Archive for Thursday, March 29, 2007

Board election forum provides fireworks

March 29, 2007

After the Willow Springs F.C.E. candidate forum Sunday at the De Soto Senior Center, Kevin Straub said he wasn't in the campaign to make friends.

It's doubtful the challenger for the De Soto USD 232 at-large school board ingratiated himself to the board incumbents who showed up for the forum (his opponent, Don Clark was out of town), or the moderator Dorothy Nalley -- whom he once told to be quiet thinking she was another candidate. But he was looking for votes, and one observer said after the meeting, "I'm going to vote for the rabble rouser."

Straub wasn't alone in his passion. Position 1 incumbent Rick Walker once cut Straub off, saying the challenger had said enough, and on another occasion interrupted the challenger when Straub wrongly asserted board member Randy Johnson's move to accept the low bid for playground equipment for the new Horizon Elementary School went unsupported by other board members.

Straub did score points with the unchallenged recounting of a recent board decision to piggyback off the phone system installation at Horizon and the new Mill Valley Middle School to install wider width board band lines at the district's other schools at the cost of $400,000 despite an acknowledgement from staff they weren't needed.

It was all part of a pattern of boards too willing to accept the advise of staff or contracted professionals, Straub said. That, and a too cozy relationship with JE Dunn -- the district's construction management firm -- has led to an acceptance of overpriced schools and cost overruns, he said.

Straub said current board members planned to follow up on two special meetings to approve language for a bond issue before July 1, when the next board would be seated. He also said the lame duck board would extend JE Dunn's contract with the district before that date.

Thierer said she was elected to a four-year term and would continue to take an active role on the board until July. But she said that did not mean she and other current board members would "shove something down the throats" of newly elected board members in the next three months.

The district needed additional space in Mill Valley High School, and it was important to continue to examine costs and the feasibility of different designs so that any new board members would be prepared, Thierer said.

Newly elected board members could be part of that discussion, as they have been in the past, Thierer said.

"It's worked in the past, and there's no reason it wouldn't this time," she said. "I think Kevin is just trying to create angst. He's more interested in the election than moving the district forward. He throws out statements he knows have no basis in fact to create issues where there are none."

Monday, Straub's opponent Don Clark said he would respect election results. He would not support the current board approving bond language should all three incumbents and former board member Jim Thomas lose.

Should incumbents prevail, Clark said new bond language and a date for a bond referendum could be set.

Split results would require him to exercise his powers as board president -- a position Clark holds this year. The board can allow participation in board decisions of members elect, he said.

Clark dismissed any talk the board would extend JE Dunn's contract before July 1.

"That's Washington," he said. "They've tried to turn this into Washington, D.C., type politics. I'm about common sense leadership."

At the forum, Walker and Thierer defended the district's long association with JE Dunn. The firm has delivered quality projects on time and under budget, they said. Projects excluded from JE Dunn's contract, such as the De Soto administration building, have flaws that probably wouldn't have happened with the firm's oversight, she said.

Thierer's opponent, Bill Fletcher, repeated his criticism of the district's use of JE Dunn. It finished projects under budget because the firm established the budget, he said. The firm had made mistakes, such as allowing the construction of Monticello Trails Middle School in west Shawnee on a spring -- which led to the replacement of the school's gym floor, he said.

The district needed to hire a business manager with the expertise to evaluate bids, such as was done in the Blue Valley school district, Fletcher said. The district would also be better served to take bids for a construction firm to complete individual projects, he said.

The heat of the campaign is such that not even candidate endorsements aren't routine. Straub was challenged by the other candidates when he mentioned his endorsement by Parents for Responsible Education, a group USD 232 board member Randy Johnson started last fall to oppose the bond proposal. It was protocol for organizations to send questioners to all candidates before endorsing, they said.

On Tuesday, the De Soto Teachers Association endorsed Clark, Thierer, Walker and Jim Thomas. That led Fletcher to cry foul.

The endorsement was approved by the local union's leadership, Fletcher said. Rank-and-file members, including his daughter, didn't review candidate responses or vote on endorsements, he said.

A letter from De Soto Teachers Association President Justin Love to the candidates stated: "The executive board of the De Soto Teachers Association will review the responses provided by those who choose to submit them. The De Soto Teachers Association may also choose to endorse a candidate or candidates whose views closely align with the aims and goals of our professional organization."

Love said the responses would be shared with members to help them make informed decisions.

At the forum, Walker frequently sparred with Straub but not with Tim Blankenship, his Position 1 challenger. Blankenship, an electrical engineer with bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Missouri-Rolla and works as a consultant for NASA and various defense contractors, said he had worked with district math and science teachers and visited classes to explain the practical and career applications of subject material.

Math and science education needed to improve nationwide and in the district, Blankenship said, because of the increasing complexity of technology and global competition. He said he related that concern to De Soto Superintendent Sharon Zoellner and was told the district needed to update its objectives in those subjects.

"I want to be involved in that," he said.

The district needed to be careful with taxpayers' money and "scrutinize every dollar spent," he said.

The heat of the forum was also absent in the remarks of Position 3 candidates Bob Dyche and Jim Thomas, who sat next to one another and occasionally chatted.

Dyche said he decided to run when he found the board had redrawn the boundaries of east-side elementary schools, and that his sons would now be enrolled in the new Horizon Elementary School, which is a mile farther away from their current school and on the other side of busy Shawnee Mission Parkway. The move will cost him $500 for bus fees, he said.

The boundary change could have been prevented had the past board built elementary schools large enough to serve the new neighborhoods, Dyche said.

An employee of General Motors and a member of the United Auto Workers, Dyche defined himself as a plainspoken man and said he would stick to his convictions.

Thomas, who served on the board from 1999 to 2005, said board members were asked to make very tough decisions, such as the recent boundary changes. He would make decisions based first on what was best for the academic achievement of students and then on the district's strategic plan, he said.

More than 500 district residents helped develop the strategic plan, and he viewed it as the "will of the people," Thomas said.

Thomas, who has a doctorate in community psychology and does market research for Bayer Animal Health, said he didn't know such a career existed when he was in college. The lesson, he said, was the district needed to prepare students to be lifelong learners.

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