Shawnee County’s six superintendents ask the Topeka business community to support public education

The superintendent of the Shawnee County’s largest school district called on members of the business community to be “unapologetic advocates” for public education on Tuesday during the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce’s inaugural education forum.

 

Tiffany Anderson told the audience at the Topeka Civic Theatre that her district has a “long history of innovation,” even in the face of steadily declining state aid to public schools.

“All of this has been done with being underfunded for many years,” she said. “We look forward to the investment our legislators will make for the coming year.”

Anderson and the superintendents from the county’s other districts fielded questions from Barbara Stapleton, vice president of workforce and education for GO Topeka, the chamber’s economic development arm, who moderated the forum. She asked the superintendents questions that ranged from what they’re using additional state dollars approved by the Kansas Legislature in June to how the business community can partner with them to educate the estimated 30,000 students in Shawnee County.

Marty Stessman, superintendent of Shawnee Heights USD 450, said beginning the process of increasing teacher pay is something his district has started with the additional budget authority many of the state’s districts got after the 2017 legislative session.

“We know the best investment for our kids is to invest in teachers,” he said, adding that work remains to make the teaching respected again. “Teachers have been attacked as a profession. Until we restore the dignity to the profession, we won’t be able to attract teachers. We’ve got our work cut out for us on a macro level.”

Scott McWilliams, superintendent of Auburn-Washburn USD 437, said he’s concerned when he hears stories of Kansas teaching graduates going to Colorado.

“There’s something wrong with our state when our best are going outside of our state to get their first teaching job,” he said. “It’s not fair to our kids across the state. We need to ask why is that?”

In addition, Anderson said Kansas doesn’t graduate enough teachers to fill the vacancies that currently exist in the state. She said recruiting teachers for jobs in USD 501 is a unique challenge, more so than in many other districts in the state.

“Recruitment strategies may look different because we are so diverse,” she said, adding that she often reaches out to principals and teachers of the year in other states to let them know about the opportunities there are in USD 501.

One such example is the hiring of Shana Perry as Highland Park High School’s principal this past spring. Perry was Oklahoma’s middle school principal of the year in 2012 while leading Del Crest Middle School in Del City, Okla.

The challenges, now and in the future, in getting students ready for their lives after graduating from high school is somewhat daunting, the superintendents said.

“We simply can’t do business like we have for the past 30, 40, 50 years,” said Tim Hallacy, superintendent of Silver Lake USD 372. “The biggest competition (for students) will come from artificial intelligence. We’re handing them a huge platter of complex issues and the mantle of leadership. They’re going to have to reinvent themselves.”

Kerry Lacock, superintendent of Kaw Valley USD 321, said his district that is spread over 311 square miles and four counties, has made technology a focus through a 1:1 initiative that provides devices to students and offering classroom technology training to other Kansas school districts.

“They (students) will have to be adaptable, improvise and reinvent themselves over and over,” he said. “They can see real world applications to the things they’re learning.”

McWilliams cited a Harvard University study that said many jobs of the future haven’t been identified yet. He said his district continues to increase the number of career and technical courses to address future workforce needs.

“We’re trying to increase relevant learning opportunities so they can be best prepared for the uncertainties after they walk across our graduation stage,” he said.

Steve Noble, superintendent of Seaman USD 345, said his district is investing in and expanding early childhood education and kindergarten readiness initiatives for the district’s poorest children, a long term investment that will pay off in the future.

“We think that is some of the best dollars we can spend,” he said, adding that work is continuing on the $2.2 million renovation of the district’s former Mathes Learning Center in North Topeka into the Mathes Early Childhood to serve at-risk and special education three- and four-year-olds. “We have to engage our families. Our business community has to partner with us to ensure our kids have bright futures.”

Contact reporter Angela Deines at (785) 295-1143 or @AngelaDeines on Twitter.

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