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Valpo School Board member becomes campaign issue in township trustee race

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screenshot from YouTube meeting video
Valparaiso School Board member Erika Watkins (right) speaks during the Sept. 22 board meeting.

The Valparaiso School Board's first Black member has found herself at the center of a political battle in the Center Township trustee race. The township board's appointment of Erika Watkins to the school board last year was cited as a poor decision in materials from Casey Schmidt's campaign, according to residents. Schmidt currently serves as Valparaiso City Council president.

Jennifer Hora was one of four community members who spoke in support of Watkins during Thursday's school board meeting. "This is clearly a political dog whistle. This is the definition of a coded political message. A member of the board and our only visible minority member is being attacked as a poor decision of the people doing the appointing," Hora said.

School Board President Jennifer Bognar called Watkins a vital part of the board. "We support Erika, and I'm very sorry that she has gotten pulled into a political situation because that is not what this school board should be about. And it's not what we are about," Bognar said.

A visibly emotional Watkins thanked those who spoke in her support, saying she's proud to represent Valparaiso Community Schools, even if it hasn't always been easy. "It is time to make changes. Either you embrace me — because there'll be more of me. I am not the end of what Valpo will become. We are here, and we are here to be representations for this community. We are intelligent. We have done the work, and we deserve to sit at the table," Watkins said.

Neither Schmidt nor any other city official responded to residents' concerns on the matter at the last city council meeting.