Parent: ‘Children shoved in like sardines’
By RACHEL COLEMAN
• Leader & Times
After months of planning for a possible bond issue with local team members, USD 480 took its needs to the public with meetings designed to gather input from the community.
Before people would talk about what’s next for Liberal schools, however, they had grievances to air.
“I know there’s needs out there,” admitted retired school teacher Sam Raff at the 9:30 a.m. meeting at Hutch’s convenience store. “But the last time we voted ‘no’ to a bond issue with a big football field, and what did the school board do? Slapped us in the face and built a new football stadium.”
Parent Lisa Hatcher — one of the 40 members of the VISION team charged with examining the district’s needs and challenges — pointed out that the current school board is comprised of six new members. The only holdover from the previous bond issue is Tammy Sutherland-Abbott, who voted against her fellow board members on the football field question.
“We’ve got a brand-new board and administration,” Hatcher said.
“They’ve all still got the same attitude,” said coffee drinker Larry Creamer, whose wife retired from her teaching career early, he said, because of her frustration with changes in district policy. “You guys seem to spend money like big government.”
Bob Tillman said he felt it was unfair to ask property owners to pay for district expansions that were caused by the influx of Hispanic families and children in the community.
“Our school district is 94 percent Hispanic and most of them are employed at National Beef or Seaboard,” he said. “If those places of employment draw people in, causing the problem, why shouldn’t we ask them to help?”
In fact, the Hispanic student population in the district hovers around 72 percent. USD 480 does not keep track of where the parents of its students work. With National Beef in first place, the school district is the second largest employer in Liberal.
Parent Missy Feldhausen, who attended the meeting with her preschool son, has met many people in the community who share the sentiments of the naysayers.
“People say, ‘We’re going to vote no to show the board we don’t like what they did last time,’” she said.
Such talk fills Feldhausen with dismay.
“I have three children in the district, and two attend McDermott Elementary. Children are shoved in there like sardines,” she said. Because of a shortage of classrooms, Feldhausen’s third-grade daughter moved from a 16-person classroom last year into one that holds 28 students.
“She’s having a hard time; she’s not getting the attention from the teacher that she used to,” Feldhausen said.
The students aren’t the only ones to suffer the effects of overcrowding. Parents who want to support their children by attending programs and assemblies must endure standing-room only crowds in the school’s small auditorium/gymnasium, which also doubles as a cafeteria.
“People give up. You want to show up for your children, but it’s absolutely miserable to squeeze in there,” she said. Voting “no” on a bond “doesn’t get us anywhere,” she said.
Even so, Creamer said he wasn’t likely to vote for a bond issue, no matter how it was financed or what it aimed to achieve. His reason?
He disagrees with much of the district’s operating policy. Like Raff and Tillman, he thinks USD 480 puts too much stock in modern programs like competency-based grading and the employment of instructional coaches. All three men related stories about teachers being pulled out of their classrooms for extra training, leaving children in the hands of substitutes.
Creamer and Raff also took issue with the number of administrators employed by the district, though in comparison to similar-sized districts across Kansas, USD 480 ranks near the bottom.
“I don’t throw good money after bad, and you guys have misused it,” Creamer said. “I think a lot of us have a hard time putting more money into a school district that’s already gone astray.”
At the noon meeting of the Rotary Club, held at the Liberal Country Club, DLR architect Brad Kiehl acknowledged the morning’s complaints.
“We heard a lot this morning from the community, and there’s still hard feelings about the last bond issue,” he said. “We’re not trying to ignore those people. The board and administration are taking it to heart.”
Nearly 30 Rotarians asked questions about the financial aspects of the bond issue — what percentage of the cost would come back to property owners, how much sales-tax money might be accessed, and whether or not the 49 percent matching funds promised by the state of Kansas would indeed materialize.
Kiehl and auxiliary services director Robert Burkey said the state grant of 49 percent of the project cost is locked in for the life of the bond — as long as the project wins approval and gets off the ground during the current fiscal year.
With the current state of affairs in Kansas, including continual cuts to education funding, Kiehl said, timing could be critical. That’s why USD 480 aims to get the issue to voters by April.
Those who balk at the idea of a new bond issue “have to understand what a ‘no’ vote will buy the community,” Kiehl said. “It means your student-to-teacher ratio goes up. It means more kindergarten students in classrooms half the size they should be.”
In that case, by the time Feldhausen’s son starts public school, he might attend a kindergarten class with 30 children or more.