Pair says school board years a learning experience

Two long-term board members will complete a total of 32 years of service to the Unified School District 410 at the end of this month.

On July 1, the board seats held by Robert “Bob” Watson and Teddy “Ted” Russell will be filled by recently elected members Brent Barkman in Position 4 and Eddie Weber in Position 6, all of Hillsboro.

Barkman and Weber ran unopposed in April’s local election.

“I’ve been on the board four years, and I’ve certainly appreciated their efforts and the years of service that I’ve had with them,” board president Doug Weinbrenner said of the two outgoing members.

“We certainly will miss their expertise and their experience.”

Russell first agreed to run for the position in 1981 at the urging of his neighbor, Deena Hawkins, who had been on the board for 12 years.

“She convinced me that was something I needed to do,” said Russell, who works as distribution clerk at the local post office.

He said he initially wanted to change things to benefit his children, who were students in the district.

But once on the board, Russell changed his perspective.

“If you’re going to go in there with the idea that you’re going to do something for your kid, then you’re in the wrong place because it’s an overall deal,” he said. “It’s for everybody.”

He also soon realized that changes come as a group effort.

“There’s things you’d like to do as a board member, but you’re only one of seven,” he said.

Both Russell and Watson view academics, choices of classes, the teaching staff and technology as strong points in Hillsboro’s school system.

“I think over the years we’ve done a lot, as far as to improve the quality of education for the kids, by the programs we’ve introduced,” Russell said.

“So many districts are just staying where they’re at, they’re not doing anything to improve. But we’ve been able to do a lot for our kids.”

Improvements, though needed, have been be costly.

“We spent a lot of money building facilities when Dr. (Robert C.) Brown was here,” Russell said. “As far as my part, that’s the visible thing you’re going to see.”

More recently, a cooperative effort between Hillsboro, Herington, Centre and Marion resulted in the interactive classroom, which gives students more choices for classes.

“We’ve purposely spent a lot of money on technology, trying to stay at the forefront of that area, and we take a lot of pride in that,” said Watson, who is senior vice president and manager for Emprise Bank of Hillsboro. “It’s amazing what the kids in school can do.”

Watson said he became involved with the school board because he believes in the value of public education.

Beside his 12 years on the local board, Watson worked five years on the Neodesha school board before moving to Hillsboro 15 years ago.

“My mother taught school all her life,” he said.

Watson also first ran for the USD 410 board when his three children were in school.

“I think we covered all three buildings,” he said.

Watson’s experience as a board member has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “All the school boards I’ve been on have always been made up of good people, willing to work together and give and take.”

As negotiator for the district for the past four or five years, Watson said he helped establish a fairly high level of trust with the teachers association.

“I think that’s helped improve the level of trust between the board and the teachers,” he said.

Serving on the board brings its share of challenges, and members don’t always agree on the issues or the decisions.

“There were some things done that I wasn’t necessarily in favor of, but they would have come anyway, like the baseball and some of the other athletic activities we added,” Russell said. “Since the league was going to it, we would have eventually had it anyway.

“Even though it’s not all bad, it’s quite costly anytime you have transportation involved. And you have lost classroom time.”

Russell said he believes the school’s primary objective is education.

“Personally, I think we need more time in the classroom, not less.”

Some of the debates focus on issues that are larger than any one school district, Watson said.

“There seems to be a continuing trend for the ever-growing cost of special education, and it’s hard for me to know if that’s justified,” he said. “But I certainly don’t want to not serve some kid that richly deserves it.”

Watson is apprehensive about the growing expectations placed on public education.

“I do think as a society, we expect public schools to solve everything,” he said. “We’re supposed to teach kids how to drive and feed them and cover a lot of things that used not to come under public schools.”

He also said he’s concerned about the impact private schools may have on community-wide support of public schools.

“I think one of the things you learn as you go through life is to deal with a wide variety of people, whether you like them or not, whether they have the same beliefs as you or not,” Watson said. “I think that is a real strength in public schools.”

Asked what prompted his decision to leave the board after this term, Russell said: “You do lose a little bit of interest when you don’t have kids involved in school. I just think you need to get new blood in there, somebody who has kids in school and will be more involved in what the needs of the school are in today’s society.”

Watson expressed similar thoughts, adding, “I’ll take a break for a while and let somebody else serve.”

The present budget crunch is not a new issue for Russell. He remembers the crisis the district faced when he was first elected, when more than a dozen teachers lost their jobs.

“I never did like doing that,” he said. “I know what it would do to me if I lost my job. It doesn’t really matter what the reason is for losing your job, but the idea that you no longer have it.”

Even so, he acknowledged that the board under the Brown administration probably did the best it could at the time.

“We’re going at the budget process a little different than we did back then,” he said.

“We’re looking at trying to trim the ‘frills’ out of the system before we start trimming the teachers and the things we should be concerned about retaining.”

With spending cutbacks facing many rural districts, Watson said he believes “sooner or later we’ll be facing another round of consolidation.”

Both Russell and Watson offered their advice to new board members Brent Barkman and Eddie Weber.

“I think it takes a minimum of one year-maybe more-to really understand the entire process and fit it all together, to understand your job,” Watson said.

Based on his experience, Russell concurred.

“You probably don’t feel comfortable doing some things until you’re maybe in your second year because there’s too much information, especially budget stuff is really to hard to (grasp) unless you have some idea about how financing works on a major budget.”

Barkman and Weber said they expected the first year to be a learning experience.

As part of their preparation the two have observed the last four or five board meetings

“Hopefully, Eddie and I can step into and fill some large shoes,” Barkman said.

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