Coping with speed of change, challenges from Topeka top discussion at Shawnee Mission candidate forum

SM North area board incumbent Sara Goodburn (from left) and at-large seat candidates Elizabeth Rulo and Brad Stratton at Tuesday's forum, held at the McEachen Administrative Center.
SM North area board incumbent Sara Goodburn (from left) and at-large seat candidates Elizabeth Rulo and Brad Stratton at Tuesday’s forum, held at the McEachen Administrative Center.

The sweeping and rapid changes that have come to the Shawnee Mission School District since Superintendent Jim Hinson was hired in 2013 have broadened the district’s horizons, but also created their share of challenges, candidates for the Shawnee Mission Board of Education said Tuesday.

In a forum co-sponsored by the Shawnee Mission Area Council PTA, the Johnson County League of Women Voters and the Prairie Village Post, SM North area incumbent Sara Goodburn and at-large candidates Elizabeth Rulo and Brad Stratton shared their views on a range of issues, from Common Core to the district’s recent motion to intervene in a portion of the Gannon school finance case. Goodburn’s opponent, Mark Ellis, did not participate in the forum.

Among the most energetic portions of the discussion came when moderator Mary Sinclair asked the candidates how they viewed the role of the board in relation to the superintendent.

Goodburn said the current board walked a fine line between “telling the superintendent what to do” and allowing him to execute on the district’s 10-year strategic plan. The goal, she said, is to “stay out of the weeds,” especially when sweeping changes, like the introduction of iPad and Macbooks into all aspects of the classroom, are being implemented.

“Change is hard — change is really hard for a lot of people,” Goodburn said. “It is moving at a rapid pace, but that’s what our public had wanted us to do.”

Stratton said he supported many of the “reactive” moves the district had made — including improvement of school security — but that he hoped to be able to bring a focus on more forward-thinking strategic planning if elected.

“I would concur with many of the decisions that have been made along the way,” he said. “The job of an elected official is to make decisions, and some of them are difficult and some of them incur risk.”

Rulo characterized herself as primarily a district mother who decided to run after seeing things come out of the district that caused her concern over the past several years. Though she offered few specifics on what district moves had prompted her to enter the race, she did say at one point that she had been disappointed to find the district provided iPads to middle schoolers when it appeared to her that Macbooks would have been the better choice to allow students to complete their assignments.

Coincidentally, the district approved the purchase of Macbooks for middle schoolers at a special meeting Monday. Goodburn, a member of the sitting board, said such adjustments were part of implementing changes at a rapid pace.

The most striking difference between Rulo and Stratton appeared to be in their approach to school funding. Stratton expressed disappointment with the momentum the block grant proposal currently under consideration in the legislature had generated, and applauded the district for seeking to intervene in the Gannon case because it showed a proactive attitude toward protecting school funding.

“I see a role of our elected leaders to be more proactive in that conversation, too,” he said. “I think it would be very important to have direct conversations around this block funding formula.”

Rulo, on the other hand, said one of her top concerns was fiscal responsibility, and suggested the district should adopt a different frame of reference to the school funding question.

“I’m not a money person. I don’t speak the language of funding, of money,” she said. “I am one that goes on the principal of, can we not figure out a way to do with what we have as opposed to do with what we don’t have… We in my family live within our means.”

Stratton and Goodburn said they supported the use of the Common Core standards. Rulo said she didn’t know enough about them to comment in detail, but that she had heard they may inhibit a teacher’s ability to bring their personal experiences to the classroom.

All three candidates said they opposed efforts to make school board elections partisan, and all three said sex education should be taught on an opt-out, not an opt-in basis.