Friday, October 24, 2014

Single-issue voters

3/29/2013

If a group of Williamsburg-area residents have their way, the outcome of Tuesday’s school board election will be decided on a single issue.

Members of “Concerned Patrons of West Franklin 287” are urging their fellow school district patrons to vote out four sitting school board members, replacing them with challengers who share the group’s views on a decisive issue facing West Franklin. The incumbents’ only apparent offense: supporting a bond election that could further consolidate the district, bringing all students to a centralized campus in Pomona.

If a group of Williamsburg-area residents have their way, the outcome of Tuesday’s school board election will be decided on a single issue.

Members of “Concerned Patrons of West Franklin 287” are urging their fellow school district patrons to vote out four sitting school board members, replacing them with challengers who share the group’s views on a decisive issue facing West Franklin. The incumbents’ only apparent offense: supporting a bond election that could further consolidate the district, bringing all students to a centralized campus in Pomona.

The $14.3-million bond issue — which would have to be approved by voters in the June 4 mail-in ballot election — would result in the closing of Williamsburg and Appanoose schools and raise patrons’ property taxes by about $14 a month on a $100,000 home.

It apparently is an outrageous proposition for members of the “Concerned Patrons” group, but the bond isn’t the only issue facing West Franklin and its current and future students.

Retention and graduation rates, as well as dealing with at-risk youth, school safety and rising classroom costs are major concerns for districts across the state, and West Franklin is no different. Understanding new curriculum standards in the wake of No Child Left Behind, preparing students for a high-tech world and bettering communication between schools and parents are other key points of interest.

Where do the candidates — incumbents and challengers alike — stand on such issues?

A Wednesday candidate forum organized by the West Franklin teachers’ association attempted to answer that question for patrons, providing more information about all the school board candidates’ thoughts and stances on a wide range of school district issues. The forum appeared far more civil than recent contentious West Franklin school board meetings — likely because those in the “Concerned Patrons” camp knew in advance that the event’s moderator wouldn’t allow them to hijack the forum with questions about the controversial bond election.

Looking closer at patrons’ concerns about the bond issue, it’s clear the fight is about more than closing schools and raising taxes. Many take issue with the district surveying residents about their preferences on a bond election, then appearing to disregard their views when they didn’t match the board’s plans. Patrons should remember, however, that the survey was just that — a survey. It wasn’t an official vote, just a poll to gauge residents’ opinions on the issue before deciding how to proceed. The survey results were just one of many factors school board members took into account when setting course for the June 4 bond election.

Another concern centers on patrons’ fears that the 30-year bond will require taxpayers to continue paying for the school consolidation project even if the West Franklin school district doesn’t survive another three decades. This pessimistic view assumes the worst and exposes the sad fact that many residents already have given up on saving their community. Patrons would do well to remember that towns don’t thrive and grow without hard work and leadership. Likewise, they don’t die without apathy and a shared sentiment that it’s someone else’s job to fix things.

West Franklin’s current school board members have stepped up, taken an unpopular position and made a laudable attempt to save their school district for generations to come. What have their opponents done besides hollering “No”?

The emotions of those obsessing about the bond election are understandable and not unreasonable. But refusing to meet the reality of West Franklin’s declining enrollment levels and worsening building conditions with a workable long-term solution is short-sighted.

West Franklin patrons need look no further than neighboring Johnson County to see an example of how such misguided, short-term thinking can cost a community.

A few years ago, Gardner residents were faced with the looming arrival of the BNSF intermodal rail hub near their city. Many opposed the massive railroad project based on concerns it would damage the environment, increase unwanted truck traffic and lower local home values. Knowing it’s nearly impossible to stop the railroad once it makes plans for a certain area, city officials in Gardner attempted to make the best of a bad situation. They annexed the land BNSF was planning for its intermodal facility, hoping the rail hub would broaden the city’s tax base.

That plan was thwarted by misguided voters, who were convinced by candidates hoping to unseat the sitting city council members that a new crop of officials could stop the railroad by de-annexing the land. The challengers were successful in obtaining council positions, but not in halting BNSF’s approach to Johnson County. They de-annexed the land planned for the intermodal, the land was immediately annexed by neighboring Edgerton, and the railroad’s plans chugged forward with Edgerton the winner.

It was a costly mistake for Gardner — one that could have been avoided if voters simply trusted the officials they originally elected, rather than second-guessing them on a single issue.

Not everyone can dedicate the time necessary to fully understand the complex issues facing a community and take action accordingly. That’s why we elect people to represent us in local, state and federal government. We count on them to make decisions on our behalf, recognizing that they are chosen because we trust them to consider all relevant information and make choices that are in the overall best interests of the body they represent.

West Franklin’s school board has been tasked with fulfilling that responsibility. Its current members have risen to the challenge regarding the bond and consolidation project, but Tuesday’s vote is about more than just that one issue.

Patrons should go to the polls considering candidates’ positions on the wide range of topics likely to be faced in the coming four years. This election isn’t about stopping the bond election (even if four new members join the board, they won’t do so until after the June 4 vote). And it isn’t about punishing the incumbents.

If voters want Tuesday’s election boiled down to one issue, it’s this: making the best decisions for the students of West Franklin.

— Tommy Felts,

managing editor

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