A sparse crowd of curious Barton County voters gathered in Great Bend’s Crest Theater Tuesday night. Attending the Great Bend League of Women Voters Forum, they hoped to gain insight into where various local candidates stood on issues facing the area.
The event Tuesday took place three weeks to the day prior to the April 5 general election.
"Too bad we couldn’t have had more people here," said moderator and LWV member Rose Kelly. Past forums have drawn capacity audiences to the Crest.
Races represented were Great Bend mayor, Great Bend Unified School District 428 School Board and Barton Community College Board of Trustees.
Sara Williams, who is a write-in candidate for the USD 428 School Board was present for a short time Tuesday night. But, according to LWV policy, only candidates on the ballot are included in such forums.
Candidates each answered two questions prepared by league members. Mayoral candidates drew two questions at random, and the other office seekers drew one question, then had the option to address one of the previously drawn questions.
They were given one and a half minutes to introduce themselves, one minute to address the questions and, after all the answers were presented, they each had one and a half minutes to summarize their positions.
• Great Bend mayoral candidates incumbent Mike Allison and challenger Randy Myers.
• USD 428 Board candidates incumbents Wade Babcock, Doug Bender, Mark Hestand, James Jordan, Cheryl Rugan and Dwight Young. There are four at-large openings on the board and the top for vote-getters of the six win seats. Members Jean Cavanaugh and David Holste are leaving the board.
• BCC Trustee candidates incumbent Mike Johnson, Brett Middleton, Mike Minton and Glenn Opie. The three at-large positions go to the top three vote-getters.
Allison, a Great Bend dentist and resident of the community since 1969, has served as mayor since 1999. "One thing I really tried to maintain is a cooperative spirit," he said. He cited the Jack Kilby Plaza and Veterans Lake dog park projects as examples of this.
Addressing youth drinking, "we have put a lot of effort already into our youth," he said. The Youth Academy and DARE programs are among these. But, he said, referring to a survey noting drinking starting at a younger age, the city needs to do more.
He also opposed returning the city-wide clean-up. In the past, it cost money that could have gone to other projects. "I’d rather do more street repairs and other things the city needs to do."
Despite pending layoffs at Central Kansas Medical Center, he said the local economy is doing well and the city’s population continues to grow. "I just want to do good for the community."
"This is a great community," said Myers, a Great Bend native who has been on the city council for five years. "We just need to be progressive and proactive."
The city streets "were in deplorable condition," he said, adding that he brought attention to this. Also, there has been an increase in crime, unsolved cases and turmoil in the police department. "I want to clean this up." Myers is a former Great Bend police officer.
He also believes in increased tourism opportunities and better cooperation between communities in the county and the county itself. "This community is more than just Great Bend and more than just Barton County."
In addition, Myers questions the number of low- to medium-income jobs created by Red Barn. Plus, the strong local economy is meaningless to those who are out of work.
Johnson, 36-year resident of Great Bend and local business owner, has served on the board for several years. "I think the facts speak for themselves," he said. Barton is now ranked among the top 50 community colleges nationwide, continues to see increased enrollment and continues to be strong in work force development, all while maintaining a flat mill levy. He noted partnerships with CPI Qualified Plan Consultants and Great Bend Co-op, and the establishment of the Pipeline Institute.
Addressing recent attacks in the media on the policy governance system used by the college, he said there have been some misconceptions. "The trustees are heavily involved in the college. It (the board) points the college in the right direction. The record proves we are on the right track."
Middleton of Great Bend, is president of Sunflower Bank’s Great Bend and Ellinwood locations. He also said he has been involved with BCC for 11 years as a teacher and on the Booster Club. It’s important, he said, for the college to interact with its business partners.
However, "there have been some oversight problems." He said there need to be "checks and balances."
None the less, he said BCC is going a good job in addressing the flight of young people seeking better jobs elsewhere. "Work force development is a key part of the answer to keep them here."
"The college has done an outstanding job in a lot of areas," said Minton, who has been a Barton County resident since 1994. Having taught school in Great Bend and served as principal at Larned High School, he is now vice-president of sales and marketing for Benefit Management Inc.
