An election watch party at Billy’s quickly turned into a celebration when the election results were announcd Tuesday at around 7:30 p.m. The school bond easily passed, and supporters shared their appreciation for the outcome as well as the process that brought members of the community and school district together to seek a solution to overcrowding. L&T photo/Rachel Coleman
Voters overwhelmingly approve school bond
By RACHEL COLEMAN
Leader & Times
School board member Nick Hatcher is a tall man. Even so, at the bond election watch party, he couldn’t stop jumping in elation as early voting results arrived. Hatcher wasn’t the only person excited about the 78 percent double “yes” Liberal voters delivered at the ballot box. Lisa Hatcher, organizer for the grassroots group Citizens for Responsible Growth, couldn’t stop looking at the numbers on her iPhone.
The final tally for for the $127 million bond issue listed 2,023 “yes” votes, with 632 opposed.
Final tally for the half-cent sales tax administered by the city of Liberal was 1,985 “yes” and 539 “no.” A 76 percent approval was far more than either husband or wife had dared to hope for — and Lisa was momentarily overcome as she addressed the group moments later. Quoting President John F. Kennedy, Lisa said that “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource,” then paused as tears threatened to fall, before she thanked the volunteers who helped get out the vote.
The Hatchers were not the only supporters filled with shock and awe.
“I feel so proud,” said Liberal resident and CRG member Tano Tovilla. “It’s amazing how people worked together to better this community. I’ve never seen a vote like this.”
Tovilla, a Mexican national who is just one year away from applying for his U.S. citizenship, spent a good part of Tuesday ferrying coworkers and friends to the election site at the Seward County Activity Center.
“I made five trips,” he said. “I’m not allowed to vote because I’m still just a resident. This is the way I could be involved. I live here, I pay taxes here, I’m raising my children here and I wanted to help however I could.”
Tovilla’s commitment was exactly what USD 480 board president Delvin Kinser had hoped to see in Liberal residents at large.
“I’m an optimist, always believing that what’s good is going to happen,” he said. “But I’m blown away. Not only is this great for the schools, this is great for our community.”
Kinser said the success of the bond issue meant more than improvements to the district’s facilities; it represented a fundamental shift in how the people of Liberal relate to one another, to their government bodies, and to their own identity. Kinser said he believed the election results reflected much prayer and God’s blessing on Liberal.
“This is a sea change,” he said. “People have caught the idea that we don’t have to follow Dodge City or Garden City anymore. It’s going to transform this community. I believe that in 10 years, we won’t even recognize this town.”
Superintendent of Schools Paul Larkin, too, expressed great optimism for the long view. Ever since he arrived in Liberal, he said, he’d heard a lot about the problem of trust between the school district and the community.
“The voters told us tonight that they believe in us, and they believe in the board — and that’s because we believed in them, and listened to them,” he said. Larkin noted that the process began with his predecessor, Lance Stout.
“This whole thing really started with him,” he said. Larkin also expressed appreciation to the DLR group “for all their help and having the plan to engage our community;” to JE Dunn “for keeping us updated with accurate figures;” to the community Vision Team, made up of administration, teachers, community members, parents and students, “for being willing to give months of their time to develop a plan and engage the community;” to USD 480 staff and administration, “in particular Mr. Burkey who has spent countless hours on the process;” to the Liberal City Commission “for being willing to work with us to come up with a solution the community can support;” to Citizens for Responsible Growth, without whom the bond election could not have happened, due to the presentations, advertising, “spreading the word, making phone calls and just talking to people;” and to the community itself.
Leader & Times owner and publisher Earl Watt, also co-chair of CRG, reminisced about his own experiences growing up in Liberal. He was a difficult student, he said, but he succeeded because teachers invested their time and energy in his education. Now a new generation of students will share in that experience, he said.
Watt said that will be thanks to “countless people who showed up to say what they liked, what they didn’t like, what they wanted to see. That’s what it’s about,” he said. Members of the Vision Team “came week after week, working to crack this open so we could find the pearl inside. We get good things in Liberal,” but we have to work for them, Watt said. He also pledged continuing involvement from the community group and the newspaper, so that taxpayers who voted to approve the bond will know how the project progresses.
DLR architect Brad Kiehl offered a collective pat on the back.
“Congratulations,” he said. “You all took the process we gave you and implemented a plan.” After the crushing defeat of the 2009 bond issue, soundly rejected by voters, Kiehl said the 76 percent margin of victory was remarkable.
“That’s not the kind of thing you expect to see in this community,” he said. “There’s an excitement in it that reminds me of spring. This is an opportunity for the community to grow. It’s going to be an exciting time.”
The excitement begins in two days, when Kiehl, along with a group of community and school district representatives, travel to visit model schools constructed by DLR in other cities. Among the travelers will be Nick Hatcher.
“Our oldest child will be a senior in high school when construction is finished,” he said, noting that even the couple’s youngest child will not reap the biggest benefits from the long-ranging project. That’s not the point, he said.
“It’s not about me or my kids. It’s about all of the kids in Liberal, doing what’s best for them.” Educating the students who are just babies now,” Hatcher said, “will make our community better.”