VOTER’S GUIDE: School board candidates discuss diversity, budgets, COVID concerns | News | #coronavirus | #kids. | #children | #schools

Nine people are running for three open seats on the Manhattan-Ogden school board. Voters will whittle the field to six candidates in the Aug. 3 primary.

The Mercury asked each of them to discuss topics the board will face over the next four years. Candidates are listed in the order their responses were received.

1: USD 383 recognizes there are disparities in student success among certain student groups. For example, a lower percentage of Black and Hispanic students graduate from Manhattan High School than white students. What are some tactics you would seek to help all students achieve success?

Kevin Harms, helicopter pilot: The best way to tackle the graduation rates regarding different groups is to assess those struggling students early and often. We as a district need to dedicate the resources required to assist them in their struggles. This would require more smaller group and targeted instruction to help the student succeed. We also have this great university full of student teachers and district para-educators that can help! Hope, pride, and positivity can be instilled to help those students thrive.

Carl Treece, retired science teacher: I don’t recognize students by skin color or nationality. They are all students and as such should put maximum efforts in course work that prepares them for living. We should work with the administration to help them do that. Teachers should present for consideration what they think will help to do that. Teaching is fine, but you haven’t taught anything unless someone has learned what was taught.

Betty Mattingly-Ebert, owner of Paradoxx Design in Manhattan: I believe MHS is very focused on improving graduation rates, based on Principal (Michael) Dorst’s school board presentation on July 7. The Pathways Program and partnering with MATC have introduced students to new learning styles, and, in addition, I’d like to see other mentorship programs that involve community members, job shadowing, and internships.

Jayme Morris-Hardeman, Thrive! Flint Hills executive director: There are many ways to combat disparate outcomes in our schools. Some of these include personalized learning plans, increasing knowledge of the impact of stress on learning, ensuring every teacher has the tools and knowledge they need to help children overcome the stress they bring from home, and increasing community volunteerism in all of our schools. As a volunteer, I have seen the difference additional caring adults make both for the students and educators.

Jen Chua, volunteer: The key is finding out what needs to be done for students to achieve success by getting to the heart of the problem. The best way to achieve this is talking with these families and seeing what issues are causing lower graduation rates. Once we find out those issues, we must address them and we must find solutions to help those students achieve success. If we only find out the problems and do not help with solutions, we have wasted our time.

Steven Ruzzin, data engineer: If there were a simple, easy, and successful answer to this question, it would have been implemented long ago. I think the best thing we can do is give every child the opportunities to succeed.

Karla Hagemeister, incumbent board member: The first step to addressing disparities in student success among certain student groups is to identify the why. We know which groups are not achieving the academic goals desired for all students. We need to know why so we can then address the root causes. Are we misidentifying a need for acceleration as disciplinary problems? Are absenteeism and homelessness creating barriers to learning? With that information, we must act to remove barriers and create opportunities.

Teresa Parks, career transition readiness specialist for Flint Hills Job Corps in Manhattan: I would take time to speak with students and their parents to determine the contributing factors. Developing those relationships will allow us to partner with parents regarding their students’ success. Setting benchmarks and tracking progress and finding culturally relevant material are also helpful tools. There is no blanket answer for everyone.

Christine Weixelman, registered nurse: I think partnerships with MATC is a great move by MHS. Other programs that involve mentorship, on-the-job training, and connection-building have also proven to be effective across the country, so I think those are worth pursuing. That said, I don’t think there’s one type or program or approach that works for everyone. Every student, regardless of their background, needs their individual performance assessed and addressed.

Question 2: Last July, the school board voted 4-3 to revisit the topic of MHS’s Indian mascot at a later date. The discussion of Native American mascots spans the nation, with professional and school athletics re-evaluating their symbols. Would you support keeping the Indian mascot at MHS?

Harms: Every exposure and talk I’ve had with the community is overwhelming in support of the MHS Indian mascot. I’m in support of keeping it our mascot. I would like to see it as a bright star of positivity and pride to Native American culture here in Manhattan.

Treece: I was privileged to have known the man (Frank Prentup) who was involved in making the current mascot. I would not be doing him an honor to ever vote to change his brilliant creation. I would think his tribe would create a fuss if it was removed. The students should be proud because they helped create the image.

Mattingly-Ebert: I have spoken with several Native American community members to better understand their perspectives. As I understand this issue the Manhattan High Indian is an image, not a mascot, and I am in favor of keeping it. The image is honoring Frank Prentup, a Tuscaroran Iroquois born in Kansas, a K-State graduate and a U.S. Navy veteran who was a respected MHS educator and coach.

Morris-Hardeman: As an advocate for JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion), I believe it is time to change the high school mascot. The American Psychological Association has stated research shows the harmful effects of racial stereotyping and inaccurate racial portrayals, not only on Native American students, but on all students and communities. Change is hard, but in this case, it is necessary.

Chua: It is time to put the MHS Indian mascot to rest. While many believe that the Indian mascot is honoring Native Americans, when you have a symbol that causes pain and anguish to a group, it shows greater honor to respect the feelings of that group by putting aside your desire for traditions.

