UG Commissioners thank their families as they take the oath of office

Families and friends of the Unified Government commissioners and elected officials attended the installation of commissioners on Monday night at Kansas City, Kansas, City Hall. (Photo copyright 2020 by Mary Rupert)

by Mary Rupert

The Unified Government Commission Chambers were crowded on Monday night at City Hall for the installation of returning and newly elected commissioners.

It was one of the most favorable audiences they may see this year, as about 100 persons – mostly family and friends of the candidates – attended.

Taking the oaths of office were Commissioner Melissa Bynum, 1st District at-large, sworn in by Judge Courtney Mikesic; Commissioner Brian J. McKiernan, 2nd District, sworn in by Bridgette Cobbins, UG clerk; Commissioner Christian A. Ramirez, 3rd District, sworn in by Judge Tony Martinez; Commissioner Harold Johnson Jr., sworn in by Judge Tim Dupree; Commissioner Angela Robinson Markley, 6th District, sworn in by Bridgette Cobbins, UG clerk; and Register of Deeds Nancy Burns, sworn in by Judge Robert Burns.

In their speeches, the commissioners referred to their families, thanking them for their support, and also thanking their friends, supporters and UG employees.

Four of five UG incumbent commissioners were re-elected, with former UG Commissioner Ann Brandau Murguia upset by newly elected Commissioner Christian Ramirez.

With only one commissioner change on the board, it is not certain whether it will result in substantial differences on the board this year. A number of issues will be before the commission in the future, such as choosing a new police chief, to what extent the UG should be involved in economic development, and whether the UG can afford more property tax rate reductions.

The commission has aligned in various ways on different issues in the past, and occasionally in the past the split was 5-5, with the mayor casting a deciding vote, although there were not as many tie votes in the past year. Sometimes, former Commissioner Murguia voted with Commissioners Angela Markley, Mike Kane, and Jim Walters, and occasionally were joined by Commissioners Brian McKiernan and Tom Burroughs.

The number of females to males on the UG Commission will drop from 5-5 to 4-6.

Register of Deeds Nancy Burns, the top vote-getter in the past election, took the oath of office from Judge Robert Burns Monday night at City Hall. She was surrounded by her family. (Photo copyright 2020 by Mary Rupert)

Register of Deeds Nancy Burns

Register of Deeds Nancy Burns, the top vote-getter in the last election, with more than 11,000 votes, thanked the voters for their overwhelming support. Burns is a former county commissioner from before the unification of the city and county.

“The win was big, and I enjoyed it very much, although you can’t take things for granted,” she said.

She introduced her staff, and said, “I have the best crew ever. There will always be good customer service in my office.”

Burns had a large contingent of family members with her at the installation, including nine grandchildren.

“As you know, elections are hard, and you never can take anything for granted. But when you have a family like mine, you can do anything,” she said.

UG Commissioner Melissa Bynum, 1st District at large, took the oath of office on Monday night from Judge Courtney Mikesic, with Bynum’s family looking on. (Photo copyright 2020 by Mary Rupert)

Commissioner Melissa Bynum

Commissioner Melissa Bynum said she knows personally what hard times look like, and that is why she is so committed to the work they are trying to do there. They all bring their own experiences to their work, and many of her experiences stem from her family, she added.

She thanked her supporters, and said without all of her family, she could never do this work. She said her father had advised her to listen more, and she agreed with her mother’s statement that one doesn’t accomplish anything of value alone.

“My goal is to be a better listener,” Commissioner Bynum said. “I believe we were put here on earth to love and help each other. My promise is to do my very best as your elected leader and you can hold me accountable.”

In the week after the election Bynum, who ran countywide, said she was very happy with the election results and it was a lot of hard work.

She said then that the northeast area is beginning to see development, with the passage of the northeast master plan, and that she wanted to capitalize on development happening downtown and in the northeast area, continuing the efforts. Also, it is important to work with the community residents and leaders who have stepped forward to work with the components of the master plan, she said.

Bynum also said after the election she was interested in upgrading police stations, and making a plan for that work.

Commissioner Brian McKiernan, 2nd District, took the oath of office, administered by UG Clerk Bridgette Cobbins, on Monday night at City Hall. (Photo copyright 2020 by Mary Rupert)

Commissioner Brian McKiernan

Commissioner Brian McKiernan, during the campaign, did not have any opposition.

He made some campaign appearances, in which he said there has been a lot of housing and commercial development in the 2nd District along Minnesota, Central and Kansas avenues. He said at that time he was proud that the UG reinstated the citizen survey, and the UG will continue to work on blight reduction; infrastructure improvements to roads, curbs and alleys; and communication. He also said he would continue to work to improve the overall health of the community.

