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Monday, January 21, 2013 9:40 PM

Election battle lines drawn over consolidation

By CRYSTAL HERBER, Herald Staff Writer

Talks of district consolidation are driving the discussion among candidates who have filed for West Franklin school board.

The filing deadline is noon today at the Franklin County Clerk’s Office, 315 S. Main St., Ottawa. The general election is set for April 2. If a primary election is necessary, it would be Feb. 26.

Position 6

The West Franklin school board president said he would like to see the consolidation issue through to the end,

Thayne Bush has filed for re-election in the school board’s Position 6 race. In the midst of talks of a multimillion-dollar bond issue, funding cuts and district consolidation, Bush said he is the candidate with the experience to help lead the district through such difficult decisions.

“We’re kind of right in the middle of that, so I feel like I need to stay on the board and see that through,” Bush, 48, rural Franklin County, said.

Nearing the completion of his first four-year term, Bush said he thinks he has gained the knowledge necessary to continue serving on the board, and is willing to continue learning. During his term, he said, the board has made decisions that helped keep the district financially stable and build its cash reserves. He said he keeps the students’ futures in mind when considering issues of any magnitude.

“I feel that I have the kids of our district, their best interests, in my mind,” Bush, who has three children in West Franklin schools, said.

A main concern of the board the past several months has been talks of district consolidation — bringing the district’s three campuses to Pomona — and a bond issue that could range in amount from $10 million to $20 million. School officials have cited impending funding cuts from the state as a reason for future consolidation to keep the district financially viable.

As board president, Bush has been a main fixture in those talks, and he said it pains him to think about closing any schools, but the current economic climate might eventually call for it. Patrons will have the option to defeat a bond issue put in front of them if their visions for the future are not aligned with that of the board’s, Bush said.

A graduate of Williamsburg High School, Bush said it is gut-wrenching to think of closing schools, but consolidation would be about looking at the future of the district.

“We’re kind of in between a rock and a hard spot,” he said of consolidation talks, “We have to have the money to keep up our facilities, and when they get so old we can’t afford to keep them up, then we need to look at other options. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Williamsburg residents Bruce Rockhold and Matt Froggatte have filed to challenge the incumbent in the Position 6 race. Froggatte said the board has a problem with transparency when spending patrons’ tax dollars. Bush disagrees with that sentiment, however, saying the board meetings are open to the public and materials relating to school board business are available through the district office and its website.

Froggatte and Rockhold said they worry closing the school in Williamsburg would “kill” the town.

As of Friday afternoon, no one else had filed in the Position 6 race. The Franklin County Clerk’s Office was closed Monday for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, so no other candidates would have been able to file until today.

Bush said he urges people to attend the informational meetings, set for Feb. 4, 5 and 6, relating to the bond election and consolidation.

Position 4

Carol Scott Hamilton has filed for Position 4 on the school board, a position now held by Stacy Hower, who also has filed. Both candidates are sharply divided on the bond issue and consolidation, with Hamilton refusing to support a bond election and Hower in favor of the action.

Hamilton, 63, Centropolis, said she is against a bond election because of the effect increasing taxes would have on local patrons in the current economy. If elected, Hamilton said, she would do what she could to cease consolidation efforts. While Hamilton has no previous public service experience, she said she views herself as a candidate for the people, and is more aware of what is going on in the economy.

Consolidation talks have centered around the financial viability of operating three campuses, Hower said, and there might come a time when the district is not financially able to continue operating all three schools, he said.

“I hope those that choose to run for the school board are in it not just to see that the bond fails or passes. I hope they’re in it for the kids,” Hower, 41, rural Pomona, said. “It’s all about the kids and the education they receive.”

Hamilton said she sees no opportunity for compromise when it comes to consolidation. Funds would be better suited in making repairs to the school buildings, rather than constructing new buildings, she said. On that same note, Hamilton said she wants a second opinion when evaluating the condition of the school district’s facilities. She said the architects hired by the district, Howard Helmer, of Overland Park, were not suitable to provide an objective opinion.

