USD No. 480 School Board candidates prepare to answer questions posed by moderator Earl Watt Thursday evening at the Seward County Administration Building. The event was co-sponsored by the Seward County Republican Party and the Leader & Times. L&T photo/Robert Pierce
EDITOR’S NOTE — This is the first in a series of stories from Thursday night’s School Board forum.
By ROBERT PIERCE
• Leader & Times
Candidates for the four seats available on the USD No. 480 Board of Education had their chance to address some of the issues concerning the school district Thursday.
Six of the seven contenders were on hand, including incumbent Tammy Sutherland-Abbott, in the county commission chambers at the Seward County Administration Building for a candidate forum hosted by the Seward County Republican Party and the Leader & Times. Incumbent Stacy Johnson was absent.
One of the concerns citizens had was a recent proposal by Superintendent Lance Stout to add additional staff, including five additional K-3 staff, five technology coaches, two additional principals and a police officer at Liberal High School plus a coordinator for LHS’ AVID program. The cost of those additions is estimated at $665,000.
Challenger Tony Whisenant, who described himself as fiscally conservative, said he doesn’t see the package happening.
“I’ve looked and seen what they’ve proposed in Topeka,” he said. “It’s all cuts to school funding. Right now, I think we have sufficient staff. They may be doing some of the jobs that teachers are supposed to be doing instead of letting the teachers be responsible for it. There’s a reality going on about what you should be doing and what you shouldn’t be doing.”
Whisenant said the additional staff is simply not a “fiscal reality.”
“We’ve got a budget that’s just going to be tightening, and we need to make sure we keep within our bounds and look at what’s going on,” he said. “I just don’t see where we can add on to the staff.”
Candidate Chris Jewell said while no one wants to spend more money, the issue of where the $665,000 is going needs to be examined more closely.
“If we’re going to hire more aides, more paras to go into the classroom, sure,” he said. “I think Liberal has a $60 million budget for the school district right now, and it depends a lot on what the state is going to do as far as what kind of cuts they’re going to make and what kind of money they’re going to hand down to the district.”
Jewell said it is important to know exactly what the staff hires would be, and without that information, he could not give a definitive “yes” or “no” to adding more staff.
“You would have to sit down and look at what kind of positions that you were going to add as to whether those were going to be needed or some people have more time that could double up on some things,” he said.
Candidate Steve Helm said more administrative positions should not be considered until classrooms can be adequately funded.
“Teachers are spending their own money for classroom supplies,” he said. “Nobody else that has regular jobs in the real world spends money out of their own pocket for their supplies at work. They’re furnished to them.”
The lone incumbent at Thursday’s forum said the package has been put on the agenda for this Monday’s meeting, and she said she will not be voting for it.
“In a perfect world, if the district had lots of money, I would probably support that, but given our financial condition,” Sutherland-Abbott said. “I don’t think that justifies how we’re spending our money. If it was broke out separately, the No. 1 thing I think our district needs is a police officer. Left together, I won’t be able to support it.”
Challenger Crystal Clemens said while most of the proposed positions should be taken off the board at this time, she questioned putting USD 480 youth at risk, and therefore, the board should consider hiring a police officer.
“That’s a position that’s definitely needed — someone to help with that aspect of the high school,” she said.
On the importance of technology coaches, Clemens pointed to an incident when her son had been testing, in which the school had a whole day they were unable to test due to computer failures.
“Had they had this person, could they have got back up and going quicker?” she said. “I think with the positions that were proposed, I can understand them. Can we realistically do it now? Probably not all of them. Can we look at them in phases? Probably so. I think it’s just really going to depend on what the budget’s going to allow us to do. Can we afford to cut anything for classrooms? No. If that means not adding those positions to keep what we have, that’s just how it has to be.”
Candidate Delvin Kinser agreed with most of the other contenders.
“I realize that there are time limits on things, but I question the wisdom of taking a step like this without knowing what the Legislature’s going to do,” he said. “To me, we’re writing a check where we don’t know if we’re going to have enough funds in the bank to cover it unless we raise the local option budget.”
Kinser also concurred with the panel, saying now is not the time to look at adding to the district’s payroll.
“The Kansas economy is trying to get back on track,” he said. “Liberal is in as similar a situation as anybody in the state of Kansas economically. To add positions now seems a bit unwise to me.”
Kinser likewise agreed with Clemens’ idea of phasing in the positions.
“We do need better security, but to go spend money that we don’t know that we have yet, that’s not very wise,” Kinser said.