But, "there is a disconnect with the community." Barton’s rural isolation has only exacerbates this.
As for what new programs are needed at BCC, he questioned starting anything new in these tough economic times. The college must continue to look for new opportunities, but focus making the current programs stronger first.
"I have a deep and long-lasting love affair with the college," said Opie, an attorney and lifetime Great Bend resident who helped with the effort to establish the college in the 1960s. Although there has been some pain along the way, "it has been a marvelous institution."
Opie hates to see any entity bogged down in policies and believes in hiring competent people and letting them do their jobs. "I appreciate the challenges that are ahead."
USD 428 School Board
"It has been a very educational experience," said Babcock, who works with Central Kansas Orthopedics Group and has lived in Great Bend since 2001. He was appointed to the board two years ago. "It is important to get involved in the district" since children are the most important resource a community has. "I’ve seen how well this system works," he said.
He agrees with the district’s current sex education policy that allows kids to opt out if that is what their parents want.
In addressing the McPherson school district’s opting out of No Child Left Behind and, instead of state assessment tests, using ACT results to determine progress, "it is something we should explore." Under NCLB, all students must reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014. "This puts a lot of stress on our teachers."
He realizes the next few years will be tough financially for schools. But, "I got into this because of my children (who attend Great Bend schools)," and that is why he wants to continue to be involved.
Bender, a Great Bend High School grad of 1979, is a former local business owner who has been active in teaching and coaching at various levels. "I worry about the kid first," he said.
As for the NCLB issue, "there are a lot of intangibles." He said there would need to be a lot of research and could be hidden costs.
"There needs to be an influx of people with children on the school board," Bender said. This requires a fresh start with fresh ideas. "We need to look not at what once was but what can be."
When relocating, Hestand said he and his wife chose Great Bend. "It was a great decision. We saw how great the school system is." Hestand moved to Great Bend in 1998 and is a district sales manager for Shelter Insurance. His four children in Great Bend schools.
But, "I’m tired of being an arm-chair quarterback."
He addressed the use of personal electronic devices, such as cell phones, by students during school. "I can see where this would be a problem," he said. But, he feels they should be able to use them before and between classes, but not in the classroom.
In all, "I want to be a part of the school system and a part of the decisions being made."
Jordan has been a Great Bend resident since 2000. Having worked in the meat packing industry, he is now a representative for Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. His wife Pam teaches kindergarten at Jefferson Elementary School. "This is a good time to be on the board. There are some hard decisions that have to be made." But, the district must cut fat, not muscle.
With the recent temporary closing of the local Head Start, Jordan said it may be too much for USD 428 to take on the operation of the program.
He also touched on the teaching of cursive writing. "With our current technology, cursive is not an important part of our education," he said. And, perhaps, it is outdated. In light of everything else that has to be taught "we need to pick our battles."
"The greatest asset a community has is its teachers," Jordan said. All the questions posed Tuesday ultimately boil down to teachers and the school board must work with them.
Rugan, a GBHS graduate, has sent the last 12 years raising her children. "I have a vested interest in maintaining the quality education in the district," she said. She is also a certified pubic accountant, and this financial background gives her a keen insight in how to help keep the district on an even fiscal keel.
A lot of tough choices must be made. Students, district employees and the community must be in on these decisions, she said.
In touching on the arts in school, "I think these are a very important part of students receiving a well-rounded education. They need to be able to find their gift."
Young as been a Great Bend resident since 1970 and is now the executive director of the Center for Counseling and Consultation. He was served on the school board since 2001, and as president since 2003. He was also involved in the bond issue to renovate district schools.
He said all the buildings are in good shape and are being well maintained. Also, the mill levy has been reduced each year over the past decade.
Not all is rosy. "I believe discipline is always a challenge." There are also problems with drugs and bullying.
"All school districts will be facing some very challenging time in the next four years," Young said. But, "this district is in a very good position" thanks to planning. The board must continue to prepare students to be life-long learners.
The Great Bend Tribune helped sponsor the forum.