SM West area board of education challengers say Shawnee Mission needs to ‘reestablish culture of respect’ for teachers

Craig Denny (from left), Laura Guy and Chris White at Thursday's candidate forum.
Craig Denny (from left), Laura Guy and Chris White at Thursday’s candidate forum.

For the second evening in a row, challengers looking to take a seat on the Shawnee Mission Board of Education cited rebuilding trust between district leadership and Shawnee Mission teachers and parents as an urgent priority.

The three candidates actively campaigning for the SM West seat on the board — incumbent Craig Denny and challengers Laura Guy and Chris White — took questions from moderator Kyle Palmer of KCUR at a forum organized by the Shawnee Mission Area Council PTA. Early in the forum, which was held at the new Center for Academic Achievement, Palmer asked how the district can attract and retain quality teachers.

Denny, who has served on the board for two decades, said that the district had a very competitive pay schedule, which helped attract teaching talent. He also noted that Shawnee Mission in recent years had started recruiting teachers earlier in the year than it had before, allowing it to land talented prospects before they were taken off the market.

But Guy and White pointed to stories they’d heard from current teachers about low morale and a sense that the administration was not interested in their feedback on district policies. Guy said she had heard of Shawnee Mission veterans telling student teachers to apply to other districts because the current environment in the district was not positive.

“I think the first thing the board needs to do is to address this teacher morale so that we can retain the high quality teachers that we have,” Guy said. “They have not felt like their input has been valued. They don’t feel like their experience and wisdom has been valued. And so I think reaching out to them and saying, ‘We want your help in finding the next superintendent, we want your help in making these important decisions that are coming before the board’ [will be important]…I think when we do that, teachers will have a much higher rate of job satisfaction.”

White suggested the board needed to take steps to reestablish an environment where classroom teachers felt respected.

“The culture in our district is set by the board,” White said. “The board needs to promote a culture of respect, understanding and appreciation for the core of our district, which is the teachers…It is important to understand and respect the education, the experience, and the successes of our teachers. And for the past several years, everybody, from what I’ve heard, doesn’t feel like that is the case.”

The candidates also answered several questions related to the one-to-one technology initiative. Both Guy and White said they were concerned about the way the plan had been implemented. White recalled touring Apache Innovative School and finding a classroom of kids using their iPads as “toys” instead of for classroom activities. Guy said she’d heard from several parents who were worried about the amount of screen time kids were now getting in the classroom, were concerned about the costs associated with having to replace a damaged device, and who wished there was an option to opt out of the program.

Denny conceded that “in hindsight, we could have rolled it out a little differently,” but said he believed that incorporating technology into the classroom was an important step to preparing kids for the modern economy. Guy and White said they thought student access to technology was important as well, but suggested the district needed to take a look at how the current program was being implemented.

All three of the candidates cited the sharply changing demographics of the district as one of the biggest challenges Shawnee Mission will face in the coming years, with more poverty as well as more non-native English speakers requiring new strategies for providing every kid with a quality education.

“Our challenge is that we have a very diverse group of students, and their needs are probably greater than they were five or ten years ago,” Denny said.

Full video of the forum provided by the SMAC PTA is embedded below: