Students press case for bluegill in Topeka
Tonganoxie Middle School fifth-graders had just finished testifying before the state Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee about their hopes for the bluegill becoming the state fish.
Their nerves persevered through presentations before and questioning from House committee members, as well as television station cameras recording the youths' testimonies.
However, their anxiety grew when another person at the hearing requested to testify.
The students were unaware that anyone else would be speaking at the hearing and were worried that they would have opposition.
"Oh no, this can't be good," said Jordan Tannehill, one of five TMS fifth-graders to testify, recalling what she thought when the man approached the podium.
But when Berend Koops, special assistant to the secretary for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, spoke to the committee, he indicated the department backed the students' push for the bluegill as the state fish.
"On a side note, the bluegill is the first one I caught," Koops told the committee about his boyhood fishing expeditions.
With Koops' words came visible excitement from the students as big grins filled their faces.
Making a presentation
The testimony came two years after Karen Stockman's third-grade class at Tonganoxie Elementary School first started its push to make the bluegill the state fish.
Their cause started during Kansas Day activities in January 2006 when a younger student asked Karen Stockman's third-grade class what type of fish was Kansas' official fish. When students discovered that Kansas - one of only a handful of states without one - lacked a designated fish, the students started a push for legislation.
Those third-graders are fifth-graders now, hence the five fifth-graders speaking at the Statehouse.
That inquiring student was Jolie Hebert, now a fourth-grader. Jolie attended the hearing and even brought a large stuffed toy bluegill.
Her older sister, Mara, was one of the five TMS students who testified.
She and Jordan Tannehill, along with classmates Tressa Walker, Lauren Harrell and Sarah Ahart made points to representatives on the committee.
Some of them included:
¢ The bluegill's colors normally are blue and yellow, which are the same colors of the Kansas state flag.
¢ The fish also is known as sunfish, which bears a similarity to the state flower, the sunflower.
¢ Traditionally, the bluegill is a fish that young anglers first learn to catch, as was later learned to be the case for Koops.
Students also fielded a series of questions from committee members.
Asked about what effect making the bluegill the state fish would have on continuing to fish for the bluegill, Mara didn't miss a beat.
"It's not an endangered species," Mara said.
Rep. Doug Gatewood, R-Columbus, said he knew the catfish was a "bottom feeder," which garnered laughs from people attending the hearing. However, he asked why the catfish wasn't proposed as the state fish.
Stockman had a quick answer.
"Not only that, but you can use this to catch bigger catfish," Stockman said, referring to the bluegill.
Students also noted that many other states designated the catfish as the state fish.
Kansas is one of only six states without an official fish. And Illinois currently is the only state with the bluegill as its state fish.
Rep. Kenny Wilk, R-Lansing, introduced the students to the committee. Wilk has been working with the students on the proposed bill. He spoke of the hard work students have put into their cause and how important it is for youths to take an interest in the legislative process.
Wilk also joked about the number of media members at the hearing.
"I had no idea the media had so much interest in the state fair," said Wilk, whose comments were greeted with a chorus of chuckles.
During the hearing, committee members also heard about state fair business.
The "blue gill bill" is House Bill 2158.
Stockman and her students now shift to a "wait-and-see" mode.
If the bill passes through the committee, it would head to the full House. If it passes there, the bill moves to a Senate committee, to which students again would testify. If the bill advances to the Senate floor and passes, it would await Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' signature. At that point, the bill would become law.
Wilk has told Stockman there really is no timeline.
"They really don't know," Stockman said.
The next step for students will be to make thank-you notes for the committee members.
"And we do appreciate so much their time, and I think they were really good with the kids," Stockman said about the committee. "I think they did a nice job of listening to the students and I'm very grateful for that."
Students will continue to lobby for their cause by sending information to other students throughout the state, urging them to write to their legislators.
The Tonganoxie students weren't the first to propose a state fish bill.
In 1999, attempts to designate the channel catfish and the Topeka Shiner as official state fish failed.
¢ For photos of the fifth-grade students' appearance in Topeka, go online to tonganoxiemirror.com.