On Monday night, Commissioner McKiernan thanked his wife for being supportive over the years.

“Patty knows that I take this job very, very seriously, and that I will continue to work very hard, to help us achieve our collective dreams and goals,” Commissioner McKiernan said. “I am blessed to represent the people of my district who work hard every day to invest in their community. I am blessed to work with a group of elected officials who have the best interest of our citizens in their hearts and minds at all times. And I am blessed to work with the many employees of the Unified Government, who put their heart and soul into delivering the highest level of public service possible every single day.”

He said there is no doubt that the community can join together and overcome challenges.

“I’m hoping that everyone in my district, everyone in our city, everyone in this county, will commit to working with me, to commit to working with all of us to accomplish those goals and to make this the best place possible to live, work and play.

“I think Patrick Mahomes said it best yesterday, so I’m going to borrow his words, ‘Let’s go do something special.’”

Newly elected Commissioner Christian Ramirez, 3rd District, took the oath of office on Monday night at City Hall. Judge Tony Martinez administered the oath of office. (Photo copyright 2020 by Mary Rupert)

Commissioner Christian Ramirez

Newly elected Commissioner Christian A. Ramirez thanked his supporters, and said it was an honor to be sworn in by the only Mexican-American judge on the Wyandotte County District Court. Ramirez becomes the only Hispanic American currently on the UG Commission.

In his 20s, he is also the youngest commissioner on the board. He was the only one of the “youth movement” candidates running in the past election who made it through to public office.

During the week after the general election, Ramirez said he would meet with groups in his district and create relationships with them. He said he thought the voters wanted a change, a more accountable UG, making sure the government is working for them. He also said he ran a positive campaign and didn’t send out negative postcards that went out about his opponent. He attributed his win to going out and meeting the voters.

During the campaign Ramirez, who works for the Johnson County Recreation Department, supported more transparency and communication, fiscal responsibility and a reduction in community violence. He also supported creating more youth programs.

During the campaign, he took a stand against allowing a for-profit fitness program to operate in the Argentine community center without paying property taxes or rent. His opponent had supported economic development in the Argentine area during the past several years. Former Commissioner Murguia also is on the Kansas Board of Regents, appointed by former Gov. Sam Brownback.

Ramirez was active in the Wyandotte County Young Democrats as chairman until 2018 and as treasurer of the Kansas Young Democrats, and also is active in the county’s Democratic Party. He worked on the Brent Welder for Congress campaign in 2018 and was a legislative intern for Sen. Pat Pettey in 2017.

“I want to thank the people of the 3rd District, because they put their faith and trust in me to move our district forward,” he said on Monday night. “And I am ready to work with them, that we have a brand new day, a brand new change, that welcomes everyone.”

“We have a task, a most important job, and that’s to provide the best services we can, and make sure this county is the best that it can be,” Ramirez said.

Commissioner Harold Johnson, 4th District, surrounded by his family, was sworn in for a new term by Judge Tim Dupree on Monday night. (Photo copyright 2020 by Mary Rupert)

Commissioner Harold Johnson

Commissioner Harold Johnson also thanked his family.

“I love the 4th District,” he said. “I spent over 50 years in the 4th District.” He thanked neighborhood and community groups there. He also thanked Beatrice Lee and volunteers for their support.

Commissioner Johnson, who is also the pastor of the Faith Deliverance Family Worship Center, mentioned that he struggled with Father Time during the 2019 campaign.

“Somewhere along the way, I had to figure out just how to reach down within myself into what I thought was an empty reservoir,” Commissioner Johnson said. “What I found out was everything I needed, God had already deposited in me. I bring that up because it seems that we as leaders, mayor and the commissioners, my colleagues, it seems that we are dealing with depleted reservoirs. It seems like there are more needs than there are resources. It seems like there are more open positions in certain departments and we have very few applicants for those positions. We have a challenging political and economical compliance.”

He encouraged his colleagues and staff to reach down within themselves, for there they will find that God has already deposited everything they need within them, he said.

“Together, if we work as a team, we will find that we have the collective, creative DNA to make our beloved community, Wyandotte County, Kansas, a better place to live,” Commissioner Johnson said.

In the week after the election, Commissioner Johnson said he was pleased with the results of the election. Although there were some negative postcards that went out about his opponent during the campaign, Commissioner Johnson said he didn’t have anything to do with them and he ran a positive campaign.

“I kept focused on what my agenda was, working with my team, knocking on doors and making phone calls,” he said in the week after the election.

He said, in the week after the election, that he would continue to work on economic development, finding jobs for residents, building coalitions in the community and bringing the northeast master plan to life. It is important to makes these initiatives from the community into reality, he added.

