School board forum answers: Robin Bayer
Position # 7 (At-Large) Candidate
Knowing the current budget position and potential future reductions, would you support or oppose reopening the Vinland and/or Marion Springs schools at this time, and why?
Many other communities have gone before us in dealing with such a painful issue. My mother’s hometown in south central Kansas is named Sharon. Located in Barber County, Sharon was the center of community of wheat and cattle farmers with a population of perhaps 300 people back in the 1980s. The country music singer Martina McBride was born in Sharon and graduated from Sharon High School in 1984. In the late 1980s, for reasons that seem all too commonplace these days, the Barber County North USD 254 elected to close the schools in Sharon. Children in grades K-12 would ride the bus to Medicine Lodge, Kansas ten miles to the west. I remember several trips down to Sharon at the time where I would hear my uncles filled with rage at the dinner table, lambasting the decision.
How could they do this to us after all the taxes were paid over the years by the hard-working farmers to build and operate the grade school, middle school, and high school? Did they honestly expect children to stand out at the edge of muddy roads waiting for the bus each morning while grain trucks went whipping by? Furthermore, how could these people sleep at night knowing that the Sharon children would have to ride the school bus twenty miles a day on the two-lane freeway (US 160), only to arrive at schools filled with those “big city” knuckle-dragging bullies? Sharon schools had provided a fine education for my grandfather and his brothers, my aunts and uncles, and my mother, and now they would be gone. The town folks swore they would seek retribution, and by God they were going to reopen those schools, however long it took. They pledged boycotts of Medicine Lodge businesses, talked up recall petitions for those dirty crooks on the School Board who sold them down the river, and flat-out refused to speak to acquaintances that lived west of Cedar Hills Road. They told themselves that they would never forget.
Yet twenty-three years later, the youngest of my eighteen cousins who went to Medicine Lodge schools graduates in May, ready to leap into the infinite possibilities that occupy the minds of high seniors everywhere. The town of Sharon is still there, even if the population is a bit smaller and a lot greyer than when I routinely visited. The sign at the main town road still announces the birthplace of Martina McBride, and residents turn past it as they head into Medicine to do the grocery shopping, pick up the kids from school, and continue the daily traditions and trials of their South Central Kansas lives.
What changed? My uncles and their neighbors who were so angry then don’t somehow love their children any less now. And their fears for their children and their feelings of loss are quite understandable, even in hindsight. What happened is that the funding levels for the school district just continued to decrease. It had become impossible to reopen the Sharon schools, and the town eventually (albeit reluctantly) accepted that fact. They replaced their anger with a realization that only way to ensure that their children would benefit from a quality public education was to reengage and participate wholly in the life of Medicine Lodge schools, even if it still hurt – time being a ridiculously slow, but effective anesthetic. The same story will eventually be told here.
If elected, what will be your top three objectives, and why?
First we must fix the decision-making process of the Board. We do this by creating a climate where it is OK to simply say ‘no’ when an infeasible idea is presented. The Board needs to permit and actively encourage vigorous debate and must be willing to seek external expertise and opinion from outside the group.
Secondly, the Board and Administration must create and maintain plans for everything -- short-term tactical plans, long-term strategic plans, and contingency plans for when things don’t work out the way we expect. When it’s time to act, we will reach for the appropriate plan and execute it.
Finally, we must force complete transparency into the decision-making processes of the Board. Without question there are too many Executive Sessions at Board meetings. Decisions made behind closed doors are inherently worse than those made in public – period. In addition, all working products and source materials used to make financial decisions must be made available electronically and as soon as practical to the public. From this point forward, the taxpayers who ultimately pay for all our activities must see exactly how and why each and every financial decision is made.
In a time with so many negatives within our school district, (job losses, budget cuts, closing of schools, etc.), how can you promote a more positive climate as a board member?
I believe that the aforementioned changes to processes will result in a more professional Board whose decisions will be better received and more clearly understood by the patrons of USD 348.
Sports and extracurricular activities are viewed by many as part of a well rounded educational experience. With the strain on the districts budget, at what point would you consider cutting the funding on these activities?
In this political climate we are told that cutting extracurricular activites would be a direct savings to the community. But what isn’t stated is that reducing the availability of after-school activities will require the community to spend more on law enforcement, drug and alcohol treatment, and deal with more teenage pregnancies. Beyond the role in shaping a more rounded educational experience, extracurricular activities provide a valuable social function of keeping children and teenagers engaged and occupied at times of the day when parents cannot provide direct supervision.
Expenditures on extracurricular activities should be established as a fixed percentage of the overall budget. As the overall budget is reduced by a certain percentage, the amount dedicated to extracurricular activities should be reduced by the same percentage.
In your opinion, what is the goal of public education (K-12)?
The Enlightenment thinker Montesquieu asserted that among all types of governments democracy ensures the greatest virtue, but in order to sustain it required a love of one’s country. He claimed that the principal business of education was to instill that love of country, and in fact, that the very existence and preservation of a republic demanded an educated public. Furthermore, his contemporary Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that public education was a fundamental responsibility of legitimate government to ensure proper exercise of citizenship. Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin among others were deeply influenced by these philosophers, and thus believed that the States must ensure a universal education for all children, regardless of social class or income level.
