Waning morale among district teachers, lack of trust between parents and the board of education, and changing demographics were among the issues highlighted by the challengers in the race for the at-large Shawnee Mission School Board seat at a candidate forum Wednesday.
The forum, hosted by the Shawnee Mission Area Council PTA and moderated by KCUR’s Kyle Palmer, found incumbent Cindy Neighbor, who has been in the seat since 1997, often in a defensive posture, working to explain controversial district moves like the purchase of AR-15s for district police officers and the banning of safety pins in the wake of the election.
All of the challengers — Mandi Hunter, Heather Ousley, Robert Roberge and Fabian Shepard — said they were concerned with the growing sense of disenfranchisement some teachers had expressed. A top-down approach to the implementation of new policies and a lack of opportunity to provide feedback on how those policies are affecting day-to-day life in the classroom has damaged the district’s reputation with its educators, according to some.
“We’ve got a morale issue right now in the district with teachers,” Shepard said. “I’m not sure of all of the aspects, but I can tell you, when you start to lump more on, have greater expectations, put more pressure on people and not a lot of positive changes for them to see in the future outlook, bad things happen.”
Ousley said fostering an environment where teachers felt empowered to offer constructive feedback on district policy was essential.
“There is a real need to build back trust between the administration and the educators in our community,” said Ousley. “I know several educators who have left our community either because they are working more hours, or because they don’t feel appreciated. Feeling appreciated is vital. And feeling like they can speak out on issues and not face repercussions for speaking out on those issues is also vital. I know there are teachers who feel afraid to raise their concerns with the district because they think they’re going to get pushback…”
Hunter pointed to the district’s purchase of eight semi-automatic rifles as an example of the problems with the lack of transparency in the board’s current processes. A potentially controversial item like that should have been vetted in a public forum so patrons could understand the rationale for the move, she said. She had a hard time knowing whether the move was justified or not because it was made without any public input.
“The safety and security of our children is a top priority,” she said. “When I first heard this news [about the district purchasing the guns], I’ll admit, it seemed a bit excessive. But what we don’t know, because of transparency issues with the board of education, is how they arrived at this decision…These are things we don’t know because we have not been given access to the records of the discussions of the school district.”
In their closing remarks, the challengers painted themselves as offering different strengths that could benefit the board as it works through a time of transition. Roberge said his experience studying law enforcement and serving on community boards would be an asset. Fabian pointed out that the district is seeing sharply shifting demographics, and he would bring a unique perspective as a minority.
“I don’t believe in quotas at all, but what I can tell you is that I think it might be time that our school board starts to reflect the demographic of our community,” he said. “You don’t need big glasses to look around our community and see our board doesn’t reflect that. If you look at our board, you’d think everybody in our community is old and white.”
Hunter said she was committed to fostering strong communication between the board and patrons.
“This board needs someone who is not partisan and who doesn’t have a conflict [of interest] who can advocated and collaborate to move this district forward,” she said.
Ousley suggested that she would be unafraid to buck the culture of consensus when appropriate.
“There is a time and a place for appropriate, respectful dissent. And I am delighted frequently to be the dissenting voice. I think it is possible to come up with better solutions when there are disagreements because you have a back and forth on what the positives are and a better understanding on how to correct the negatives.”
In her closing remarks, Neighbor, who had faced a crowd of furrowed brows and shaking heads during some of her responses, acknowledged that she’d sensed push back from the audience.
“I have watched some of the facial expressions in this audience tonight while answering questions, and the smiles or ‘I don’t believe that,'” she said. “Please contact me because I’d love to give you the facts.”
SMAC PTA is hosting a forum for the candidates for the SM West seat on the board tonight at 6:30 p.m. at the Center for Academic Achievement.
Full video from last night’s forum from SMAC PTA is embedded at the bottom of this story.