Note: This is the second in a series of articles profiling candidates for Hays USD 489 school board. Candidates were emailed the same questions; their answers have been edited only for grammar, punctuation and style.
Mike Walker said moving to Hays in 2000 was a bit of a homecoming, even though he didn’t realize it. When he explained to his father he was moving to Hays, the family history unfolded.
His father spent approximately 10 years of his childhood in Ellis, where Walker’s grandfather worked for the railroad. They later moved to Manhattan.
Walker’s father was a pilot in the military, and he grew up in various places around the United States and Europe.
Walker himself served in the U.S. Army and the National Guard and worked as a congressional staffer and a journalist in Washington, D.C., before moving to Hays to work at Fort Hays State University.
He was named director of the Docking Institute of Public Affairs in June. Prior to that, he worked for the institute as a research scientist, interim director and assistant director while also teaching in the sociology department. His courses involved rural development, community planning and population change.
He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Weber State University and a master’s degree in sociology from Utah State University. He has been pursuing a doctorate from Kansas State University.
His wife, Michelle, taught nursing at North Central Kansas Technical College and was a neonatal intensive care nurse at St. Catherine Hospital in Garden City.
His children have all attended Hays USD 489 schools — O’Loughlin Elementary, Felten Middle, Hays Middle and Hays High schools. Ivy, the youngest, is a senior at Hays High. His oldest daughter, Hannah, is married and lives in Austin. Son Max lives in Hays and is pursuing a music career. Daughter Grace also lives and works in Hays. Two stepsons, Jay and Ryan, also live in Hays. Jay is a sophomore at FHSU, and they host a sports show on KFHS.
Why do you want to serve on the Hays USD 489 school board?
I am a strong and passionate advocate for public education. I have 21 years of volunteer service to public schools, starting when Hannah began kindergarten in Phenix City, Ala., when I was stationed at Fort Benning, Ga. I attended public schools as a child and attended public universities as an adult. I believe that public education is vital to our democracy. I feel that I can be of benefit to the board and the citizens of Hays given my background, skills and temperament. The board needs folks that care about education, take the job seriously, are responsible with taxpayers’ money, and have the ability to make tough decisions with a cool head. I believe I have these skills. If I did not feel that my participation would benefit the board and local citizens, I would not be running.
Throughout the bond issue this year, the matter of trust in the school board has been brought up. Where do you feel the level of trust with the board might be weakest? As a member of the board, what could you do to ensure trust in the board with the public and/or district staff?
Trust in the board was indeed an issue in the last bond effort, but I believe that it was slightly misguided. The last initiative was based on a facility needs assessment, conducted about 12 years ago, and re-assessed every few years. From my perspective, the school board at the time decided that enough analysis had been done and that it was time to move on the issue. Ronald Reagan argued back in the 1980s that we should avoid “paralysis by analysis,” and I believe the board at the time was trying to do just that. So they took the needs assessment, crafted it into a bond initiate, and put it up for a vote. I understand this decision, but I feel it missed a key element — citizen engagement. Without overt citizen engagement, the bond seemed to be a top-down decision, being forced on the voters of Hays. It wasn’t quite as top-down as it seemed, since it was developed and established over a 10-plus year period with input from quite a number of local folks. But it was what it was, and the board learned a valuable lesson. The current plan was developed by teams of citizens, teachers and administrators. The teams developed their own plans, argued, fought and finally collaborated on a single plan, and then presented that plan to the board. The board did not have influence over the plan that was developed. I believe this has helped the board develop trust with the citizens of Hays. The level of trust with the local school board might still be weak in the eyes of some citizens, but I believe it is getting stronger. My approach to ensure trust is engagement. I am currently on the Hays High Site Council, the USD 489 Site Council, four Hays High School booster clubs, the Hays Chamber of Commerce, and the western Kansas Regional Economic Development Alliance. I also help with Hays High musicals and the Marching Indians Marching Band. I interact with people from Hays in all of these groups. As such, I speak with and listen to people. I hear their concerns. I believe that doing so builds trust with people. In short, I will continue what I am doing now (networking and building social capital) leading to trust among board members and with the citizens of Hays.
Do you believe the scope of the proposed bond is adequate, or does it encompass too much? What would you change about it?
The scope of the bond is just right. A key element of the bond is to ensure that there is equity among the elementary schools. Each and every child in the USD 489 school district deserves to attend a school that is comparable to every other school. At the present time, we are using schools that were built before school lunch programs were part of our daily routine. Some of our schools are not Americans with Disabilities Act compliant, meaning that students with some disabilities cannot attend Lincoln Elementary. Not all of Washington Elementary School is usable. We nearly take our lives into our own hands when attending a musical or play at 12th Street Auditorium. The cafeteria at Hays Middle School was designed for half of the number of students it serves. The new plan funds equitable schools, a larger cafeteria, and a new auditorium — one that can be used for school and community events. The last major bond passed by the voters of Hays was to build Hays High School. That bond was passed 30 to 40 year ago, and served its purposes. The current plan, if passed by the voters, will take us 40 or 50 years into the future. The new plan not only addresses current needs, but it will help us avoid similar issues for the next half-century.
If the bond issue fails, what steps should be next for USD 489 to address issues of infrastructure and class size?
Some plans are already in place. Standard lighting at the high school is already being replaced with LED. Electricity bills at the high school have dropped by about $3,000 a month. The district is already planning, using capital outlay funds, to replace the heating and air-conditioning system at Hays High with a modern and more efficient system. Again — saving money in the long run, while making immediate improvements. If the bond fails, the board and the district will need to work closely to ensure that quality education still occurs. Erecting temporary classrooms at the elementary school, middle school and high school will alleviate class size issues. We can also reassign and bus students to schools to balance out class size, while capital outlay funds are used to repair infrastructure at the failing school buildings. Hays High School can also rent FHSU’s Beach/Schmidt Auditorium for musicals and plays while funds are allocated to repair and refurbish the 12th Street Auditorium. These are just a few ideas, but they too will cost money. There is no free lunch. If we want to provide quality education for our children, we must provide the funding to do so. If we do not want to provide funding for quality education, we must admit that we do not care about providing quality education for our children. It is really pretty simple.
If the bond passes, where do you think the new elementary school should be located? Why?
I would like to see the new elementary placed on the west side of Hays. This will provide a well-balanced placement of schools. It should be noted, however, that there is no correlation between location of resident and location of school in Hays. That is, we do not have neighborhood schools, in the sense that majorities of children from certain neighborhoods attend certain schools. As such, no matter where a new school is built, students will be able to attend that school. If we cannot build a school on the west side of town, land is available near Hays High. The district owns 40 acres near the high school, and a new elementary would take up to about 14. If land is not affordable on the west side of town, the new school can be built on the east side. My preference is for someplace on the west side.
Other than issues addressed by the bond, what would be your priorities if elected to the school board?
New accreditation standards is a key priority. The district is already working on the new Kansas Education Systems Accreditation, but there is much more work to be done. In the past, the state of Kansas would accredit each school building. The new approach, while also accrediting each school, accredits each district. That is, each school and each district is evaluated and must meet standards to be accredited and allowed to accept students. This is a good approach, but it will take a lot of work. It is vital that board members understand the new accreditation process, as well as elements like the Rose Capacities, to ensure that the district receives accreditation.