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July 8, 2020

6/10/2020 12:05:00 PM
Two school corp. leaders retire on the exact same day
Amber Fields says her greatest challenge over the years has been to keep teachers’ wages competitive so as to attract ad keep excellent staff.—Staff Photo by Barb King
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Amber Fields says her greatest challenge over the years has been to keep teachers’ wages competitive so as to attract ad keep excellent staff.—Staff Photo by Barb King
Susan Harding shows off a binder that explains the nutritional content of every item offered in school cafeterias. Shown is data for a cookie.—Staff Photo by Barb King
+ click to enlarge
Susan Harding shows off a binder that explains the nutritional content of every item offered in school cafeterias. Shown is data for a cookie.—Staff Photo by Barb King
Two leaders who have played a vital role in local education over two decades have now retired on the same day.

Amber Fields, former business manager/treasurer of the school corporation, has been the person behind the multi- million dollar budgets of the JC School corporation for the past two decades.

And Susan Harding, food service director for 18 years, has made sure student meals meet all federal nutrition guidelines and that all students who qualify can obtain these meals at free or reduced prices.

Superintendent Teresa Brown was effusive in praise..

"We greatly appreciate everything Amber and Susan have done for the Jennings County Schools Community. They are both dedicated and set the standard for excellence in their jobs. I am going to miss both of them a great deal; but I am happy for them and wish them well in their retirement. I know they are looking forward to having more freedom and time to pursue their interests.

"Amber has done an outstanding job through some trying times to make sure JCSC is in a good place financially. I trust her judgment and I lean on her to help make many decisions. I do know that she is only a call away. In addition to missing her professionally, I will miss her personally. She has become someone I count on for good advice and she has a great sense of humor."

Turning to Susan, the superintendent praised her as well.

"Susan is meticulous in everything she does in food service. Every audit we have has zero findings, because Susan is a complete professional. The state has told me that they see Susan as a leader in food service in Indiana.

"When we needed to find ways to feed kids during the Pandemic, Susan was instrumental in making it all happen."

Replacements for these two women have been hired and were oriented before Fields and Harding's last day at work on May 29. Their profiles will be in next week's newspaper.

Read on to learn more about these women whose contributions to local education were so far reaching.

Amber Fields: Committed to quality staffing

Amber Fields says she "always ended up doing the books" at the various jobs she held after graduating from Purdue University with a degree in agricultural economics. She gravitated to a job in education when she eventually moved back to Marion after working in Wisconsin, New York and Washington, D.C. Working in education seemed natural, as her parents were both teachers.

Her job as an assistant business manager in her hometown was great preparation for when the job opened up here in Jennings. At the time she was dating her future husband, Joe Robb, who was and is currently the director of Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge, the former Jefferson Proving Ground.

The couple bought the historic 1840 Harriman Tripp home in Vernon in 2002 and, as she says, "has been working on it ever since." Her appreciation of history led her to co-found the Friends of Vernon organization several years ago and to get involved in revitalizing the county seat via activities, festivals and community improvement.

She will now get more involved with this non-profit, pursue her hobbies of quilting and gardening and enjoy her family. She has three children: sons Jason in Austin, Texas and Gavin of North Vernon; daughter Caitlan who lives in Cincy; and three grandchildren.

Plus, her mom, dad and sister have relocated to the county seat, so great was the lure of this historic town.

Amber's talent for "organization" has served her well as business manager for the school corporation, overseeing a $50+ million budget in 2020.

Over the years, she has seen "a lot of changes" in education, most markedly in the power of the teachers union. She points out that a movement that began in Wisconsin under Governor Scott Walker has resulted in teacher unions losing bargaining rights in just about every area except salary and wages.

Over her tenure working with three different superintendents and numerous school board members, the challenge has been to keep teacher wages here competitive so as to keep and attract quality educators.

She advises anyone who thinks teachers are paid too much to try substitute teaching with 15 to 30 students, an experience she tried herself and sums up in one word: "Hard."

