School board member questions district’s priorities
By EARL WATT
• Leader & Times
The revelation that USD No. 480 had been violating its vacation policy for administrators and hourly employees was new to many, but not for board member Steve Helm. He had been pointing this issue out for at least a year.
“I also brought it up at budget time this year,” Helm said.
The policy limited administrators to 11 days per year for holidays, but district finance director Jerry Clay said he had been paid for 15 days since he became a district employee 16 years ago.
The board, in a 4-3 vote, opted to modify the policy to meet what has been done for the past 16 years.
“You shouldn’t modify policy to meet the practice,” Helm said. “If it has been as Clay said, 16 years, then there is a problem.”
The unequal application of policies has prompted the district to review the manual, which is several inches thick.
Some policies are adhered to strictly, like last year’s prom incident where a brother could not escort his sister to the front door of the school because the policy was interpreted to include the red carpet as part of prom. That policy has been amended to allow the principal flexibility to make judgment calls.
But the same rigid interpretation was not given to the clear violation of the district’s vacation policy, and Helm did not believe awarding four more days of paid days off while cutting funding to the classrooms was the right message to send to the community.
According to Helm’s numbers, the additional days off costs the district about $60,000. During the budget sessions, the district trimmed $900,000 out of classroom expenditures.
“We took money out of instructional expenses,” he said. “It was a budget I didn’t vote for. Our job is to provide education, not extra days off.”
Helm also believed the board was not following the pilot program policy with the implementation of Competency Based Grading at Liberal High School.
“I voiced my opinion on that at the board meetings,” Helm said. “Has there been any action on it?”
District representatives have interpreted the pilot policy as not being violated.
“I wanted a timeline when the issue will be resolved,” Helm said. “They said they will work on it.”
But trimming money out of classrooms and funding four additional days beyond what the policy allowed was not what Helm believed served the needs of education.
“It’s a small amount,” he said. “But cutting money out of the classroom, and spending more on vacation days, that is unproductive money. The salaries were budgeted, but those are unproductive days.”