The two candidates running for the Wichita school board District 2 seat are about the same age. Both have children at Hyde Elementary. Neither has run for public office before.
Both say they would bring a business perspective to a board that has faced several years of cuts in state aid to schools.
But they don’t agree on everything.
“Today, in 2013, the issue is finance and nothing else,” said Scott Poor, an attorney and affordable housing developer. “I’m not trying to trivialize some of the other policy issues … but the primary issue is finance.”
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Joy Eakins, his opponent, said budgets are crucial, but they shouldn’t drive every discussion or decision.
“I know there’s a lot of people yelling about money and arguing, and we need to find solutions to that,” Eakins said. “But our education system is more than just the money, and I think we’ve lost a little sight of that over the last few years.”
Poor and Eakins are vying to replace longtime board member Connie Dietz, who announced in January that she wouldn’t seek a fourth term on the board. They will meet in the April 2 general election, which is a districtwide vote.
School board members serve four-year terms and receive no pay for twice-monthly meetings and other work. They oversee a $628 million budget and set policy for the state’s largest school district. New members elected in April will take office July 1.
District 2 covers much of east Wichita, including the area at 127th Street East and Pawnee, where a new high school is proposed to be built as part of the 2008 bond issue.
Eakins, 42, is a software design consultant and volunteer tutor. Since moving to Wichita from Denver in 2008, she has worked as a substitute teacher, mentor, tutor and member of the Business Education Innovation Partnership, a group that pairs area business leaders with district officials in hopes of finding ways to improve efficiency.
She said the district could improve its communication with patrons and taxpayers, particularly regarding progress on the $370 million bond issue.
When the board redrew attendance boundaries, closed schools and scaled back bond projects – and now as it debates whether to move Southeast High School – “people feel like they were lied to,” Eakins said.
“The school district may have made all the best decisions they could possibly have made with the data, but … there seem to be some communication issues there that possibly made it worse than it had to be.”
Eakins’ husband, Eric, an architect, is a graduate of Southeast High, “so of course I’ve heard some concern about moving Southeast,” she said. “I wonder if there might be some better solutions out there.”
She said district leaders may have waited too long before they decided two years ago to put remaining bond projects on hold and reconsider priorities.
“I think I would have stepped back sooner on the pause and study and said, ‘What’s happening, and what’s the recovery look like?’ ” Eakins said.
“When I hear the school board talk about a lot of these issues, it feels like it’s in a vacuum a little bit, that … there’s been no problem with the economy coming back, and so we should just be plowing ahead.
“And when I hear businessmen and women talk, they’re struggling to figure out how much they’ll be able to recoup. … We can’t stop everything because then we lose a generation of kids. But we have to find that middle ground, and I’m not sure we’ve found it yet.”
If elected, Eakins said, she would encourage district leadership to work with business leaders to make sure Wichita graduates are ready for college or careers, particularly in technology.
She also said she would be “a proponent for teachers and their skills.”
Poor, 41, a self-employed attorney who grew up in Liberal and moved to Wichita in 2010, says his background in school finance, real estate appraisal and budgeting makes him “uniquely qualified” to serve on the school board.
“We have to plan for the worst, and we’re going to have to make some very hard decisions,” Poor said.
He said he thinks the district “is under very good leadership.” But the board needs to be more aggressive and comprehensive in its economic forecasting, he said, particularly in the areas of property valuations and refinancing.
“We need to have an eye on what the trends are in our tax base, and it’s just very fragile at the moment,” he said.
“I think the level of financial management in the school district is good … but no local government has ever been through this type of economic market,” Poor said.
If local property valuations drop significantly – and Poor believes local commercial property may be overvalued by as much as 25 percent – the school district could keep its current mill levy or even raise it and end up with less revenue, he said.
“I don’t think anybody is in the mode of forecasting well into the future.”
Poor said district leaders should honor the intent of the 2008 bond issue. But it’s clear, he said, that the economy has changed and the district lacks the funds necessary to do all the projects it promised.
“The school district isn’t going to be able to operate facilities because they are popular,” he said. “They’re going to operate facilities based on the economics … and based on the demographic needs.”
Families get attached to neighborhood schools, he said. “That sentiment and that emotion and that community attachment might be a luxury that we’re not going to be able to afford. We need to do facilities planning the right way.”
But the district also needs to be more open and transparent about bond issue decisions, Poor said, including its choice about whether to close or relocate Southeast High.
Many district patrons are “upset because they voted for something and they don’t know what’s going on,” he said.
“Facility planning is a science, and the end determination needs to be based on quantifiable data,” Poor said. “However, we need to share that. When we make a decision, we need to explain why, and … they need to do better with that.”