The most difficult aspect of being business manager for the schools is "juggling everything and getting things in on time." She says she couldn't have done her job without a great staff backing her up - Myra Fischvogt, Dee Dee Lane and Dana Ochs as well as Kathy Hyden.

When Amber arrived here 20 years ago, her plan was to work 20 years and retire at 60. She had no way of knowing she would be retiring at a time when school funding could very well reach crisis mode.

This is because education depends on the state sales tax for funding and with the COVID-19 lockdown, state collection of these revenues have been dramatically reduced.

"I feel bad to leave during this time. If the federal government doesn't bail out the states, then schools will be in dire straights."

The only consolation in this situation is Fields' overriding faith that the federal government will come to the rescue of the states and their responsibility to educate our young people.

The government will have to and should, she says, as education "is the most important thing we do."

Susan Harding: Inspired to help children thrive

Susan Harding's old office tucked away in a corner of the administration building's basement belies the importance of the job - making sure students enrolled in Jennings County schools receive the nutrition they need to thrive.

Harding has been with the school system since moving here in 1995. She first worked as secretary/treasurer at Scipio Elementary School and was hired as food service director 18 years ago. A registered dietician, she previously worked for the Indiana Department of Education in its day care nutrition program(s).

Providing meals to students is much more than cooking up some hot dogs, which, Susan points out, must be nutritionally sound to be served at school The hot dog has to be 100 percent beef, low fat, low in sodium and served on a 51 percent whole grain bun. The ketchup slathered on the bun cannot contain any high fructose corn syrup, either.

In fact, everything you may read on the school menu (or taste if you are a student) is nutritionally checked and re-checked with a youngster's health in mind.

If you see a "donut" is being served, for example, Susan points out this is not your "typical" junk food. If it were, it would never be offered to your child.

No, this "donut' has been "specially formulated" to meet the USDA "CN" certification, which means it meets the government's Child Nutrition standards, as does every item served at school breakfasts and lunches.

"The hardest part of my job is to keep track of all the changes in the federal regulations and making sure we are in compliance," said Susan before her retirement on May 29.

Local schools serve two meals a day, instead of just lunch, because state law requires schools with over 50 percent of students receiving free or reduced meals to also serve the morning meal. Here in Jennings, 60 percent of the students are on this program.

In addition to making sure all menus meet children's nutritional needs, Susan oversees the ordering of all food items. She purchases items through certified vendors and through the Department of Defense Fresh Food Program that provides a resource for fresh produce.

The food service director works with a budget of $3.5 million and oversees a total of 50 employees, including all food preparation workers in the schools where cafeterias and kitchens are inspected by the Public Health Department at least twice a year.

Harding notes parents can go to www.jcsc. org and click on the Food Service Dept. tab to find out information about menus, nutrition, wellness, recipes, and even nutrition games for children. The application for free and reduced lunches is also on the site.

During her tenure, Harding has been concerned about students having enough to eat while outside of school. She instituted "sharing tables" at each school where unopened packaged food items a student does not eat is left for other students to consume. Items not picked up are donated to the high school food pantry.

She has been involved in the "back pack" program at each school, which provides food over the weekend to students during the school year. Recently, she applied for and received a grant that is supplying 2078 children meals through the month of June via a program at Baylor University/ USDA.The meals are shipped directly to their homes.

As she begins her retirement, Susan plans to pursue her various hobbies that include gardening, weaving, reading, sewing, and family time. Her husband, Steve, has no plans to retire; daughter Molly, lives in New Hampshire; son Eric, lives in Vernon; and daughter Aubrey is a student in Chicago. She has one grandchild.

In addition to sharing the same retirement date as Amber Fields, Susan also lives in Vernon and plans to spend time working on her home, known to townspeople as "The Manse."

She leaves her job confident that the new director, Tonya Feider, will "do a great job making sure the children of Jennings County are fed."

As far as you and yours, she offers some advice: "Sitting down for a family dinner every night is important. Make food into a social event. I think that connection is very important."

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