Three newcomers seeking election to the Abilene Public Schools (USD 435) Board of Education attended the candidate forum Tuesday night at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum’s Visitor Center, sponsored by the Abilene Area Chamber of Commerce.
Robert Keener, Amy Meysenburg and Veronica Murray were in attendance, answering questions posed by moderate Dennis Weese of Eagle Communications.
Two candidates, incumbents Jennifer Waite and Randy Gassman, had other commitments and were unable to attend, according to Chamber Executive Director Allison Blake.
There is only one contested race for the Abilene school board — Gassman and Meysenburg are both seeking the At Large Position, while Keener, Murray and Waite are running unopposed.
Keener said he is a member of the Kansas Highway Patrol and Army National Guard and is a former Marine. Originally from Derby, he has been an Abilene resident for a little over 14 years. He has three children attending Abilene schools, a junior, seventh grader and fifth grader.
Meysenburg works in public health and emergency preparedness, has a current Kansas nursing license and graduated from Kansas State University in August with a bachelor’s degree in human development and family services. She has been with Kids in Crisis for six years and has been president of that board the last two years. She and her husband David, who is a teacher in Salina, have three children, two are in college and one’s a senior in high school.
Murray is employed by the Dickinson County Economic Development Corporation and volunteers on a number of boards and organizations. She has lived in Abilene off and on in recent years, moving when her family has dealt with job transfers. Her husband works for the Union Pacific Railroad. They have one 13-year-old daughter who attends Abilene schools.
When asked what motivated him to run for the school board, Keener said he has spent his entire adult life in service and this is another way to do so. Because his children are school age, he is interested and wants to make sure “we’re providing the best we can to our kids at all levels.”
Meysenburg said both she and her husband are Abilene natives who had wonderful experiences in Abilene schools, as did their children. With Kids in Crisis she sees children who have challenges and wants to help in any way possible. Although she thinks the school system is great, she feels there are needs even teachers are not aware of. She wants to be “of service and get every child’s needs met in any way possible.”
Murray also said she wants to be of service to the community. She knows school board members have a tough job and would like to help share that burden. She believes Abilene schools are doing a great job and feels USD 435 is very unique. She noted the district was one of the first to use iPads and is impressed by the district’s multi-tiered system of support approach (MTSS) to serving children academically, socially and emotionally. She felt being on the school board was her duty and decided to do so since she has the opportunity and support from her family.
Reaching the ‘next level’
Candidates were asked what kind of things should be implemented to help Abilene schools reach the “next (higher) level.”
Keener said while he does not really know what the “next thing” is, he does feel it’s a good idea to be progressive; however, throwing money at a potential issue doesn’t necessarily fix it.
“I’ve been a part of different things where you implement new equipment, new ideas. You do that too often and no one gets comfortable. No one really understands what the implementation is about. You don’t always get a good reading if it worked out or not,” Keener said, explaining sometimes it’s important to sit back and see if a particular program is accruing the desired results before implementing something new.
Meysenburg noted that all Abilene schools are Title I schools, which means 60 percent of students are on free or reduced lunches. Working with Kids in Crisis, she’s often seen where families cannot afford the $40 deposit for a child to have an iPad they can take home with them. While Kids in Crisis often will help the family pay the deposit, the child still cannot take the iPad home if he or she has unpaid fees from previous years. Instead, the child must stay after school or come in early to get homework done. Also they get to see all their friends bringing home their iPads.
“For me, that’s the number one thing I would work to improve. I hate to see any child at a disadvantage starting out,” Meysenburg said. “Technology is huge. You’re taking kids that are already at a disadvantage and you’re saying now we’re not going to let you take your iPad home because your parents didn’t pay your enrollment fees.”
She wants every student to have the same opportunities.
Murray agreed that Meysenburg has a point. As far as implementing new programming, Murray believes the whole goal of education is to make sure children leave the 12th grade with a diploma in hand “ready to take care of themselves and be the type of person that’s contributing something,” she said.
“I think every child needs an opportunity to be the best person they can be and part of that is exposure,” Murray said, explaining she would like to see students exposed to more businesses and to more experiences.
She also feels teachers and other staff have so much they must contend with in today’s world including situations no one would have dreamed of 30 years ago. She would like to see teachers get more support
Candidates were asked if they believe everyone should be educated to the best of their ability.
Meysenburg said yes and explained teachers and educators need to meet each individual student’s needs. For example, if a third grader is ready to do fourth grade work, there are computer programs that allow that child to move right into fourth grade; however, some students are not ready to do that. Schools need to meet kids’ needs where they are at, she said, explaining a personalized education environment will help a child find success.
Murray agrees that everyone should be educated to the best of their ability, but there’s always going to be a gap. She said Abilene school’s multi-tiered support system means every child has to meet the criteria of each tier before they can advance to a higher one.
A small group of children need a very focused and localized approach so they get extra attention and extra help, whether that’s due to social/emotional needs or educational needs. She feels every child needs the same amount of support to learn, but that will vary from student to student.
Keener said every child needs to learn to the best of their ability to their maximum effort. Schools not only need to recognize the levels where the kids are at, but also the challenges they face. Not everyone is capable of the same thing, but they should be challenged to bring out their best. Everyone feels better when they get a challenge and then beat it and overcome it.
Candidates were asked if the district should offer preschool and if it did, should it be full or half day. While all candidates felt preschool would be positive, each had concerns.
Murray said her family lived in Wyoming where her daughter attended a preschool that was partially state-funded. While it was a “blessing” and made a huge difference in her daughter’s life, it did not replace child care, Murray said. She feels early intervention is important for children and the school district has experts who can recognize if a child isn’t where he or she needs to be.
“They can see some of those cues early on and create interventions when they (the students) are young enough to make a very large impact in a short amount of time,” she said.
Keener said a preschool would be good and feels it’s important for everyone to be on the same page when preparing children for kindergarten. He also agrees that preschool is not a replacement for child care, but is an environment preparing them for school.
Meysenburg said Abilene already has Headstart, a preschool program for children who qualify, but feels a district preschool would be a good idea in theory. It could be a draw to bring in a new and younger staff who might also have children who would attend. But she also wonders how it would be funded and how screening would be accomplished.
“If it were up to me personally, I’d say do all day preschool. Let’s get these kids so everyone can have a head start, but there’s a lot of questions surrounding that before you can just say yes,” Meysenburg said.
Contact Kathy Hageman at firstname.lastname@example.org.