New role for Nilges



December 22, 2015 - 12:00 AM

Becky Nilges’ motto is a simple one: If you’re able to help, then you should.
So, despite having no immediate ties to USD 257 — aside from being a taxpayer — Nilges agreed to join the newly reorganized Parent-Teachers Organization.
The Iola PTO was formed over the summer as part of USD 257’s switch this year from neighborhood schools to grade-level attendance centers.
“My niece was involved with the Lincoln PTO, and listening to her and other discussions, they just weren’t sure how they were going to function separately,” Nilges said. “I was afraid they were just going to drop it.”
Those concerns sparked Nilges into action.
“Since this is my background, I thought I could offer to help organize it.”
Nilges is a former executive director at the Iola Area Chamber of Commerce. Prior to that, she worked for 17 years as student activities director at Allen Community College.
“I’ve pretty much done organizing for the past 35 years,” she said.
It’s also why Nilges was voted as the organization’s president.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” she laughed.

The launch of the Iola Elementary PTO was somewhat rocky. The school district had recently undergone a heated, and ultimately unsuccessful, bond issue that would have built new elementary and high schools north of Iola. After the referendum failed, Board of Education members announced the switch to attendance centers.
“People were very concerned about negativity,” Nilges recalled. “Maybe that’s where my motivation came from.”
Nilges grew up in what eventually became the Central Heights School District in the 1960s.
“I was in elementary school at the time, and I remember how hateful some of the people were in those communities,” she said. “The district we consolidated put four rival schools into one district. I lost five classmates because their parents refused to send them to that school. They went to Garnett instead.”
Fast forward to the spring of 2015.
“I didn’t want any negative feelings (in Iola) to hang on,” she continued. “How do you deal with that? As long as we stay positive, the negativity, and negative people will go away.”
There also was anxiety from former PTO members.
“That was tense from the aspect that people had money they raised, and they didn’t want to give it up,” Nilges said. “I think they understood that this was something they had to do, and they weren’t really giving it away. We were just putting those funds in a different spot.”
Nilges noted the former PTOs had committed funds for various projects to be paid for this spring. Those projects remain a go.
As far as the attendance centers, Nilges said she couldn’t speak for teachers and administrators, “but it looks to me like the kids have adapted very well.”

In their initial meetings over the summer previous PTO projects and fundraisers were discussed.
“One of the consistent themes we found were parents didn’t want their children selling ‘junk,’” Nilges said. “It wasn’t junk literally, but they didn’t want their kids having to go door-to-door selling items from a catalog.
“That’s been an ongoing discussion,” she continued. “You have to have fund raisers because you have to have money.”
That has led to a pair of significant differences with Iola PTO and its predecessors.
First, the group has recently been certified as a non-profit, 501(c)3 organization, allowing any monetary donations to be considered tax deductible.
Secondly, the group has declared that any fundraisers or merchandise sales will be done with local businesses.
The PTO’s inaugural fundraiser this fall — just recently completed — involved selling sausage orders through Bolling’s meat market.
“One of the nice things about that, all of the money stayed local,” either to the PTO, or to a local business.
Another change also involved siblings.
If one sibling sold an order, each sibling in his family got credit for the sale.
“We went by families rather than individual kids,” Nilges explained. “That way, Grandma wouldn’t have to buy from one kid, and Grandpa another.”
The fundraiser netted the PTO more than $2,000.
Nilges is uncertain of future endeavors.
“We don’t know what our next big project will be,” she said. “We know we still want to support Young Authors. That was a big item for all of the PTOs. We also know we’d like to have a significant amount of carry-over cash so we can have funds for the principals in each building.”
Other than that, it’s still a matter of the Iola PTO finding its bearings, Nilges admitted.
That’s part of why each of their monthly meetings includes an informational portion about the school district.
One meeting focused on such things as educational apps, another included a face-to-face meeting with school board members.
“We’ll probably do that again in February,” she said. “We’d like to have a board member or two come in for a question-and-answer period. They wanted input from us, and we want input from them. The school district has been very supportive of us. There are things they’ve been able to help us with, and other things they couldn’t.”

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