Citizens heard from candidates who will be on the ballot in the spring election during a forum Monday evening.
The night began with candidates for the USD 490 Board of Education.
The BOE members began with opening statements, starting with Scott Starkey.
"The reason why I'm running for school board, I'm a lifelong resident of Butler County, a product of USD 490," he said.
He currently lives in El Dorado with his four children, all of whom attended Skelly.
"I spent my previous career in law enforcement and serving the community of El Dorado," he said. "I found a huge need to spend my time focusing on youth. I was a DARE officer eight years and was the first SRO for USD 490. During that time I was able to participate in a lot of activities my students were involved in and I served on a lot of boards in the summer time with summer camps. My entire focus was around youth. I still coach my kids in sports and I would like to see El Dorado get back on the map as the predominant district in Butler County as I felt it was when I was a student there."
Vicki Coash spoke next, saying she lives in El Dorado and has two adult children who attended El Dorado schools.
"I was very involved in schools all through their school years," she said. "I have a grandson now who will be attending El Dorado schools. El Dorado is just important to me. It is my home. I am proud of it. I am proud of the changes the city has made and the school district has made."
She also said she was proud of the things they have accomplished during her time on the school board, including the hiring of Superintendent Sue Givens, the bond elections for the high school, middle school and Skelly.
"Our grade schools were old and in dire need of updating," she said. "The middle school being built now was in even more need."
Leon Leachman said he was like everyone else.
"I want the best for our kids," he said. "I currently have four grandkids going to school here and I had three children go through school here. These children are the most valuable asset our community or anyone around is ever going to have."
He wants to allow students to move forward and graduate with success. He said some important issues were funding for the district, developing curriculum and developing relationships. He said he was happy to have Givens as superintendent.
"I have developed a relationship with Sue, but more importantly with the rest of the district and teachers," he said. "With me being retired, I have the time to give to make sure my grandchildren and children of El Dorado get the education they deserve."
Page 2 of 6 - The final candidate was Bernie Spradling, who has lived in El Dorado 44 years and is running for her third term.
"I have been involved in education in the El Dorado Schools for 32 years," Spradling said.
That includes 17 years as a teacher and 15 years as a principal, then she decided to run for school board.
"I have a passion for education," she said. "Our children are our future. They are our most valuable resource. I learned a long time ago from my parents you work for what you believe in and I believe in education. I have first-hand knowledge for the long-range plan."
That plan includes addressing academic achievement, school safety, health and wellness, etcetera.
"I would continue to focus on that plan," she said. "It addresses the most important issues our district faces. We must continue to focus on students' success in all areas. We must provide the education to help all those students achieve success. We must continue to work with our best and our brightest to ensure we have success in higher education."
The first question to the candidates was: What motivates you to want to become a school board member?
"I love kids," Coash said. "I always have. I've always been involved in the schools. When I first ran I was a stay-at-home mother. My life had a big change and now I work full time but it is still important to me to be involved in the schools and follow through on the projects that have been started in the last eight years."
She wants to see through the facilities program they have planned and see through all of the things they have started.
Leachman said, "The major thing that drives me is the fact I am concerned with the future of our children. We need to supply them with the tools to be the best we can be. We are working together with people and being consensus building. We work together. We find out the best things for the kids and work to make things work. It's very important we work together as a group."
For Spradling, she said one of the most important reasons for her just walked into the room a little while ago – her granddaughter.
"I want the best for students," she said. "One of the things that opened my eyes to the enormousness of my job was when I saw all the students at the Award of Excellence ceremony. It was overwhelming to see the number of youth."
Starkey said, "If we didn't have a passion for the children of our community we wouldn't be setting up here right now. I've shown through example I do have a strong passion for kids. Along with that passion for kids comes their safety. I would like to bring to the table my expertise."
Page 3 of 6 - That is school safety. He has traveled around the country assessing and mitigating different districts and seeing what some of their different hazards were and the design of their facilities.
In response, Coash added the memory of her parents who taught her to be involved and to care about the things important to you and not just set back and watch motivated her to get involved.
The second question was: School funding has faced several cuts over the past five years. With a potential “flat” budget projection for the coming year, federal sequestration, and increasing costs, what would be your greatest area of focus in budget development?
Leachman answered first.
"It looks like a set of bills is going through that will flatten out our funding," he said. "We are already losing funding through federal cuts. We have already undergone budget cuts. The main thing we can focus on is how to continue to give kids the best education we can and cut the money. Our budget is going to have to be generated around education and curriculum and reaching out to these kids. So far we have not had to get rid of a position and lose a teacher due to budget cuts."
Spradling believes the state must come up with a way to adequately and fairly fund education.
"Ever year we are faced with the same situation of not knowing how much money we will have," she said. "The local school board has to step up and let our legislators know what this is doing to our schools. We have been trying to make the least amount of impact on students when we had to make cuts. We're to the point now it's really going to start hurting."
Starkey said he has not been on the school board before to deal with the financial woes going on.
"It honestly beings in Topeka and unfortunately our teachers are having to do more with less," he said. "My sister is an educator and I hear her concerns. I see her as an educator having to put money out of her pocket into something as simple as putting money into decorating the bulletin board in the classroom. I concur with Leon, getting up there and talking with our legislators and letting them understand it has to come from them."
