Ottawa’s elementary school buildings are not equal, school board candidates said Tuesday night.

And the candidates generally agreed it would be up to the will of the voters to decide how to best remedy those inequities.

The candidates — Bill Allegre, a current school board member, and challengers Lynda Alderman, Tim Catlin, Richard Jackson, Russ Wilson and Norman Wooge — were referring to the present condition of Eugene Field Elementary School, which experienced problems with air quality and mold last year, and continues to house some of its students in modular trailers.

About 100 people gathered Tuesday for a candidate forum in the Franklin County Board of Commissioners’ chambers at the Franklin County Office Annex, 1428 S. Main St., Ottawa. The six candidates are vying for three board seats in the April 2 general election.

The school board spent more than $100,000 shoring up problems with the Eugene Field building last year, Allegre said.

Rather than continuing to sink thousands of dollars into that building on Tremont Avenue, Allegre said, the most appealing option — and in the long run least expensive — would be to build a new elementary school. He said the facilities, and consequently the learning environments, at the district’s other two elementary schools — Lincoln and Garfield — are superior to Eugene Field.

“I think we need to leave it up to the will of the people,” to decide if they want to pass a bond election to build a new school or choose a different alternative, Allegre, a pharmacist, said. He is the former owner of Allegre and Briscoe Pharmacies and currently is employed at Walgreens in Ottawa.

Catlin, who has children attending Eugene Field, agreed with Allegre’s assessment, citing examples of a space shortage that causes distractions for the teachers and students.

He said the idea of converting the middle school into an elementary school, moving the middle school to the high school and building a new Ottawa High School would just be “trading problems up.”

Alderman, a retired teacher who taught first grade at the former Eisenhower Elementary School for 31 years, said she has talked with administrators and teachers who have said the middle school is not configured to make it suitable as a grade school, just as the current high school building would not be a good location for a middle school.

Richard Jackson, chief executive officer of East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corp. for the past 44 years, said he also would put the issue before district patrons to see what direction they wanted to take to resolve the facility concerns.

Russ Wilson, a production manager for Midwest Cabinet Co. Inc. and a 27-year resident of Ottawa, said he is not a fan of having students in modular classrooms at Eugene Field. Wilson said he has concerns about separation and safety issues associated with modulars. He also advocated letting voters decide how to resolve the elementary school facilities disparity — by either supporting a bond issue or going in a different direction.

Norman Wooge, a rural Ottawa resident since 1966, offered a different solution. He proposed turning the Ottawa Community Recreation Center/Goppert Building, located at the corner of 15th and Ash streets near OHS, OMS and the district’s central office, into a combination workout facility and elementary school to save the district the cost of building a new school.

Alderman said the district had to develop a plan for how it would deal with a possible influx of perhaps 300 or more new students once the BNSF intermodal facility opens near Gardner and Edgerton. She suggested one possible option, if the voters chose to build a new school, would be to put the building on district-owned land at 19th and Eisenhower streets.

The candidates were given two minutes at the beginning and end of the forum for remarks. In addition, candidates fielded questions from The Herald, KOFO Radio and audience members, which were asked through moderator Ryan Henningsen.

The Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Action Committee, Franklin County Farm Bureau Association, Ottawa American Legion Post No. 60 and AT&T sponsored the forum.

Catlin, owner of Ottawa-based TLC Marketing Company, which produces marketing materials for the home-building industry, said he became interested in running for school board after attending school board meetings regarding the conditions at Eugene Field.

“It became apparent to me that the district needs a long-range plan,” Catlin said.

He said long-range planning would be critical to address the potential growth concerns that Alderman mentioned and to be able to provide a quality education on limited funding.

Jackson said planning and looking outside the box at ways to provide a quality education with decreasing state funds also would be critical in the future. He said he would not be above seeking private funding for limited, one-time projects to help offset the loss in state funding.

Jackson and others warned, however, that private funding can come with strings attached and that private funding should not be used to pay for continuing programs, because if the funding dried up, the district would be faced with either continuing the program without that financial assistance or phasing it out.

Allegre said the district has taken advantage of private funds in the past, such as a $10,000 donation it recently received from Olathe Medical Center to purchase six new automated external defibrillators for the district.

Candidates were stumped about one question asked by The Herald and the audience if the school board should consider making a change on one of its appointees to the Ottawa Recreation Commission board in light of recent events. Candidates said they were not clear what issue was being referred to, but Allegre, the current board member, said he thought the question was referring to Jeff Curry, who is planning to step down as sheriff April 1 amid criminal charges. Curry is one of the school board’s two appointees to the board. Allegre said he thought the school board probably would not make a move to replace Curry unless the ORC board made such a request.

Several candidates talked about the need to ensure the district is adapting to the new core curriculum standards being adopted in place of the No Child Left Behind legislation. Alderman said the district has a critical need for a full-time curriculum director.

“Curriculum is the rock on which quality, effective education is built, and USD 290 has been without one for too long,” Alderman said.

Catlin said it would be important for the new superintendent to have a strong background in curriculum. He said the new superintendent also would have to be a good communicator and have a vision for the district.

The other candidates weighed in on the qualities they would like to see in a superintendent.

The superintendent needs to be a good listener, have a vision for the future, think outside the box, be a good leader, someone who is proactive and trustworthy, Jackson said.

Wilson said the new superintendent would have to be a person of integrity who was an effective communicator and had a solid understanding of curriculum to guide the district’s conversion to core curriculum standards.

“The superintendent also needs to be proactive,” he said.

Wooge said the new superintendent should be nice, conscientious and have integrity. He said, however, the board sets district policy and should also be held accountable for the district’s direction.

Alderman said the new superintendent should be enthusiastic and passionate about improving the district.

“We would want a superintendent who could make sure the basketball team keeps going to state,” Allegre said, to laughter from the audience in the packed chamber.

In seriousness, though, Allegre said, the new superintendent should have a passion for education, a vision for the district and be a strong fiscal manager.

“He should have high expectations for students and staff,” Allegre said.