School district board member questions process for electing board officers, calls for more transparency

Brad Stratton called for more openness from the board of education on Monday.
Brad Stratton called for more openness from the board of education on Monday.

Brad Stratton made a move on Monday that has been virtually unheard of from members of the Shawnee Mission Board of Education: Speaking publicly about frustrations with a lack of transparency and poor communication with district patrons.

Stratton’s comments came during the board’s annual organizational meeting, where it elects its officers for the year. Stratton voted against the appointment of Dr. Craig Denny as board vice president and then asked to explain his vote. Stratton said his concerns with the board officer appointments were two-fold. One issue was that Denny, the SM West area representative, will be standing for reelection next year. Because the vice president typically becomes the president the following year, Stratton didn’t feel it was appropriate to put someone in a role where they would be campaigning for reelection at the same time they were serving as president.

But his most impassioned remarks came when he described his frustration in getting a formal process in place for nominating and electing board officers. Stratton said he had been told by district leaders last year that if board members put forward ideas for how to go about nominating and electing board officers, including the board president and vice-president, those ideas would be brought up for discussion.

“We were provided an opportunity a year ago to present our ideas for having a formal election process,” Stratton said. “We have no written process to do what we just did. A year ago we were told that if we submitted by September 30 processes that could be considered for electing our officers, they would be considered. We ask repeatedly throughout the year — I can only speak for myself. No process was brought forward.”

Stratton said he had inquired about whether he could make a nomination for board president or vice president from the floor and was told no. He then indicated he intended to take a more vocal role moving forward, and would be “speaking as one of seven” members of the board.

“We have a lot in front of this board over the next couple months, and I challenge this board and this leadership to be proactive in addressing what’s before us. Communicating with the public and communicating with us will be very important,” Stratton said. “I will be speaking out going forward…The silence from this board has been deafening the last two weeks.”

That comment brought sustained applause from a group of teachers sitting in the galley. Stratton, who was elected last year to the at-large seat previously held by Joan Leavens, is the newest member of the board.

Compared to other local elected bodies, the Shawnee Mission Board of Education stands out for the amount of business it handles by consent agenda and for the lack of any substantive discussion of the issues facing the board before it votes on them. The vast majority of votes taken by the board of education are unanimous.

Stratton’s comments weren’t the only criticism the board faced Monday evening. Patron Talis Bergmanis used the open forum to express his “disgust” with news that the district’s top leaders had received sizable raises in the summer of 2015.

“I can’t believe one of you didn’t have the common sense to realize what a terrible message that sends to our teachers, and what a club it gives to extreme right-wingers in the legislature,” Bergmanis told the board. “My wife and I are voters you want on your side. We have consistently voted against candidates whose policies would hurt our schools. You haven’t lost our support completely, but you’re about 90 percent of the way there.”

During the board comments section at the end of the meeting, Goodburn read the statement she had issued last week regarding the raises. In that statement, Goodburn notes that Superintendent Jim Hinson had led an effort to cut $1.8 million in administrative costs during his time leading the district, and that the board’s decision about pay for top administrators is made “in order to ensure the district remains competitive in its ability to attract and retain high-quality, experienced leaders.”