Commissioner Angela Markley, 6th District, took the oath of office on Monday night, administered by UG Clerk Birdgette Cobbins. (Photo copyright 2020 by Mary Rupert)

Commissioner Angela Markley

During her previous years in office, Commissioner Angela Markley has been a supporter of UG programs that reduce blight, including the S.O.A.R. program, an initiative to improve the appearance and safety of neighborhoods.

A lawyer, she has served on many UG committees and has supported data-driven decision-making, the community survey, and a longer period for the commissioners to work with the budget, she said during the campaign. She also took a position in the past to support lower tax rates.

On Monday night, Commissioner Markley cited the PBS children’s show, “Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum.”

Commissioner Markley quoted a character in the show, George Washington as a child, who said, “A good leader takes care of his team.” He assigns the team tasks appropriate to their skills, encourages them when they make mistakes and helps them when they feel they can’t go on alone.

“As commissioners, we’re on a lot of teams,” she said. “My family is my favorite team.”

“Our community is another part of our team,” Commissioner Markley said. “As commissioners, we work really hard to solve our community members’ problems. But we need you to help us solve our problems as well. We need you to participate, to pay your taxes, to take care of your property, to open businesses and shop at businesses. We need to know what tools you have that could help solve those problems.”

She said she respects the diverse skills of the UG employees, and she wants to know what they need to take care of their jobs effectively. In addition, she said the commission and mayor can still be great leaders even when they disagree.

“I’m honored to have four more years on the Wyandotte County team,” she said. “I’m going to spend the next four years trying to take care of the team.”

A color guard and bagpipers from the police and sheriff’s departments presented the colors at the installation of UG commissioners and elected officials on Monday night. (Photo copyright 2020 by Mary Rupert)
Juliana Alvey sang the national anthem at the installation ceremony on Monday night at City Hall. (Photo copyright 2020 by Mary Rupert)
A reception was held in City Hall lobby after the installation of UG commissioners and elected officials. (Photo copyright 2020 by Mary Rupert)
Mayor David Alvey, left, talked with residents at the reception. (Photo copyright 2020 by Mary Rupert)
It was an opportunity for photos for Commissioner Angela Markley. (Photo copyright 2020 by Mary Rupert)
At the reception at City Hall lobby after the installation of UG commissioners and elected officials. (Photo copyright 2020 by Mary Rupert)

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Capital murder charges filed against three persons

Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree answered questions today about the filing of capital murder charges. (Staff photo)

Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree today filed capital murder charges against three persons.

Two of the three, Javier Alatorre and Hugo Villanueva-Morales, were charged with capital murder in connection with the Tequila KC bar shootings at 1013 Central Ave. on Oct. 6, in which four persons died and others were injured.

A third person, Ismael Caballero, was charged with capital murder in connection with the deaths of three persons at 29 N. Mill St. on Dec. 29.

Javier Alatorre
Hugo Villanueva-Morales
Ismael Caballero

Dupree said at a news conference that Alatorre has been in custody since Oct. 9, and Villanueva-Morales has been in custody since Dec. 16.

The amended charges against Allatore and Villanueva-Morales in the Tequila KC case include one count of capital murder for the killings of more than one person, he said. The two also are charged with one count of attempted murder, six counts of aggravated battery, one count of aggravated assault, and one count of criminal possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, he said.

Previously, the two were charged with four counts of first-degree murder, and now they each face one count of capital murder.

Caballero has been in custody since Dec. 30 for a homicide and arson.

The amended charges for Caballero were filed today and include one count of capital murder for the killings of more than one person, he said. The capital murder charge includes two victims who were juveniles, while the charge against Caballero concerning a third victim, Yazmin Rodriguez-Santilla, is second-degree murder.

There is also a charge of arson against Caballero in connection with the burning of a residence, he said.

Previously, Caballero faced three charges of first-degree murder, and he now faces one count of capital murder, and one count of second-degree murder, in addition to the arson charge.

Dupree said Kansas law states that one capital murder charge is allowed in cases where there was more than one murder victim.

Dupree commended the persons who worked on the cases, including the Kansas City, Kansas Police Department officers and detectives, the Kansas City, Kansas Fire Department, the KBI, the FBI, others and community members who spoke out and assisted in the case, he said.

“The cooperation among these agencies was tremendous help in locating and arresting all three of these defendants,” Dupree said.

One of the defendants, Villanueva-Morales, was located in Mexico, officials said previously.

Dupree said his office has seven days from the filing of these charges to announce his decision about whether to seek the death penalty.

“That is something I do not take lightly, and that I will speak to all of the family members more about,” he said.

If a person is convicted of capital murder and receives the death penalty, it could mean either death or life in prison without parole for the inmate, he said.

“We will not tolerate this type of violence in our community, and this type of violence will be met with the full force of the law,” Dupree said.

