Shawnee Mission School Board candidates: better public involvement needed

Shawnee Mission School Board candidates (from left) Bart Altenbernd, Mark Anderson, Joan Leavens and John St. Clair.

No matter who ends up winning the election this April, it looks like the Shawnee Mission School Board will be gaining a member who wants greater transparency and more public involvement in the board’s dealings.

The four candidates vying for the at-large seat on the board being vacated by Larry Winn participated in a public forum Tuesday at Asbury United Methodist Church, each calling for better communication with patrons in the wake of the school closure votes last year.

A crowd of approximately 125 filled the auditorium at Asbury United Methodist Church for the Shawnee Mission School Board candidate forum Tuesday.

Bart Altenbernd, a former middle school assistant principal in the district, said the series of events leading to the vote to close Mission Valley demonstrated shortsightedness and an insufficient effort to involve district patrons.

“I definitely was not satisfied with how things went,” Altenbernd said. “It seemed poorly planned, and patrons weren’t involved early in the process. Remember, we put a million dollar library on Mission Valley, and we’re walking away from it.”

Call center consultant Mark Anderson and former Fairway mayor John St. Clair offered similar takes, saying the district needed to do a better job involving patrons. St. Clair said there there needed to be a time of healing to repair the damage done by the contentious debate around the school closings.

The only candidate who deviated slightly from that script was Joan Leavens, a former classroom teacher and current program manager, who said she didn’t know what she would have done differently during the school closing process.

“But you do get the strong feeling that stakeholders were left out,” Leavens said. “That hasn’t always been the case in Shawnee Mission, and we need to find out how to regain people’s trust.”

Mary O’Halloran, a panelist on KCPT’s Ruckus and board member at Kansas Families for Education, which sponsored the forum, said she was taken by the candidates’ openness on the issue.

“It’s remarkable how candid they all were about the need for more transparency and public involvement,” she said. “They seemed to be mostly unified on the question.”

On the vast majority of the other issues discussed at the forum, the candidates seemed to largely agree. All said they were in favor of comprehensive age-appropriate sex education, though Altenbernd said he would like to provide parents the option of opting their children out of such sessions. All said they would support a nationwide search for a new superintendent when current superintendent Gene Johnson retires.

Asked what made them the best candidate for the position:

  • Altenbernd pointed to his 35 years of experience in education, from classroom teacher to principal, saying it gave him an insider’s view of how things actually function in the schools.
  • Anderson said his experience as a business consultant makes him a keen problem solver and that he wanted to bring a “customer’s perspective” to the board to make sure patrons were satisfied.
  • Leavens said her experience advocating for the district with state legislators would help give the district a stronger voice in Topeka, and
  • St. Clair said his combination of business and political experience put him in a position to help “re-green” the district, attracting new families and students.

The primary election for the position is Tuesday, March 1. The top two three vote getters will move on to the April 5 general election.