Several hundred years later we simply take it for granted that the very fabric of democracy and our way of life depends on public education. As parents we look at public education more specifically with respect to how it can contribute to a prosperous way of life for our children. Yet the beliefs of our founding fathers are still completely relevant today and perhaps even more so as our citizens compete with so many other nations with established middle classes. This is why it is even more insidious to witness the attempts of our elected leaders at the State level to defund, weaken, or outright eliminate public education. Whether it is the ever-decreasing per-pupil base State aid, or the attempts to eliminate the Kansas Department of Education, or legislators peddling the so-called “Kansas Education Liberty Act” which creates a mechanism to make private school education tax-deductable, the very bedrock principles of our democracy are threatened.
Do you believe that the current board and administration is performing their duties at an acceptable level, why or why not?
When I first began researching the actions of the current Board over the last few years I became very frustrated and angry at some of the decisions that had been made. I never for a moment thought that there was an inappropriate agenda or even a questionable motive of any of the members, but it really burned to see so many poor quality decisions made by people elected to advance the interests of the District.
But the deeper I looked at the processes by which these decisions were made it became clear that these folks had fallen into a very common pattern for a group that worked so closely together on important and intense issues. By the customs and norms of the group they created a climate where it was simply impossible for them to express any disagreement, and not surprisingly a unanimous consensus always emerged. This is, of course, a bad way to make decisions and the results that followed clearly demonstrated this.
I believe in retrospect that many of the Board members would like to revisit some decisions they made, but life rarely affords us those opportunities. Instead, several of them have chosen not to run for another term, assuming that the voters would hold them accountable and show their disapproval at the ballot box. This is how democracy is supposed to work. Yet I hear the voices of some voters (and even candidates) saying that this is not enough. They want punishment and retribution. They want someone to pay. This desire to go for the jugular will not solve our problems or contribute whatsoever to the education of our children.
What other issues, besides the budgetary concerns, do you feel need to be addressed? Please explain.
Outside of the overriding concerns of the budget, I believe that one of our biggest challenges is that a percentage of our academically top-performing students leave to attend other districts. I spoke to several local parents whose children attend school in Lawrence to find out why they did this. In each case it was because USD 348 did not offer enough advanced placement classes to give the student an academic record needed to compete for admission to top colleges or scholarships.
Secondly, I don’t think anyone would argue that the primary mission of the District should be academic excellence for all students. Yet each year the Board has asked Superintendent Dorathy to perform the duties of Curriculum Director. I don’t really like the title of Curriculum Director because it does not adequately describe the purpose of this position. A much better title for the position is Chief Education Officer because this person would be the top education specialist for the District. He or she is tasked with knowing and researching the best materials and methods to deliver knowledge to the students of USD 348.
Let’s think outside the box on how to pay for this position. With the recently announced resignations of the two administrators at the high school, we are presented with an opportunity to let Mr. Dorathy provide additional assistance, as needed, to a single Principal at the high school rather than hiring an Assistant Principal.
Describe your personal and professional experiences that you feel make you the most qualified candidate for the USD #348 School Board?
I am a process person for a living. After considerable research and analysis of business and human factors I design and build repeatable processes for my customers that lead to greater efficiencies and higher quality outputs.
Assume that you have been elected to the school board and the district is faced with needing to make an additional cut to its budget. The school board is given the following 6 categories to make those cuts, list the categories in the order in which you would look to make those cuts (1 – the 1st category you would cut, 6 – the last category you would cut):
First, it is the School Board itself that determines the entire makeup of the budget, taking input and guidance from the Administration as needed. I would be deeply suspicious of a candidate for School Board who is willing to simply accept a pre-determined list and made decisions from it. Where are items like technology spending? How about use of District vehicles? Utilities consumption? Staff training? Board travel and entertainment? All aspects of the District’s budget need to be examined critically as additional funding cuts are forced on us.
Secondly, and much more importantly, funding decisions should be made based on the relative contribution of each area of spending to the overall goals and objectives for the District. For many reasons I do not believe that the current strategic plan for the District is a meaningful or useful document. Until a useful strategic plan is created and adopted by the School Board I cannot make a recommendation on how the budget should be adjusted.
What are your thoughts on the district adopting a “shop local” policy, in which the district would look locally for goods and services whenever possible? If adopted, what percent advantage would you give an in district merchant over an out of district merchant? %
Purchasing preference for local merchants is a perennially popular idea and is routinely embraced by candidates for local office. However, like many activities that interfere with free markets, a local preference policy can create several problems of its own. First, it can create a cozier relationship between those who offer public contracts and the vendors that provide them than perhaps we should want. Competition on price, quality, and ability to deliver on public contracts should, in theory, reduce opportunities for undue enrichment, self-dealing, and other forms of corruption or waste.
Secondly, adoption of such a policy can work against local businesses because if it is put in place, neighboring districts will be more likely to create preferential policies of their own. As an example, if the Ottawa school district adopted its own local preference policy, a Baldwin City business might not be able to win a key contract. Now the business is limited to the Baldwin City area for its income and growth. As unpopular of position as it might be with the local business community, I cannot support a price percent advantage for merchants located in the District.