiebe was scheduled to make a presentation earlier this month to the county council but postponed the discussion after finding out that councilman David Foutz would not be at the meeting. Foutz, a retired educator of 42 years, has spoken in favor of Horizon and its potential to transform education.
“Since then, this group has been able to initiate their fundraising,” Yoder said. “They’ve met with several groups already and several individuals, and the response has been — and this is not an overstatement — overwhelmingly enthusiastic about what’s going on, an overwhelmingly endorsement, and actually fundraising is above their initial expectations.”
Members of the county council have been bombarded during the past few months with feedback about Horizon.
“Of all the issues we’ve had in the past four or five years, I’m certain that we got more emails, more letters and more phone calls on this issue than we have anything else,” said John Letherman, council president.
Letherman agrees that education needs to be improved, but he said the county is not in a position to help out financially at this point. He pointed out that county employees have not received pay raises in a few years and their medical reimbursement has been reduced. Further, he said, the county had to use $1.8 million in rainy day money and funds from the Economic Development Income Tax to balance the 2013 budget.
“We’ve got some serious financial problems here, and until we see some daylight, it appears this situation that we have this year is going to continue to get worse over the next three or four years unless something happens,” Letherman said.
Roughly 50 people showed up to Friday’s council meeting, and several people who spoke identified themselves as Tea Party supporters. Horizon has been under scrutiny by Tea Party members who are against using public money for the education group. Tea Party of Michiana Action Coalition cofounder Peter Recchio said Horizon should have invested more time in communicating with the public about its plans and programs. Elkhart County Patriots leader Bob Moore said Horizon has good intentions but was happy to see that county government would not be partnering with the organization.
“Let the schools deal with the local school issues,” Moore said.
Friday’s meeting also drew Horizon supporters, including United Way of Elkhart County chief Bill Rieth, Goshen mayor Allan Kauffman and Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce President Phil Penn. Penn, who announced his retirement earlier this month, said he recently met with Horizon leaders and was impressed by their dedication. The Elkhart County Education Foundation, which is part of the chamber, plans to help Horizon in its move forward.
“We immediately supported it with a two-year commitment,” Penn said. “I can tell you one of the individuals on the board was so impressed that he personally made a commitment.”
Yoder told the county council that he plans to return to the board in eight to 10 months to report on Horizon’s progress.
Check Sunday’s edition of The Elkhart Truth for more details on Horizon’s plans for the future.