Six young journalists found themselves the middle of a media storm this year, after they published what became a major national story.
The reporters, Trina Paul, Patrick Sullivan, Connor Balthazor, Kali Poenitske, Maddie Baden and Gina Mathew, of Pittsburg High School’s The Booster Redux, found discrepancies in their new principal Amy Robertson’s educational background. They spent three weeks researching Robertson’s background.
Multiple national outlets reached out to interview the Booster staff — The Washington Post, Good Morning America, New York Times, CBS News, the BBC, CNN, NPR’s All Things Considered and the Los Angeles Times, among others.
The students began to dig deep into Robertson’s background after her responses during a conference call with the Booster staff.
According to the article in the Booster, Robertson — during the conference call — gave incomplete answers, conflicting dates and inconsistencies in her responses which tipped the students off to search further online and make calls.
Baden was originally supposed to write an introduction of the school’s new principal, but after their findings it became something bigger.
“We began to write a story to introduce her to the community and share her background and interview her,” Baden said. “We wanted more information about her after the interview so we began to search online.”
Articles the students found online raised even more questions about Robertson’s qualifications.
“One of the first things we pulled up were articles about her violating the KHDA [United Arab Emirates Knowledge and Human Development Authority] regulations. These are from websites in the UAE, probably Dubai,” Baden said. “We wanted to know where we should take the story, so we talked to the superintendent about her educational background.”
Upon searching for Corllins University — where Robertson claimed she received advanced degrees — the students realized there was an issue with the website.
Robertson would resign before ever even setting foot in Pittsburg and the Booster staff would go on to be feted at the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington DC.
2. USD 250 passes $31 million bond
USD 250 voters approved a $31 million bond issue in a special election March 14.
The bond was approved with a total of 1,542 yes votes. A total of 641 no votes were cast.
Funds raised from the bond issue will be used to expand facilities at each of the district's six schools. USD 250 Superintendent Destry Brown said he appreciates the community turnout in this election.
“It’s been a long road,” Brown said. “We’re excited about how positively this is going to impact the district, and we really appreciate the community and the turnout.
“We’re happy we put out a package that the community supports.”
The bond raised the district’s mill rate from 48.91 mills this year to 49.91 during the next fiscal year. One mill is $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
With the bond issue approved, the district quickly began work on heating and air, the cafeteria and band rooms at Pittsburg High School, as well as the remodel of several science classrooms.
3. City, university close on Block 22, construction begins
The March 17 closing on the Block 22 project cleared the way for construction to begin. General Contractor Vecino Group wasted no time, and sledge hammers were swinging on the morning of March 20.
Pittsburg City Manager Daron Hall said he was excited to see the $18 million project — of which the city is contributing $1.5 million — finally underway.
“We made it,” Hall said at the time. “Just to be through the closing process and to have that behind us is a big deal. I’m just so excited for the community.”
Once work is complete, in August 2018, the buildings will have 105 student housing units aimed at upperclassmen and graduate students, commercial and education space, and an area for The Pittsburg State University Center for Innovation and Business Development.
The project was made possible through a partnership with PSU, the City of Pittsburg and Vecino Group. PSU will contribute $1 million to the project, with a $1.5 million contribution coming from the city.
Mat Burton, of Vecino Group, said he, too, was excited by the beginning of construction.
“I think from our standpoint this is a really important milestone,” Burton said. “This is an exciting time as we bring those buildings back to life and do it in a way that bridges the city’s past and future.”
Pittsburg State University President Steve Scott was thrilled as well.
“While the city of Pittsburg and the university have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship since our founding, this project steps our partnership up to an entirely new level,” Scott said. “We are pleased to invest in downtown Pittsburg in a way that promises to be transformational for both the city and the university.
4. Kansas Crossing opens for business
Kansas Crossing Casino and Hotel opened March 31 with a bang — literally.
Officials with the casino depressed a “detonator” which looked like an old fashioned mining tool, and with a bang and a shower of confetti the final state-owned casino in Kansas was declared officially open.
It was the culmination of a process which began in May of 2016 when the first shovelful of dirt was turned and lead developer Bruce Christianson announced that the oft-delayed project would be $85 million rather than the $75 million of the original proposal.
“It’s been a challenge,” he said at the time, an allusion to the lawsuit by the Cherokee County Commission and losing proposal Castle Rock, which delayed construction by nine months.
Christianson said the project wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the City of Pittsburg and Crawford County.
“I want to specifically thank the city and county officials,” he said. “Everyone has been so helpful to us.”
Christianson also thanked former Kansas State Senator and current State Treasurer Jake LaTurner, (R-Pittsburg), who authored the bill which reduced the initial investment required to build the casino, paving the way for the opening.
LaTurner also called out Representative Adam Lusker, (D-Frontenac), as well as other area representatives who helped shepherd the bill through the Kansas House.
5. Highway 69 expansion begins
Gov. Sam Brownback visited southeast Kansas in mid-March to break ground on a nearly $21 million project to widen U.S. Highway 69 into four lanes for a six-mile stretch.
The project — which begins work later this week — was originally the first of three phases in a Kansas Department of Transportation T-Works project to make Highway 69 four lanes from Kansas Highway 47 to Kansas City. All three projects were delayed indefinitely in April 2016 when Brownback announced budget cuts.
The first phase — stretching from the Bourbon and Crawford county line to the four-lane six miles north — was restored in June 2016. The rest of the highway expansion is still delayed, but Brownback promised to see the entire project through.
“A lot of people fought to make this reality, and it’s going to be reality,” Brownback said at the time. “I’m going to make sure bids are let for the rest of this project during my term in office.”
The governor cited the possibility of a national infrastructure program, which if created on a federal level, could help fund construction like the rest of the Highway 69 project.
Brownback has since been named ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom by the Trump administration, but has yet to be confirmed.
(Editor’s Note: These are the top 5 stories of 2017 as selected by the editorial staff of the Morning Sun. Watch Thursday’s paper for the top sports stories of the year.)
1. Campus Carry
Beginning July 1, 2017 eligible residents were now allowed to carry concealed firearms on the PSU campus.
Open carry of a firearm is still not permitted on campus, and new signage has been placed on university buildings reflecting the new law.
People stood looking up into the sky as the moon eclipsed the sun at Pittsburg State University’s Carnie Smith Stadium for the Great Gorilla Eclipse watch party on Monday.
PSU and KOAM/FOX14 hosted the watch party, which also happened to be the first day of School for the university.
3. Sales Tax Passes
Voters in Pittsburg approved, at nearly 3 to 1 in favor, a quarter-cent sales tax for street maintenance. The tax will go into effect October 1, and combined with the current quarter-cent street sales tax, will raise approximately $2 million per year for street maintenance. Even with the approval, sales taxes in Pittsburg still fell a quarter-cent.
4. Hurricane Relief
The Morning Sun teamed up with The Independence Daily Reporter, to gather donations of clothings, cleaning supplies, food, water and more for the victims of Hurricane Harvey.
“Our original plan was to fill one box truck,” Morning Sun Publisher Jamey Honeycutt said. “This started with one article in the paper and the turnout has been amazing.”
Honeycutt said staff filled 24 pallets, stacked as high as possible, with sorted donations Friday. He said the donations would fill a tractor-trailer bed from end to end. Independence saw similar results.