Coash responded by saying, "I think we are going to face problems from federal budget cuts because that will impact our interest aid we get from the federal government on all of our bonds. We're lucky if they are going to keep our per pupil base the same. In 2008, when we had to make cuts, we used the process of asking for suggestions from teachers and other staff and that turned out to be a very useful tool. Those were added up and we started with the thing most people agreed on when we made our cuts. Fortunately, we haven't had to cut teachers and hope to work that way again."
Page 4 of 6 - In response, Leachman said one of the things they need is community involvement and involvement of teachers.
The third question asked: The long range facilities plan calls for eventual replacement of the two remaining elementary schools. Do you agree and, if so, how would you implement?
Spradling answered first.
"I don't know that I can say I agree yet," she said. "We need to look at it and decide is that really what we need to do right now. We need to look at enrollment numbers and places we have available for land usage. We have a long-range plan where we build a new Grandview and combine Jefferson and Lincoln into a new building on the Jefferson site. Enough has happened since then that I think we need to go back and re-evaluate and get the community to tell us what they think."
Starkey said with new buildings, the money has got to come from somewhere.
"It will come from the people in the audience and people in the community," he said. "No one wants to pay higher taxes. One of the things the community has done a great job with and the current board is developing and implementing new schools. I think we are moving in the right direction for people wanting to come to our community. The more we grow, the more students we are going to have and more opportunity for per head pupil funding from the state."
Coash pointed out there are actually three remaining elementary schools.
"Enrollments have changed in the Jefferson/Lincoln area," she said. "It has gone down some. I think the board and hopefully the community members are going to have to talk again before we decide anything. It was the worst possible time for the last bond issue, but the community thought it was important. Getting more people in the community will help keep the tax base level. If new schools help that, I think that is an important thing to do."
Leachman said a plan is just that, a plan.
"We developed a long-range plan saying this is what we may like to happen down the road," he said. "Our job is to provide facilities for the kids to learn in. If we decide it is not a good learning venue, we've got to do something. Another thing mentioned is you've got to have the money to build it."
The final question asked: The district has seen a marked growth in academic achievement and extracurricular accomplishments. What do you believe are the next steps to continue the growth?
Starkey started this round.
"Again, I applaud the three members that are up here and the rest of the board," he said. "I think the coaches we have in place, in addition to the administration, are pretty spot on. With the quality of coaching we have in the district right now they are going to foster those students that may not always come out for sports or band or forensics. They're going to allow the students to want to do more. I think a child receives a better education when it is more rounded. I think they need to experience all that school has to offer."
Page 5 of 6 - Coash said when the board set down to make the strategic goals, activities kept coming up, second only to education.
"We thought it was important to instill pride in the students," she said. "Our kids not only got more pride in their school, they got more pride in themselves. Forensics, debate and DECA clubs are going to national competitions. We had to hire a new band instructor because our band has doubled in size. The kids have pride and it makes them care more about everything."
Leachman agreed they have seen success in things like DECA, debate, robotics, musicals, the drumline and more.
"It is all based on how you get kids involved and take them beyond the classroom," he said. "It gives them the opportunity."
He said students also have to have pride in the new high school and the teachers have to be willing to work with the students.
"The extracurricular gives the kids the opportunity to move forward in areas besides the classroom," Leachman said. "We have to make sure the cost goes with everything else."
Spradling talked about the changes coming up in how Kansas is teaching and assessing students.
"We're going to the common core standards," she said. "We as a district need to make sure our teachers are on board with that so we can make sure we are prepared for the new round coming up. Academics and extracurricular go hand in hand. We reach kids through the extracurricular activities we may not be able to reach as well in academics."
Each candidate also had time for a closing comment.
"One thing we didn't talk about," Coash said, "was how important the teachers in this district are and the support staff. That is something else because of our financial wizard (Norm Wilks, director of fiscal services) we have been able to work on during my last term. Teachers were way low in the county on their pay schedule. We have also given increases to support staff who barely make minimum wage. If the teachers are happy where they are that helps with academics."
Leachman responded next.
"I want you guys to understand what these kids have done," he said. "They have increased from 2004 to 2012 in reading scores of 29 percent; increasing in math scores 28 percent. The teachers and the board have done something right to see these scores going up. These kids are what we've got. They are our future and we need to make sure they have the tools they need."
Spradling said it was important for voters to know how the candidates feel.
"I believe I have a background in education that is of value in the position I serve on the board," she said. "I will be open to listen to constituents. I want to know how you feel. I will continue to gather information and want to make the best decisions possible. I have a desire, knowledge and time to be a school board member. You can take the educator out of the school, but you can't take the school out of the educator.
Page 6 of 6 - Starkey spoke last, saying he has passion.
"Pretty much everything I've ever done I do with a great deal of passion," he said. "Serving my community I did with passion, working for the school district and police department I did with passion. I want to do whatever I can with passion to make sure we develop a climate for our teachers to teach and students to learn. No kid should wake up in the morning fearful to go to school with threats of being bullied and picked on. I would like to do what I can to ensure our students' safety."
The election will be held April 2, with early voting currently underway.