INDIANAPOLIS — Cari Whicker is a teacher 24 hours a day, even on a recent 3,200-mile summer vacation out West with her family.
“We don’t go anywhere without a packet of stuff so we can learn,” she said. “I was showing them all the geological features and their eyes were glazing over. My husband said to me, ‘I don’t think anyone cares.’ ”
But Whicker cares. And that’s why she recently accepted a reappointment to the State Board of Education despite a tense – sometimes even hostile – working environment.
“My stomach on the way down is always a mess before board meetings,” she said. “But how do you not give back? It’s stressful? Tough. If I’m not willing to, then shame on me. I shouldn’t expect someone else to do it if I won’t myself.”
Whicker, 45, has been a teacher for 17 years in northeast Indiana. She married her high school sweetheart, and the couple live with their three kids in Uniondale – population 350 – next door to her parents and just 3 miles from the in-laws.
She teaches language arts and social studies at Riverview Middle School in Huntington. Her principal, Curt Crago, taught her in middle school. And he has been in leadership at Riverview her entire tenure as a teacher.
“I think she is always that perky. I honestly think she runs on about three to four hours of sleep with all the different things she’s doing,” he said. “That work ethic has always been there.”
He loves her service on the state board, saying he has become more informed of education policy. “It does make me more aware at a quicker pace instead of waiting for the latest memo,” Crago said. “We disagree all the time. It’s not a big deal. It’s good to have people around who don’t always think like I think.”
Whicker credits her professionalism to her first job after graduating from college in Utah in 1995.
She first did an internship in then-U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar’s D.C. office, where she happened on a full-time job with new Secretary of State Sue Anne Gilroy at the Indiana Statehouse.
“She was absolutely a mentor. She just started me thinking about being professional and representing yourself well,” Whicker said. “She taught me that. She wanted me to dress for the job and have confidence.”
Gilroy recalled Whicker as an extraordinary executive assistant who gave great advice full of empathy and wisdom.
“She is a gifted teacher and mother,” Gilroy said. “She is a committed public servant who brings clear thinking to the challenges of public education. Indiana needs her service!”
After two years, Whicker and her husband moved back to Uniondale to teach and raise a family. Whicker is a Republican, noting she and her family sometimes attend party events. Her father, Jeff Espich, served in the Indiana House for 40 years.
“I would say we are politically informed more than politically involved,” she said. “It’s important for my kids to learn that you don’t ever vote for someone based on a party or name. You vote for them based on their philosophy.”
She has donated only to the local Republican Party – not to statewide candidates.
Whicker previously served several years on the Teachers’ Retirement Fund board, which was then merged with the Public Employees’ Retirement Fund – eventually becoming known as the Indiana Public Retirement System.
Then Steve Gabet of Allen County resigned from the State Board of Education in 2012 because he was no longer a teacher. State rules require a minimum number of active public school employees on the board.
He pushed for his replacement to be a teacher from northeast Indiana, and then-Gov. Mitch Daniels chose Whicker to fill the spot representing the 3rd Congressional District in May 2012.
She said that when she interviewed, the other applicants were superintendents. So, “I pleaded the case of needing a teacher, someone who has to give the test and be held accountable to it.”
“My learning curve was barely coming to an end, and we had a new superintendent and a new governor,” Whicker said.
Democrat Glenda Ritz stunned Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett by defeating him in the November 2012 election, and Gov. Mike Pence took office.
For a few months it seemed as if the board and Ritz were successfully feeling their way through the new system – a Democratic chair of a board controlled by Republicans.
Then in mid-2013, Pence created by executive order the Center for Education and Career Innovation and things went downhill.
The agency appeared to some to be duplicative of the Indiana Department of Education run by Ritz. Suddenly, where that agency had always staffed the Board of Education, the new agency stepped in.
Lawyers from both entities would give conflicting legal advice. Staff from both departments sometimes appeared to do much the same job. There was lots of interrupting and yelling. A lawsuit. A walkout. A mediator.
The fighting continues this year as Ritz tries to maintain some authority as an elected officeholder and the board members react to being given late or incomplete information – if they are kept in the loop at all.
“I’m tired of the games,” Whicker said. “In Uniondale, we don’t play games.”
She has been surprised by the ugliness and discord each month.
“I agree with the superintendent on so many issues. I wish we could spend more time focusing on the things we agree on. Instead, we spend all our time disagreeing and arguing. That’s unfortunate,” Whicker said.
She values the role of the new education agency, saying it provides helpful information to the board to make decisions.
“I hope this isn’t the new normal,” Whicker said of her new four-year term.
Fellow board member Sarah O’Brien said she is glad Whicker will remain on the board for four more years. O’Brien is a teacher herself, so she and Whicker have a natural inclination to put kids first. Whicker also brings her experience as a parent to the table.
“She’s a very calm and rational person. She’s not someone who just needs to hear herself talk. She’s not confrontational,” O’Brien said. “I was grateful that she stayed on. No one is thrilled with the current situation, the demeanor and overall tones to the meetings. But it gives us motivation to be there and make sure the job is getting done.”