Local residents gathered Thursday evening for the week’s second round of candidate debates at Flint Hills Technical College.
This time around, positions on the Emporia Public Schools Board of Education were up for grabs, with four seats set to be chosen in the upcoming Nov. 5 elections. Among the night’s debaters were current board members Art Gutierrez, Grant Riles, and Mallory Koci along with a group of three political newcomers — Jeff Lutes, Jeremy Dorsey and Leslie Seeley — to round out the field. Topics on the night ranged from thoughts on the upcoming bond issue and the district’s implementation of special education to each candidate’s top priorities if elected.
“I think test scores have to be at the very bottom of my list [of priorities],” Lutes said. “Test scores look good on paper, but I would rather have students really know the subject matter to help them move forward. Modern facilities will help get there. If we have, for instance, good science classrooms that meet the needs of our kids. Learning subject matter is the primary focus to me, while facilities would be second.”
“I feel like producing well-rounded and engaged citizens is what we’re here for,” Gutierrez said. “We want people in our communities that are going to be involved and be good neighbors. I know the lay of the land is measured through test scores. It’s something easy that you can grab onto to say whether somebody is doing well or they’re not. But, I don’t think it’s the goal here. If you look at the KansasCAN vision, part of that is addressing the overall child and any social-emotional issues.”
A common theme among each candidate was that none were satisfied with every aspect of current ongoings in the district, with most pointing to a lack of teacher retention and pay as well as problems with overworked employees, even when questions steered toward other areas.
“It’s good that salaries are improving with where they’re at now, but if you can make $5,000 or even $15,000 more by moving to northeast Kansas, I don’t think there’s much incentive to stay around,” Dorsey said. “One prior school board member I talked to had kind of floated an idea where we could be more committed to providing affordable day care services to young families and employees in the district. In doing domestic law now, working on divorces with attorneys as well as child custody and state custody cases, I know that daycare is really, really expensive … When you have young teachers trying to start their own families, suddenly that added salary in northeast Kansas becomes a lot more beneficial.”
“I do not think our special needs students are getting the kind of care and education they deserve,” Koci said. “This is through no fault of the teachers or the staff members that are responsible for that work, but it’s very hard to do your job when you don’t have adequate resources and when you spend more time in the car traveling than time with the student you’re actually trying to help. The paperwork load is also unimagineable. I think the problem with us not meeting our students needs comes when teachers aren’t getting support … These teachers are not adequately compensated for the time they spend, nor do we have enough teachers in that type of work.”
One area of variance between board hopefuls was what they cited as their qualifications. Some pointed to their investment in the community and desire to see it improve, while others were able to point to past accomplishments.
“I went a different direction, but teaching was always a part of my heart,” Seeley said. “I taught Spanish at Butcher [Childhood Education Center] when I was in college, and just a few weeks ago at parent/teacher conferences my daughter’s teacher said, ‘Oh, I thought you were a teacher.’ Education matters to me. Public education is near and dear to my heart, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without Emporia Public Schools. My biggest goal is just to help and make things better. With everything I’m apart of, my goal is to make things better. The school board does a good job, and I would like to help continue that good work.
“I’ve served several years on the Board of Education, and they’ve been very gratifying to me,” Riles said. “I treasure just being able to have that public service, being able to have that public commitment and being able to be involved in the community. There’s no better investment than the education of our children, whether it’s local or anywhere else ...When children do not have a good education, for whatever reason, it’s going to stifle and limit opportunities throughout their lifetime … I have proven leadership, and I feel like one major thing that guides me, as with everybody else up here, is that I’m always committed to children first. It’s our responsibility to remember that, and to maintain a quality education system here in USD 253.”
Those wishing to learn more on candidates can visit emporiakschamber.org/2019-city-commission-school-board-candidates for short video profiles and mission statements by each. A full stream of Thursday evening’s forum can also be accessed at www.citylinktv.com/channel/emporia-kvoe.