“I think we need to bring in somebody that can go into these schools and give us a true figure on exactly how much it’s going to cost and what repairs ought to be done,” Hamilton said, adding repairs may not equal $12 million.

Hamilton said the district needs to be more present-minded and make decisions based on today’s economy. Such decisions should not include, she said, increasing patrons’ taxes through a bond election. The proposed state budget cuts in Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax plan are precisely the reasons the district should not be spending money on consolidation, Hamilton said.

“If funds are going to be cut, then I don’t know how in the world the school board and the superintendent think we can pay for such a huge, huge debt,” she said.

While she admitted she wasn’t fully educated on the district’s funding issues, Hamilton said she doesn’t want to see any teachers lose their jobs. More research is needed, she said, to make up for the loss in funding from the state.

“I don’t want any teacher to lose their job,” Hamilton said. “I just feel bad for these teachers. They give everything they have for these children.”

Hamilton said she would rather see cuts in extracurricular activities, like music and sports, before cutting a teaching position.

Hower, now in his fourth year on the board, said the district must look at both current and future needs. Throughout the consolidation talks, Hower said, he has not been in favor of closing the Appanoose school because it is only 20 years old and wouldn’t justify the cost of a new building five miles away in Pomona.

“We’ve got some other options here,” Hower said, “but there are many other needs within the district.”

As a taxpayer, as well as a board member, Hower said, he understands money is tight for everyone. A $20-million bond election is too much to ask of patrons, Hower said, given the economy.

“My opinion has always been that the $20 million was too much,” he said. “I have always stood behind an $8- to $10-million bond versus the $20 million.”

Hamilton, who attended her first school board meeting last week, said she thinks the board is attempting to keep patrons in the dark about the consolidation issue, and more transparency is needed for board business.

“I don’t like knowing that our superintendent and our school board are doing things behind the back of our patrons when it comes to such an enormous debt,” Hamilton said.

Hower, however, disagreed, stressing his contact information is on the district’s website, and that he is willing to discuss district issues with patrons as often as necessary.

“The door’s always open and the phone line’s always open, as well as I’m willing to travel to them,” Hower said.

The declining enrollment of the about 600-student district is because of the poor economy, Hower said. Residents have moved out of the district to be closer to their jobs, he speculated. With fewer students, the district receives less funding from the state. Despite what some patrons might think, Hower said, making the decision to close schools in light of funding issues would be a tough one.

Consolidation talks have caused some patrons to pull their children out of the district, Hamilton said. She said she thinks more transfers are likely should consolidation occur. But of equal importance, she said, it is the younger patrons that will be paying the bill in the future for a possible multimillion-dollar bond issue.

“Keeping people in this district means not allowing consolidation to happen,” Hamilton said. “I think people will keep in this district as long as they know there’s not going to be any increased taxes on some bond issue.”

Position 5

Sherry Harris filed Thursday for re-election to Position 5 of the West Franklin school board. Harris, who is in her first term, said she would like to continue her work with the district in which she has a child being educated.

“I believe that you should care about the students in the district, regardless of where they may live, and be more concerned about the quality of the education that they are receiving and how it will help them be successful in their future endeavors,” Harris, 35, rural Franklin County, said.  

After being involved in consolidation discussions for many months, Harris said, she is in favor of eventual consolidation of the district.

“Bringing all the students of the West Franklin school district to one campus will allow our students more academic opportunities, and the district would be able to streamline costs,” she said.

Harris said she would like to continue to be involved in those talks. There are many other programs and opportunities that the board would like to implement for the children of the West Franklin school district, Harris said, adding she would like to be a part of those efforts.

“I feel that we bring different ideas and opinions to the table, but we are able to have good discussions and make decisions that will benefit the students of West Franklin,” she said.

Position 2

Position 2 on the board also is open for election. No one had filed for the position, including the current board member, Stacia Spencer, as of Friday afternoon.

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