By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
Cherokee, Kan. —
Next month, Joe Ulery’s name will be the only one on the ballot for the school board in the USD 247-Southeast School District, which serves students in rural areas of Crawford and Cherokee counties.
No one has filed for the other two seats that are open.
Ulery is a production supervisor at Pittcraft Printing in Pittsburg. He went to elementary school in McCune and graduated from Southeast High School in 1988. He has children who attend the district’s schools.
Ulery is seeking his second term on the board, but he sometimes questions why he runs. He knows these are hard times for some rural Kansas schools, as they wrestle with declining enrollments and shrinking budgets.
Ulery said he’s not a Donald Trump-like business executive who can make decisions with no emotional strings attached. And in a small school district like his, every decision hits someone he knows.
“Sometimes I wonder why I do it,” he said. “These are tough decisions. I know people in each community. Change is hard. You just have to go with what’s better for the kids. But we’ve also got to pinch pennies. Years later, you just look back and hope you made the right decision. It’s always a fine line.”
Based in the town of Cherokee, USD 247 has 694 students who are spread out across 326 square miles of mostly farmland. The district includes several small communities, some just a few blocks long. Weir (population 679) has a K-6 school of 125 students, and McCune (population 405) has a K-6 school of 64 students.
The district also includes West Mineral (population 185), whose claim to fame is the Big Brutus coal shovel and museum — an homage to a way of life that ended decades ago.
The high school is in Cherokee, which has a population of 716. There is one gas station and virtually no business district.
The average property valuation in the school district is $28,000 — the lowest in the state. The district’s cash reserves are $300,000 to $500,000 in a given year, at a time when other districts measure their reserves in the millions.
Superintendent Glenn Fortmayer understands why no one may want to run for the board seats.
Two years ago, his board members faced one of their most challenging decisions in decades: whether to eliminate the seventh- and eighth-grades classes at the McCune and Weir schools and combine them with students at Cherokee Elementary, which served grades K-8, to form a centralized junior high.
After struggling with options, the board voted to consolidate for academic as well as financial reasons.
“The true goal was to have these kids band together, give them more electives, more sections they could take, basically more programs at one location that they couldn’t afford to reproduce at three locations,” Fortmayer said. “But there was an important underlying financial element, too.”
The district lost nine students as a result of the decision, which at $7,900 per student translated into a loss of more than $71,000. Four teachers also lost their jobs as a result.
That’s when being a board member got tough.
“Our board members don’t like to see names,” Fortmayer said. “It could be a relative, could be a best friend next door, could be the person they eat dinner with on Saturday night, could have gone to school with them since kindergarten. These are close-knit communities in terms of the social connection. Sometimes their vote affects their own personal income; their own wife might be coming home with less.
“I’ve seen board members cry — not just over their wives or their families. They know they’re hurting people, and they can’t do anything about it.”
The situation isn’t unique to USD 247.
Figures from the Kansas Association of School Boards show that in the past 12 years, there are consistently 50 to 70 seats across numerous districts for which no one has filed.
Doug Moeckel, associate executive director of the association, speculated as to the cause.
“It has been about five years of making really, really difficult decisions related to budget, personnel, programs,” he said. “What’s happened is that there are people who are driven because they want to serve, but there is an awful lot of hardship and conflict associated with it right now.
“I’ve had more than one district tell me they’ve had a difficult time with getting candidates to file.”
At the Globe’s request, Jim Hays, a research specialist for the state association, pulled numbers of no candidates filing for school board races dating to 2001. There are 1,176 board seats in Kansas, and the number of seats for which no one files has been as high as 6 percent in recent years.
In 2001, there were 51 seats for which no candidates filed. The number rose to 54 in 2003, to 59 in 2005, and to 72 in 2007. In 2011, according to Hays’ most recent data, there were 62 positions for which no one filed.
It’s a simple equation, Moeckel said.
“Enrollment determines base state aid per pupil,” he said. “The number of students impacts how many dollars you have to make your system operate. As enrollments decline, as resources fall short, difficult decisions must be made about what programs we can offer, about our facilities, but most money in all educational programs goes back to people. When you cut programs, you may have to cut people.
“Board members will tell you: ‘I got on for all the right reasons. I wanted to help improve education. Then I found we don’t have resources we need, and that’s frustrating.’”
‘On the line’
In 2003, the board of USD 247 voted to close a school at West Mineral. Just 13 students attended classes at what then was the state’s second smallest public elementary school, after Morland in western Kansas, which had nine students.
It wasn’t the first school the board had to close, and it might not be the last.
“We had to close a high school in McCune in 1979,” Fortmayer said. “The pains of that closure are still being felt today. It’s an emotional issue for our communities. In many ways it has caused a divide in our communities that we’re still trying to overcome.”
That may make the current board more sensitive to the needs of McCune. But the district is losing $185,000 on the elementary school there, and Fortmayer acknowledged it could face closure in the future.
The board has implemented new programs to try to bring that school’s enrollment up, but “McCune is on the line,” Fortmayer said
“It’s just a typical farm community in rural Kansas, and the trend works against us. People are moving away. That is something that’s always a threat to rural districts.”
Ulery and four other current board members have backgrounds and family ties related to McCune. “They were born there, raised there, went to school there,” Fortmayer said
He said school officials have a standing statement: If you close a school, you close a town.
“Who wants to be the one to do that?” he said.
One more go
Two USD 247 board members — LaDonna Hartman and Jerry Alexander, both of whom were elected four years ago — cited personal reasons for not seeking re-election.
“I have work, three kids, and I just didn’t feel like I was going to have the time for this kind of commitment,” Hartman said.
Alexander’s job changed, and now he has to travel more.
Since no candidates filed for their positions, there are two possible outcomes. Voters may write names in, and the person who earns the most votes for each seat wins. Or, the board can appoint someone.
Hays, with the state association, said that if a person wins by write-in but does not want to serve, he or she must attend the July board meeting and resign.
“It’s possible that someone will write in a name, although there aren’t any write-in campaigns going on in our district,” Fortmayer said. “If no one does, the board will have to appoint people.”
Ulery, however, decided to give it at least one more go.
“It’s probably one of the most thankless jobs you can have,” he said. “But when you start something, you try to stick with it through thick and thin. I guess maybe it’s the old saying, ‘Someone’s got to do it.’ I guess it’s me.”
Schools not alone
In Roseland, which is in Cherokee County, there are five openings for City Council seats in the April election, but only four candidates filed to run. In West Mineral, there are two openings on the council, but only one person filed to run. The mayor’s seat also is up for grabs; the current mayor didn’t refile, and no one else filed, either.