Ruzzin: I support keeping the mascot.

Hagemeister: It is time to respectfully retire the Indian image. While progress has been made over the years by removing insensitive and hurtful practices, the fact remains that it is a symbol created with good intentions that we now know has harmful impacts on students of all races and cultures. Continuing the use of this image creates a barrier to the many ways our district could teach the history and celebrate the cultures of Indigenous people.

Parks: I would like to find a way to honor the teacher who inspired the mascot without making a caricature of an entire people’s heritage. It is minimizing and demeaning to a lot of people, and it is not okay for students to be doing things like the tomahawk chop at sporting events. I support changing it.

Weixelman: I believe this issue has been discussed enough. I support honoring Coach Prentup and Brent Yancey with the current image.

Question 3: Career and technical education (CTE) courses are increasingly popular among high schoolers locally. The school board recently approved exploring options for an academy focusing on technical education. What would you do to help high school students who want to pursue more technical careers?

Harms: That sounds like a great partnership formed! We can also look into internships at KSU and a local technology business like Civic Plus, where they can get insight into current trends, techniques, and real-life experiences. This could help guide our youth’s path into the future.

Treece: I would work with the administrators to set up a program that lets students leave school to work as interns at the kind of work of interest to the student. It would have a supervisor on staff to coordinate this program. The supervisor would be responsible for grading and recommending the awarding diplomas.

Mattingly-Ebert: As a former committee member for a MATC program, this is a wonderful idea, and the school district I graduated from had a similar program with great success. I would support continued exploration of options with MATC and have schedules to accommodate students attend both classes at the high school and MATC. Since the district offers classes for college credit, I believe equal consideration should be given to students that would like a different career path.

Morris-Hardeman: First, support the hard work and creative ideas of district administration to increase the ways secondary education is provided. This includes ongoing support for the career and technical academy. Second, increase partnerships with local businesses. The current partnership with fourth-grade classrooms to expose students to area businesses is a good start, but we should be partnering businesses with every grade to broaden students’ knowledge of the many career options available to them.

Chua: By expanding the relationship with Manhattan Area Technical College, high school students are offered more exposure to technical careers. MHS does a great job of offering electives for students to see if a technical career might be the right choice for them while earning MATC credits. By increasing the number of these classes offered, more students would be encouraged to pursue the technical careers they desire due to being a step ahead before even finishing high school.

Ruzzin: I love that we’re already exploring options with MATC, and I’d be very interested in continuing to pursue those avenues. I’d also like to emphasize technology learning, specifically SQL and basic programming. Beyond that, the nation (and these kids’ job markets) will see a lot of technical career opportunities as the Boomer generation continues to retire.

Hagemeister: Expanding the already strong relationship with MATC is exciting for the whole community, especially in the area of high-demand technical careers. I anticipate USD 383 moving forward with a CTE academy because we know that students want this type of hands-on learning and experience that prepares them to enter a well-paid and needed field upon graduation. Now is the right time to work with our community partners to make it happen.

Parks: I absolutely support a partnership that allows students to explore technical trade options. College is not the destination for every student, and offering options for a different path is in the students’ best interest. Tech school tours and mentorship would be a great way to bolster interest in technical trades and would fill a gap in trained personnel that is present in many industries.

Weixelman: We should obviously utilize our connections with MATC and keep expanding those. I think we can also create even more partnerships within the community workplace. People with various trade skills should be more visible within the school, and students should have the chance to experience different kinds of work environments before they are pressured to make a career choice.

Question 4: What do you think of the way the district has handled the pandemic over the past 18 months, especially regarding mask-wearing and in-person classes? Are there areas for improvement that you can see?

Harms: It was an impossible task to ask of any school board to have a 100% perfect response to COVID. I wouldn’t want to be put in that position with that unknown. I think the district handled it in the best way they could in uncharted territory. They got kids back in the classroom; that was the goal, and they achieved that. At the end of the day I don’t know who would’ve possibly done a perfect job in that scenario.

Treece: I don’t agree that we should’ve stopped in-person learning. I think that tends to let kids go asunder, and I don’t like that. I think we should’ve found a way to keep them in school and keep schools functioning. When I was growing up, my parents said “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Now with the virus, with washing your hands and stuff like that, not hugging people too much — I don’t know if that would have helped, but at least it would’ve been an effort put forth by the people involved.

Mattingly-Ebert: I have said many times, everyone everywhere has done the best they could with the ever-changing information we were being given. I do not intend on Monday morning quarterbacking the district’s decision process. Our school nurses have done an outstanding job. I agree with the upcoming year’s plan of not requiring masks. Families need to have the ability to make decisions for themselves, as they have done all summer.

Morris-Hardeman: I think the district did the best job they could with a very difficult situation. For my daughter, we chose remote learning for her this past year. It was done as well as it possibly could’ve been done. I’m not going to say I think remote learning is ideal for anyone, but I’m glad the option was there. I’ve talked with the district administrators about concerns of learning loss, which I think is an issue across the whole country. For this fall I definitely think elementary aged kids should wear masks.

