By the end of the year, Jean Clifford, the longest-serving member of the current Garden City USD 457 Board of Education, will step away from the position to serve western Kansas schools on a larger scale — as the region’s recently-elected representative on the Kansas State Board of Education.

Her predecessor, Dodge City’s Sally Cauble, stepping down from the board after three terms and over 10 years, has supported her from the start.

“I have just become an admirer of her on her ability to see things as they are…” Cauble said. “It would be very hard for me to leave this position and not run again, and knowing that she wanted to serve western Kansas in this capacity has been a great relief to me.”

Clifford, a Garden City Republican, will take office in January after an unopposed race for the District 5 seat, making her the voice of 87 school districts in over 40 counties throughout western and central Kansas.

The district was one of five up for election this year; newcomers Ben Jones, R-Sterling, and Michelle Dombrosky, R-Olathe, won districts 7 and 3, respectively, and incumbents Jim Porter, R-Fredonia, and Janet Waugh, D-Kansas City, took districts 9 and 1.

Clifford will join the state board after spending over nine years on the USD 457 board, filling out a background as a teacher, attorney and retired Air Force officer. She knew how to operate under structure and cooperate with the state and, as a parent with two of her six children still finishing up school in the district, said she knew “how badly all of our parents want the best for all of their students, no matter what their abilities or skills or interest that they have.”

Many of Clifford’s priorities match up to what the state board has prioritized itself, she said.

The state needs to invest in professional development measures and proper compensation to attract and retain quality teachers, and schools should make sure teachers have respect, understanding and support from their community, Clifford said.

As the spokesperson and advocate for a vast and diverse region, she said, there should be equity in opportunity for all sections of the state, particularly regarding access to resources and extra-curricular activities.

Early childhood education is essential, especially to students who grow up learning another language or struggling economically, Clifford said. Schools should tend to students on an individual basis and be aware of what students are going through to foster their social and emotional growth, she said.

“It's pretty exciting because I do appreciate what the state board is doing now and the visions that they have defined to move the state forward … I think we just need to keep improving and keep working hard because the kids aren't static. They move through the grades every year, and you've got to be quick on your feet to try these things and get them to work because really, in a very short time, they're through the district and they're off to other things,” Clifford said.

District 5 is expansive and far from uniform, Clifford said, containing districts of different sizes, needs and interests, and she plans to get around to all of them at some point during her term. She also plans to meet and work with regional superintendents, principals and other district leaders more frequently through educator regional service centers.

With strong immigrant populations, western Kansas is a diverse region, often in need of additional resources, Clifford said, and she wants to make sure that's understood.

That diversity, and how communities built it into their educational structures, was one of many things District 5 experienced before the rest of the state, Cauble said, and part of what makes the region special and unique. Struggles or circumstances, such as higher rates of at-risk students, are often higher than other regions. And out-of-date infrastructure and distance has pushed innovation in the region in a way not seen in the east, she said.

Clifford, she said, cares about and understands those differences.

“One of the attributes of Jean is she’s a good listener and she hears when she listens,” Cauble said. “And there are a lot of very intelligent and very wise people in western Kansas, and if she will listen and hear what they have to say, she’s going to do very well.”

On the Garden City board, Clifford has been a thoughtful, candid and a key component to a board made strong through its diversity of thought, said board member Lara Bors.

Hyper-prepared, kind and passionate, is how board member Tim Cruz describes Clifford.

Board President Mark Rude said that behind her soft, measured voice is a sharp and active mind dedicated to the benefit and betterment of Kansas students and their education.

Cruz said Clifford has been a constant mentor to him since he joined the board seven years ago, offering clarity and debate and new perspectives.

“She’s well informed, she does her homework. And I’m sure she’s going to be the exact same on the (state) school board ... She’s going to study the issues and be well prepared and have it well-written out in her little notebook...” he said. “I actually hope to go to some of the state school board meetings just to see her in action. I do admire her a great deal. She really is a true leader in our community.”

The process to replace Clifford will be determined by the USD 457 board and remains uncertain. The topic likely will be discussed at upcoming board meetings, Rude said.

Clifford is stepping away from USD 457’s board intentionally to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest and to fully commit her time and attention to the new position.

Regardless, she said she felt good about where she was leaving the board — a strong one working toward meaningful programs.

Meanwhile, she is eagerly looking forward.

“Education is a win-win for everybody because really no one wants to see our students fail,” Clifford said. “We all want the future to be better for everybody. So, I'm just ready to go and looking forward to it."

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.