Senate President Susan Wagle stayed close to home in making her selections for a special commission on education, choosing the principal of Wichita’s East High School and a Wichita business leader.
The K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission will study ways to use state dollars to maximize student outcomes and make recommendations to the Legislature.
Wagle, R-Wichita, said she consulted with the Wichita school district before making her two picks for the nine-person commission. She chose Ken Thiessen, East principal, and Sam Williams, former chairman of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, drawing upon the district’s established partnership with the chamber, the Business Education Innovation Partnership.
“I felt it was important for the K-12 commission to include an urban perspective of excellence. It is also my hope that the commission will be able to build recommendations on a partnership that is already functioning between business leaders and the education establishment in Wichita,” Wagle said in a statement.
“I spent a great deal of time soliciting input from local schools and from business leaders. I’m confident both appointments will represent us quite effectively,” Wagle said.
Thiessen has worked for the Wichita school district since 1981. He became principal at East in 2003. The school, one of the most diverse in the state, was named best public high school in Kansas by U.S. News & World Report this year.
The rankings are based on both overall student performance on assessments and how well economically disadvantaged students keep pace with their more affluent peers.
Thiessen credited East’s success to the support of the school board and the hard work of the school’s faculty.
“We’re very, very fortunate to have a phenomenal staff. And a lot of that just comes down to working together and working toward what makes sense for our unique challenges,” he said.
“The first step is keeping the end in mind. And that is keeping what do we believe is best for students, keeping that in mind first,” he said.
Williams, who has a background in accounting, was chairman of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce in 2010 and is a managing partner at the Wichita-based advertising firm Sullivan, Higdon & Sink. He plans to retire at the end of the month.
Williams said his background in business gives him knowledge about how to use resources effectively. He said the goal of the commission is to ensure that every student has a fair opportunity to achieve.
“We’ve got to have people to hire, and they’re coming out of public ed. So public ed, we’ve got to make sure it’s producing,” Williams said in a phone call.
He said he was honored by the appointment and was happy that Wagle focused on Wichita in making her picks.
“We’re the largest city in Kansas. We drive the Kansas economy in so many ways. We need to have an educated workforce in Wichita. It’s critical to our state,” Williams said.
“We need to be world class,” he said.
‘In the trenches’
Wichita school district officials were pleased that Wagle sought their input on her choices.
“Sen. Wagle reached out to the school district. She was very deliberate in wanting to have our schools represented at the table and have strong representation,” said Diane Gjerstad, government relations director for the district.
The district is by far the largest in the state, with about 51,000 students, Gjerstad said.
Thiessen’s experience at East will help bring a crucial understanding of student needs to the commission, she said.
“His school is about 67 percent minority and is over 70 percent free and reduced lunch. It’s the largest school. It ranges from students with the most severe needs to the students … who will be going to the most elite universities in the nation,” Gjerstad said. “He has the full spectrum.”
She also said his personality will be an asset. “He’s just a very nice, down-to-earth Kansan,” she said. “Ken will be very good on this panel.”
Thiessen said he is approaching the question of making school funding more effective with an open mind and hopes the panel looks at all options with a critical eye.
“There are no easy answers. Because if there was an easy answer, we would’ve already figured that one out,” he said.
“I think hopefully the goal with the commission is with all the wide perspectives is making sure that we look for what are the potential unintended consequences and making sure whatever recommendations are given they are given with full understanding of what some of the potential unintended consequences are,” Thiessen said. “And with the idea that who are the kids that we’re serving and how can we best serve those students.”
Thiessen is the third educator to be named to the commission. Gov. Sam Brownback selected Jim Hinson, superintendent of the Shawnee Mission school district, and Bev Mortimer, superintendent of the Concordia school district.
The governor still has one more appointment to make.
House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, chose Dave Trabert, CEO of the Kansas Policy Institute, and Mike O’Neal, president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Merrick’s predecessor as speaker.
The state’s largest teachers union, the Kansas National Education Association, criticized Merrick’s choices of lobbyists but was pleased with Wagle’s appointment of an educator.
“It’s somebody in the trenches doing hard work with a school that’s doing incredibly great work, so I could not argue with her choice,” said Mark Desetti, the KNEA’s legislative director. He said it was critical that educators have a say on the panel. “Thiessen does the work,” he said.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, each chose former lawmakers, appointing former Sens. John Vratil and Janis Lee, respectively.