By Rachel coleman
• Leader & Times
It’s a rare student who signs up for extra homework. But Steve Helm, candidate for USD 480 school board, aims to do just that.
A 1973 Liberal High School graduate, Steve Helm left homework behind decades ago. He’s ready to get back at it, though, in the interest of doing the job of a school board member properly.
“If you want to serve on that board, you have to show up prepared,” he said. “In the past few years, we’ve heard board members admit publicly that they passed things without realizing what they were voting on. You have to read your agenda, absorb the information — do your homework.”
As a close observer of local school board politics, Helm says a little more study might have served to smooth the last few years, which subjected voters, taxpayers, teachers, board members and students to tumult and conflict. Take, for instance, the hotly-contested installation of new football facilities at Redskin Field, complete with artificial turf and shiny aluminum bleachers. Voters rejected a $61 million bond issue in 2009 largely because they objected to the expenditure. Following that clear expression of taxpayer displeasure, the USD 480 board then in office passed a motion to renovate the field anyway — and did so at a cost of $2.4 million and the trust of the public, which later voted down a routine mill-levy renewal.
“I want to drive an Escalade and live in a million-dollar house, but I can’t afford those things,” Helm said. “Common-sense people understand that you have to do what you can afford, and they expect boards to do the same.”
Helm says that situation could have moved from a two-option standoff to consideration of a third choice that built consensus, trust and financial stability.
“The board didn’t explore all the options or think through the process the way ordinary people do,” he said. “Was it possible to replace the bad, dangerous bleacher boards with aluminum, bit by bit, until the whole structure was upgraded? Could we have done a little more homework and come up with an approach that was then presented to the public? If people know you’ve done the work and they understand the issues, by and large, they will support you.”
Looking forward, Helm said statistics presented at the most recent USD 480 meeting left him concerned the district has bigger problems than hard feelings over past history.
“Approximately half the high school freshman class is reading a few years below grade level,” he said. “If you can’t read, you can’t do well in anything else, either — math, history, government. I’d label that a crisis situation, and it’s the kind of thing that should be discussed at board meetings.”
With that in mind, Helm said twice-monthly meetings might be necessary.
“Right now, there’s very little time to discuss issues, as opposed to hearing reports that are already included in the minutes. We can read those ahead of time and use the meeting to ask questions and discuss the best course of action,” he said. “It’s the board’s job to provide oversight to the administration after having read the information and researched the options. You’ve got to do your homework.”
The Leader & Times Candidate Q & A
Name: Steve Helm
Bio: Born in Liberal, graduated from LHS in 1973 and from Seward County Community College in 1975.
Employer: Self-employed oil and gas consultant; “You have to be detail-oriented.”
Family: Married to Rebecca.
Q. What motivated you to run for USD 480 school board?
A. USD 480 needs new leadership. Leadership that is willing to be prepared for board meetings, leadership that will take the time to thoroughly examine all issues presented to them, leadership that is willing to attend all school board meetings, leadership that will support the will of the taxpayer, and leadership that will listen to and support our teachers.
Q. Explain your priorities for the education of children and teens. What areas are most important?
A. The only priority should be the successful education of our students. This should include giving them the best education possible to prepare them for graduation, continuing their education whether at a vocational school or college, or simply preparing them to enter the work force.
Q. Describe your vision for the future of USD 480 and its students.
A. 100 percent – 4.0 GPA, 100 percent graduation rate, 100 percent college graduation rate. Realistically, the vision should be to adequately prepare all our students for a successful life after graduating from Liberal High School.
Q. What challenges do you see in education in our school district? How should these be addressed?
A. Finances, including loss of taxpayer revenue, whether from local, state or federal sources. This could be addressed through careful planning, in depth research and learning how to make do with the resources provided to us.
Regaining the trust of the teachers; teachers are assets, not liabilities. We need to retain our veteran teachers. This could be addressed through seeking input, and listening to ideas and suggestions from all our teachers, including veteran teachers.
The number of new programs and changes to old programs are causing great stress on our teaching staff. This could be addressed by a thorough review of ALL programs, with input from teaching staff and administration personnel.
Q. On the other hand, what strong points do you see in USD 480? What’s working well?
A. USD 480’s strength lies in our teachers, aides, food service personnel, transportation personnel, or any support staff that comes in direct contact with our students who instill a positive attitude and serve as positive role models for our students.
Q. Personally, what strengths and relevant experience would you bring to the board?
A. I will bring the following strengths to the USD 480 school board that I have followed while being successfully self-employed for the past 30 years: Accountability, committed, innovative, community-minded-lifelong resident; Liberal is my home by choice.
I will be accountable to the students, teachers, and taxpayers.
I will be committed to devoting the time and energy to work through difficult issues.
I will be innovative, willing to study and implement new technology, as needed.