Updated Thursday, Sept. 13, 2023, 1:18 P.m.
Yvonne Stokes stepped down as superintendent of Hamilton Southeastern Schools Wednesday, following a tumultuous period of divisive politics that have splintered the suburban community.
Stokes started a three-year contract in July 2021. Stokes was the district’s first Black superintendent, and her hiring was contentious from the start. A small group protested her hire with signs like "education not indoctrination" outside the district office. She also faced pushback for diversity and inclusion efforts.
During a special 7 a.m. meeting the school board approved a separation agreement for Stokes that includes paying her $187,858, the full amount of her salary for her contract that ends next June. Stokes's did not give a reason for her decision to step down in a resignation letter to the school community.
“I am grateful to HSE and the Fishers and Noblesville communities for my time here,” Stokes said in a statement released by the district. “The opportunity to serve as superintendent was one I never took lightly. As this shift in leadership commences, I am committed to supporting the district and feel confident that our staff, students and families will be in capable hands. The future is bright for HSE.”
Stokes and school board President Dawn Lang also released a joint letter that pledged to unite the district in an “atmosphere of trust, unity and collaboration.”
“Moving forward, the school board and administration will continue to work in partnership to strengthen and unify the district and community,” the letter said. “Please rest assured that we are dedicated to transparency and collaboration during this process.”
But three people who spoke during public comments, criticized Lang and other board members for a lack of transparency and attempting to stifle community voices by holding the meeting just before the school day began.
During the brief meeting, Lang acknowledged the recent years have been challenging for the school district and many in the community.
“However, I believe these challenges present us with the opportunity to choose to come together and collectively identify a path forward,” Lang said. “Today is one of those opportunities.”
The board appointed Assistant Superintendent Matt Kegley as interim superintendent. Kegley has worked in the district for nearly 13 years. A search for a permanent superintendent will begin in the next several months, the district said in a press release.
As Kegley takes the helm, the district is seeking a property-tax referendum on the November ballot to continue funding general operations, like teach pay.
Details of why Stokes resigned were not discussed during the board meeting. A district attorney said Stokes’ legal representative contacted the district two weeks ago to start discussing a separation agreement.
Stokes' decision comes 10 months after a slate of four conservative candidates won seats on the HSE board and now hold a majority on the seven-member board. The candidates followed a national wave of opposition to critical race theory and claims that schools are indoctrinating students in liberal ideologies.
During their 2022 election, the candidates were backed by the local group Fishers One, which advocates for ''academics over activism."
In the months since the new members have sought to change direction on previously approved plans and sought to change how the district was overseen previously.
At a February meeting, board member Ben Orr questioned district efforts to hire racially diverse educators, such as by recruiting at historical Black colleges and universities.
“I don’t like that as a policy,” Orr said during. “I have concerns about that.”
In March the board abruptly ended a contract for a student survey the district used to assess wellness with the company Panorama Education. In June, some new members questioned whether administrators on two-year contracts should be renewed a year early — a discussion that drew rebuke from educators and community members.
According to a summary of the separation agreement, Stokes will receive the full amount of her salary for the final year of her contract. Her annual base salary is $180,000, according to a one-page employment contract posted on the HSE website. She’ll also be paid for 40 unused sick days and 20 unused vacation days and continue to receive health care benefits,
Stokes and the board also agreed to not disparage each other.
The actual separation agreement between Stokes and the board was not released.
In April 2021, Stokes was appointed as the incoming HSE superintendent in a 5-2 vote. Allen Bourff, the former superintendent, retired that June after seven years leading the district.
Before HSE, Stokes was the assistant superintendent for Munster schools and an academic improvement officer at Indianapolis Public Schools, according to LinkedIn.
Stokes, a former Fishers resident, told Fishers Magazine in 2021 that she was excited to apply for the HSE superintendent position when it became available.
“The reason I wanted the job was a combination of passion, opportunity, and an internal drive to support, Stokes said. “And it didn’t hurt that I used to live here, because I always knew about the great things HSE schools were doing. I just thought in such a time as this, why not me?”
Contact WFYI education editor Eric Weddle at email@example.com or call (317) 614-0470.