This is the second in a series of question-and-answer articles on the candidates for Hays USD 489 school board. The same questions were emailed to each candidate, and they were given several days to provide their answers. Answers appear here in full, unedited. Four seats are open on the school board, each consisting of a four-year term. Other candidates are Paul Adams, Alex Herman, Lori Hertel, Jessica Ann Berg Moffitt, Luke Oborny, Craig Pallister, Allen Park and Tammy Wellbrock.
Cole Engel is a lifelong resident of Hays and graduated from Hays High School in 2002. For 11 years, he has been an assistant professor of accounting in Robbins College of Business and Entrepreneurship at Fort Hays State University. He is a graduate of FHSU with a bachelor's degree in business administration with a major in computer information systems and a master's in business administration with a concentration in accounting. He received a doctorate in business administration with a specialization in advanced accounting, and he also holds a permit to practice as a certified public accountant in Kansas.
1. Why are you running for school board? What experience or qualities do you have that will benefit the board and district?
I chose to run for the school board mostly because of encouragement from current faculty and staff in the district who are my former teachers. I considered running multiple times before but always had career and educational goals that I first needed to meet before committing to the school board. Additionally, I do not believe in uncontested elections and when I saw that only four people were running for four seats I felt now was the right time. Four other people apparently had similar feelings and now there are nine candidates for four seats. I am hopeful that a new school board composition will help the district move forward in a positive direction. There is nothing more important to a community than its public school system.
Quality public schools provide the necessary foundation for everything else. I am not sure I am the best candidate for the Board of Education, but I believe I am a qualified candidate. I am a product of USD 489, graduating from Hays High School in 2002. I believe I was part of the system when it was at its prime. USD 489 provided me the educational foundation necessary for my personal and professional success. It is essential that individuals step up and ensure those same opportunities are afforded to those who follow us.
2. What do you see as the three biggest challenges USD 489 will have in the next five to 10 years?
I see facilities, compensation, and technology as the three biggest challenges for USD 489. Collectively, funding will be the ultimate challenge. I am not running for a seat on the Board of Education to bring sweeping changes or to shake anything up. I am running to provide levelheadedness to decision-making and to improve the culture and overall attitude of the board. I am not looking to grandstand or make a name for myself in the community. That type of activity will not make for a successful Board of Education. If elected, I will do my best to faithfully fulfill the duties of the office. If not, I trust my competition will do the same. A new governor with an increased funding commitment, a new superintendent with hopefully fresh ideas, and potentially several new board members with a commitment to working together to improve working conditions and ultimately the success of our students seems like a formula for much future success in USD 489. The Board of Education must make certain that USD 489 is extending the opportunity for a quality education to every child attending public schools in Hays. With the commitment of good people, I see no reason why USD 489 would not be able to appropriately address public school challenges as they arise.
3. USD 489 and the Hays NEA have reached impasse on contract negotiations for two years in a row. What steps need to be taken — by both sides — to help smooth the talks and improve relations between the board and the teachers’ bargaining unit?
Although I wish it was not necessary, I do agree that collective bargaining is an important part of educational life. As a faculty member at FHSU, I am covered by our Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that is negotiated by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). We are one of two universities in the Kansas Regents system that has a collective bargaining chapter recognized by the Kansas Public Employee Relations Board. I have been a dues-paying (i.e., voting) member since I became a tenure-track faculty member and have served on our chapter’s leadership team for the last four years. For the last two years I have served on the negotiations team and this year will serve as the chapter’s lead negotiator. I have invested significant hours into ensuring economic and academic security for the faculty at FHSU. I am hopeful these skills will be transferable and will provide a solid foundation for working improve relations between the BOE and the collective bargaining unit in the district. In short, the two sides need to focus on the issues, not the people. In a perfect world, there would not be two sides. Rather, there would be an issue and proposed solutions to the issue. Together, those tasked with governance and oversight and those tasked with execution of the mission would work to agree on a reasonable compromise. I know we do not live in a perfect world, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.
4. What priorities should the district put on projects for facilities improvements and how should they be funded?
5. The school board and administration have recently put an emphasis on building a contingency fund, adding $300,000 last year for a total at the end of fiscal 2019 for $1.2 million. Is this a good strategy, or should that money have gone for other use?
In the interest of print space, and because the last two questions are funding related, I attempt to answer them together.
With two failed bond questions, the hot issue in USD 489 is facilities. I agree there are facilities needs in the district. What remains unresolved is how to prioritize and pay for the necessary improvements. I think I am the only candidate for the BOE who has publicly stated that I did not support either of the previous two bond issues. I believe the district has a responsibility to first clearly define the true needs and then clearly communicate them to the voters and taxpayers. Had the district clearly defined true needs and proposed a reasonable bond issue, the public would have supported it. Obviously the district failed in this regard, twice. I also think that K-12 education is a public good and the entire state benefits from an educated citizenry, not just the USD 489 tax base. I worry that if we step-up and pay for this ourselves, then the state legislature will be ‘off the hook’ and will not have to meet their constitutional requirement to adequately fund public education in Kansas. The state has an obligation to fund education and I think it is risky to assume those costs locally. State lawmakers must commit to fully-funding schools. I am not fundamentally opposed to a bond issue, but I am certainly opposed to one that is too big and includes too many "wants" rather than clearly defined "needs" of the students in the district. Additionally, there are many faculty and staff in the district that simply cannot afford an increase in property taxes. It doesn’t seem right that the district would force a bond issue on their very own employees who cannot afford it. While facilities are indeed important, the quality of the faculty and staff is absolutely number one. This leads to another hot issue, which is compensation. I believe the faculty and staff of the public school system have waited their turn and deserve more. I am very thankful for a new governor and hopefully many years of funding increases for K-12 in Kansas. Without current involvement in the decision-making process at USD 489 and without a full analysis of the financial situation, it is inappropriate for me to render an opinion regarding the use of a contingency fund. Generally speaking, this is a good business practice for all individuals and organizations. The ability to maintain some level of financial flexibility should be an objective of any policy and governance board. The size of a contingency fund, when contributions and distributions should be made, and whether current needs of USD 489 are being neglected due to the desire to save for contingency, are specific questions that require additional analysis.