Chua: I think the district was in a no-win situation with pleasing everyone. It was a situation that we’ve never been in before, didn’t know what to do. Given what we had they did a great job. I really think they should follow what the recommendations are by local health officials. I know our numbers are kind of growing, so that’s concerning, and I’m not really sure what the best answer is at this point. I’m not a medical professional, I’m a mom who is a worrier.

Ruzzin: I would have handled the pandemic differently, but I can understand why it was handled as it was. Going forward, I think we know enough now to be able to leave it permanently in the hands of the parents. I will not vote in favor of mask or vaccine mandates.

Hagemeister: I think, having lived through it, we did our best to use the information we had available at every step along the way to make decisions that balanced our students’ safety, and teacher and staff safety. It was all hard and new for everybody, and I think along the way we got better at what we were doing. Students also really stepped up to the challenge across the board in a lot of ways. I think for us, having students wear their masks in class and be as diligent as possible did provide another level of safety that brought us successes in spring and fall classes.

Parks: I think the school district did a pretty decent job responding. I don’t think anybody was prepared for this. My daughter already had a sort-of flexible schedule in her senior year, doing part of her days at school and part at home, so going to full distance learning was an easy transition for her. I’m not sure how others faired, especially with younger kids. I think this was a learning curve for a lot of people.

Weixelman: As a nurse, I think caution in the beginning made sense, but given the information we have now, students should not be forced or shamed into wearing masks or getting the vaccine. It should be up to them and their parents. I also think the Committee for Diversity and Inclusion’s latest claim that students not being forced to wear masks or get the vaccine is a problem because “it’s an equity issue” is extremely vague, and they should be asked to clarify and provide evidence for that position if they really want to force the issue.

Question 5: What do you think of the district’s proposed budget? Do you think the district spends too much money in one area, or not enough in another?

Harms: I plan on touching base with (director of business services) Lew Faust to learn more about the budget. I haven’t seen the official budget to be published yet, so that will determine what my opinion would be on where money’s being spent. The cost of living in Manhattan is going up, and the cost of running any district continues to rise, but you can’t continue to take out levies or loans on something that’s a predetermined tax. You don’t need to have steak and shrimp, maybe just steak; we need to find a way to focus the budget to where its most needed for the future.

Treece: I think we should do everything we can to boost income for teachers. I don’t believe I would spend money frivolously on buildings and other things until I was sure there was money available. I’ve always been frugal, I don’t spend money I know we don’t have.

Mattingly-Ebert: This is too broad of a question to give explicit examples, but yes, I intend on being fiscally responsible. We must be diligent with our community’s tax dollars and spend wisely on our children’s academic successes, and where they occur, remove redundant programs. I would concentrate on needs versus wants and focus on programs that have clear evidence of that academic success. I believe we should be creative and investigate possibilities of partnering with the city, county, and even local businesses.

Morris-Hardeman: The budgeting process is so similar to what the city does with its budget. Having been a city commissioner, I’m pretty familiar with the process. For what’s available, I think the district does the best it possibly can with those funds to make sure students get everything they possibly need. The uncertainty of state funding I think makes school board budgeting a more difficult process than, say, city funding. I wish schools and education would be recognized as economic development, but I feel like that’s an argument that gets lost in the legislature.

Chua: I’m comfortable with what I’ve seen of the budget. I’ve talked to Lew (Faust); I’m not a professional as far as that goes, but I have been trying to learn as much as I can about it. I don’t really feel like there’s an area with too much spending, it’s all pretty balanced from what I see. The budget is pretty tight, and there’s a lot of things where there’s just not a lot of wiggle room. I think the district is being responsible.

Ruzzin: I think that we are really fortunate to have Lew Faust at the helm of our budget, and he does great work. I only have a birds-eye view of it, so I won’t comment on the specifics, but in general, I think we should be looking for ways to be as efficient as possible with the roughly $100 million in the budget. (The proposed district budget for FY 2022 is actually $49 million; the $100 million figure accounts for all expenditures for the current fiscal year.)

Hagemeister: I think we’ve been pretty clear with the strategic framework with what the district’s priorities are and what we need to be doing with the budget. We’ve been doing a lot of very diligent planning knowing we’re going to be opening a new building, and you don’t get any extra money for opening a new building. I think the district team has worked really well on being clear on the framework of what our mission is, and that we can’t be guided or directed out of balance.

Parks: I’m always going to be a proponent for spending a little bit more money on special education. I don’t think that they’ve taken into consideration some of the extra services they need, and I would love if they had a little bit more money in there for para-educators to get paid more and trained more effectively. I think we should double teachers’ salaries; they’re not just babysitters for our kids. I also think more professional development is needed, and we should take more suggestions from teachers on what they need.

Weixelman: To provide one specific example, the district obviously wasted resources on the BetterLesson training without even evaluating its effectiveness, and that seems to have happened because some of the current board members are more focused on their own political goals than addressing what students actually need. Improving academic outcomes across the board is the best way to help all students, which is why all proposed projects and initiatives should have clear evidence to support their implementation before the board approves funding them.

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