Dupree said the decisions to file capital murder charges were based on the facts.

“After the investigation had come to a certain point, the facts in both of these cases met the criteria for what our law has on the books, and I believe that those facts devastated our community, and the family members and the victims in this case, and whatever our law allows to help mend the pain, is what I think we should do,” he said.

While it’s possible that no court ruling can make the victims and their families feel whole again, Dupree said his office will fight for justice for every victim.

“They will know they have an advocate in this office that’s treating these cases personally,” he said.

It’s important the community knows that as they fight to make it known that violence is not OK in the community, law enforcement will do their part to make sure they won’t tolerate it either, he said.

Amended charges, including capital murder, were filed today against two individuals in connection with four shooting deaths and several injuries at the Tequila KC bar in October.
Amended charges including capital murder were filed today against a defendant in the deaths of three persons at 29 N. Mill St. on Dec. 29.

Academic scores increase again in KCK schools

Test scores for the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools showed significant increases in English and math proficiency. (Graphic from Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools)

by Mary Rupert

Interim academic scores are up in the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools, according to Dr. Charles Foust, superintendent.

“We’re excited about our interim data,” Dr. Foust said Monday about the Kansas Assessment Program’s December scores.

Dr. Charles Foust

English language proficiency scores are now at 21.3 percent, according to December KAPS scores, compared to 18 percent reported in October, and math scores are at 23.5 percent, compared to 17 percent in October, he said.

The latest interim assessment tests showed a growth of 2.7 percent for English language and 5.6 percent for math, he said. Last October, the scores had increased 4.3 percent in English and 6.2 percent in math.

Comparing 2017 to now, “it’s 10 percentage points higher than they were in 2017,” he said.

Dr. Foust attributed the increase in scores to an overhaul of teaching practice and rethinking how subjects are taught. The district has rewritten the curriculum and conducts ongoing training. The district is working with principals to implement the curriculum.

“We have really hit the ground hard with teaching the state standards and staying in focus with them,” Dr. Foust said. The district also is focusing on a pacing guide, making sure instruction keeps up with the state and knowing where the students should be at this time. They are making sure appropriate time is spent on a standard, he said.

The Kansas Learning Network has done a lot of work with the school district this year, according to Dr. Foust. The district sends and receives feedback from the state KLN, he added.

The state’s goal is for students to be at 75 percent proficiency by 2030.

“If we continue going at this rate we should be there before 2030,” Dr. Foust said.

The test scores help the district see that the students are making progress. He said it’s notable that students at the lowest level are making progress.

“Student learning is literally taking place at a higher rate now,” Dr. Foust said. The tests tell the district that what they are doing with the curriculum is working.

“We are teaching students and being successful,” he said. Eventually, students will be qualified for college and career readiness, able to select a college and career, he said.

The increase in test scores here is at a level that is higher than the average increase. Research from other school districts finds 4 and 5 percentage point increases within five years, but this 10 percent increase in Kansas City, Kansas, happened within 18 months, he said.

“To think about that astronomical growth just tells us what we’re doing is best for kids,” he said. “Kids are learning and they’re learning fast.”

Dr. Foust said he expected the test scores to continue to increase in the district, and there is room for much more improvement. Dr. Foust has a history of achieving higher test scores in districts during his career, one of the reasons the board hired him.

“Our district is one to watch around the state,” he said about the district’s academic growth rate. “We are outpacing in growth almost all the districts in the state of Kansas.”

He said the district wanted to show everyone that the students here have the capacity to learn, and the district is proud of it.

“We’re proud of the work we’re doing, and that parents are trusting us,” he said, “and we will continue to get them the best education that we can.”

Elementary schools’ scores increasing at highest rate

Elementary schools’ academic scores are increasing at the highest rate, he said, and there is some movement at the middle school level. High school rates haven’t improved as much as desired yet.

For high school students, the district will be filling in some areas that students may have missed earlier in their education, such as knowledge they have to learn to be successful in math classes. The district has identified high school students in need of tutoring and is preparing to start a tutoring program soon. Dr. Foust said he expected this level’s academic scores to have a “phenomenal” increase once the tutoring program is in place for high school.

According to school district information, 39 out of 43 schools showed positive gains in English language arts for 2018-2019 outcome data, and 40 out of 43 showed positive gains in math.

Schools that showed at least 10 percent growth in both English language arts and math were Hazel Grove, Quindaro, William Allen White, Whittier and White Church elementary schools.

The largest gain in English language arts was recorded at Hazel Grove Elementary, which increased 16.5 percent, according to district information. In math, the largest gain was 20.6 percent, recorded at White Church Elementary.

To reach Mary Rupert, editor, email