|Meet the candidates: School Board|
|October 28, 2016 Jerry Purvis|
Between funding, buildings and curriculum, it takes vision to help steer the Gering schools toward a bright future – and five residents have stepped up for the challenge.
Five candidates are running for the three open seats on the Gering School Board on the May 10 primary.
Neal Johnson Jr. is a retired Navy veteran but still works part-time for First Student transportation.
“I’ve been thinking about how I can get involved in the community,” Johnson said. “After a current member mentioned it to me, I looked into the position and decided to run.”
He said the district should look into what it can do to expand existing facilities within its budget prior to asking the citizens to approved bonding for construction.
“We need to look at the impact of moving the freshmen to the high school and if there’s a viable solution,” Johnson said. “If not, the best option would be to ask voters for a bond issue because I don’t think the state is going to give us any funding for building.”
Johnson said he approved the district pursuing the career academy concept of learning. “All students aren’t suited to go to college. Some will want to go right into the workforce after graduation,” he said. “There are a lot of jobs in technical areas that don’t require a college education and the debt that goes along with it. It’s beneficial to the kids if we offer those courses.”
When it comes to state aid to education, Johnson said districts need to be clear with the state Legislature about actual costs of operation, then working with senators to assure that funding is available.
Brent Holliday, CEO of Nebraska Transport Company, is also seeking a seat on the school board. He’s already been involved on the facilities committee that’s seeking input on what are the district’s building needs. Through that involvement, he was encouraged to run because of his business background.
“The facilities committee members made a tour of the high school and there are some real structural problems with the building,” Holliday said. “We need to take a smart approach to any new construction because it has to be decided by the taxpayers. I don’t know how that would be received.”
According to Holliday, whatever construction plan is pursued, it needs to keep safety and security in mind, because emergencies can happen in even the smallest of school districts.
Holliday said he supports the idea of a career academy that gives students exposure to possible career choices. “We also need to remember that some things are basic, such as math and sciences. We need to continue teaching those.”
He added there are also cultural factors that affect how education is delivered so students can be functioning citizens where they live.
“My daughter is 7 and her world is going to be completely different 10 years down the road,” Holliday said. “We need to take a changing world into consideration when it comes to education and prepare kids for those changes.”
He said that state aid to education is important, especially in smaller rural districts. That’s why it’s important for him to work close with state legislators to assure that funding is available to keep the district operating.
Josh Lacy, who works for Holliday at Nebraska Transport Company, is also running for school board. In fact, they went together to the county clerk’s office to fill out the necessary forms.
“I’m running because I want to be more involved in the community,” he said. “I have two kids in the schools and I think it’s important for parents to be in tune with what’s going on and helping to make good decisions for the children.”
He said he’s wasn’t sure the best way to pursue a construction project, but the high school needs updating to meet the evolving needs of the student body. He would support whichever path is decided upon. An essential part of that would be increasing safety and security measures at the high school.
Lacy also sees benefits in encouragement of career academies for students who want to start their career paths while still in high school. “We need to have kids prepared for what to expect in the workplace,” he said. “Giving them some of that training helps put them on right path of where they want to go in the future. Kids need to find their own direction, but it’s also good for them to have some direction at the same time.”
He said it’s difficult for small, rural districts to get the funding help they need to operate. It’s also important for them to be on a level playing field when it comes to state aid. That means staying in contact with state senators to assure local needs are being addressed at the state level.
Newspaperman Frank Marquez said he’s running to give back to his hometown. Much of his career has involved conducting extensive research and making informed decisions. In his last federal job, he had a lead role in producing his agency’s annual report for the White House and Congress.
He’s also aware of the “brain drain” in our schools as kids leave after graduation and never return. “I think getting local business involved and invested in education is our best bet,” he said.
“Gering’s Career Academy is heading in the right direction. Folks surrounding the program need to continue to develop and manage it with a keen eye. The board needs to give focused attention to facilities, teacher training and making sure students remain engaged and understand that connection.”
As a former high school teacher, Marquez is familiar with overcrowded facilities. “My classes had a teacher-student ratio of 1:42, which was not conducive to effective teaching,” he said. Performances rise with more focused attention. The next step is answering how to fund those vital needs, which involves getting input and meeting with a range of stakeholders: bean counters, contractors, but most importantly, the parents.”
BJ Peters, who works at Educational Service Unit 13, the only board veteran, is seeking his fourth term. “I feel there’s still some unfinished business where I can provide some input,” he said. “The other two incumbents decided not to run and I think too much turnover tends to disrupt things.”
Strategic planning over the past two years has revealed the residents believe freshmen should be part of the high school. Such a move would realign classes as elementary as K-5, middle school as grades 6-8, and high school as grades 9-12.
“Educationally it makes sense, but we have no room in the current high school building for another 150 students,” Peters said. “To do it right, we’re probably looking at some type of bond issue to improve the high school building. It was built in the 1960s, so it’s showing its age.”
Peters added that any improvements need to include increased safety and security. That would include a single primary entrance where access can be controlled.
The state also has been encouraging school districts to implement more “career academy” classes to the curriculum. These courses ask students to learn skills they can immediately put to use in the workforce after graduation.
“Not every one of our kids needs a full four years of college to be valuable in the workplace,” Peters said. “We need to give these kids a head start. There are a lot of well-paying vocational careers our students could take advantage of.”
He said Gering has an excellent staff for preparing students for college. Now, the district is looking to expand learning to include more career-focused paths for interested students.
Gering provides excellent education in part because of aid from the state to smaller districts. “We need more help from the state,” Peters said. “We put a lot of pressure on our taxpayers right now to operate the schools. “The state needs to pick more of the education dollar. We also need to be sure districts with lots of taxable property don’t end up subsidizing those that are property poor. It’s a balancing act. I’m not sure of the best solution, because our state doesn’t have a diverse economy like most of our neighbors.”
Editor’s note: See next week’s edition for profiles of the Gering City Council and Scotts Bluff County Commissioner candidates.
The deadline for registering to vote is Friday, Oct. 28, 2016. The County Administration building will be open until 6 p.m. to take reg