Shawnee Mission school board candidates on the issues: Is board conformity a positive or negative for the district?


As is our custom, several weeks ago we put out a call to readers asking for questions they’d like to hear the candidates for the Shawnee Mission Board of Education answer. Based on reader input, we developed a five-item questionnaire that we distributed to the candidates last month. This week, we’ll be publishing the responses to those questions.

The first item is as follows:

1.) For years, the school board’s actions have been marked by little public discussion and almost entirely unanimous votes. Do you view this conformity among school board members as being positive or negative for the district? Why?

Note: We have asked the two candidates in the race for the SM East area seat, Mary Sinclair and James Lockard, to participate in the questionnaire ahead of the August 1 vote even though there isn’t a primary in that race so that they have the chance to share their views on these topics as well. We’ll be developing a new questionnaire on different issues ahead of the general election.

We did not receive responses from at-large incumbent Cindy Neighbor or at-large challenger Fabian Shepard to the first questionnaire item.

At-large race

Mandi Hunter

Mandi_300There are two issues presented by this question: one being the lack of public discussion and the other being the unanimity of the Board’s votes. The lack of public discussion is troubling because it does not provide the Board’s constituents with the opportunity to know 1) whether any questions are being asked concerning agenda items, 2) if questions are being asked, whether the inquiry is relevant to the constituents and issues, and 3) the ensuing discussion which resulted in the final vote at the Board meeting. The unanimous votes, although unusual given the number of issues decided by this Board, are not in and of themselves, a point of contention. But the fact that the public is not aware of the discussion to reach that unanimous vote casts a shadow of doubt on each vote. And because the lack of transparency has caused a public perception of distrust in the current Board, it is a negative for the district.

The Board is making the vast majority of its decisions concerning the use of taxpayer dollars, so the public’s concern over the transparency of the Board’s decision making must be addressed. In order to remedy this, I propose complete openness in all Board discussions. Throughout the course of this past administration, Dr. Hinson made it a practice to meet with one to two board members to discuss agenda items (which does not trigger the requirements of a “public meeting”). It appears that most pertinent discussions concerning agenda items occurred at these individual caucuses. However, there are no public records of these meetings and therefore, the constituents of our current Board members are not privy to the discussions and are not given any assurance that their board members are advocating on their behalf. If elected to the Board, I propose that a record be made of all meetings, including the Board’s work sessions, where discussions are had concerning agenda items. One way to bring this process out into the open is to launch a finance committee with open meetings, which incorporates staff, administration, and two board members. Currently, the administration is developing the budget and finance proposals, which are introduced to members of the board without the opportunity for full public debate or discourse. The openness of meetings can ensure the public that relevant discussions are being had concerning items that reach the final agenda for the monthly school board meetings.

Heather Ousley

Ousley_300The conformity in votes, the unanimity, appears to be unique to Shawnee Mission, and has had the result of limiting the public dialogue. When there is no debate or back and forth on an issue, the public isn’t given the information on what the positives or negatives are of a policy or decision. Dialogue allows for correction of negatives, and fuller understanding of positives, so the public comprehends both the benefits and risks of certain decisions. Without the back and forth, it’s difficult to know if the risks are understood or appreciated, or even taken into consideration, and this can make it difficult to trust that the Board has fully vetted a policy before it is implemented. In speaking with School Board members from outside of SMSD, many of them were surprised at the rate of unanimity on decisions in our District. Can good policy be cause for a unanimous vote? Yes. But when the debate on that policy is limited due to a consent agenda, where the primary discussion on whether to approve an item happened behind the scenes, perhaps with stakeholders, perhaps without them, the public has lost transparency. Without that transparency, the public loses trust.

I’d like the Board to build trust with the patrons and parents in the District by limiting consent agenda items to non-controversial matters, so that the community can both see and participate in the deliberative process as it takes place. Fortunately, to remove an item from the consent agenda, only one board member needs to dissent.

Majority opinions and unanimous decisions are exercises in power; dissent appeals to our better judgment and can lay a path for future trajectories. We frequently are not aware there is a better way, until someone has the tenacity to express an alternate vision. It can be difficult for some to stand apart, especially when people are tired and worn down and seeking “consensus” for efficiency’s sake. I have a proven track record of standing up and speaking out on behalf of public education, our students, and our educators. As a Rice Scholar at KU Law who served on the Journal of Law and Public Policy, and as an attorney practicing in civil rights, I’ve learned to analyze information and policy, to argue on behalf of the underdogs, and to continue the work, no matter how daunting. Walking sixty miles to Topeka five times to raise awareness about the need to fully fund public education was exhausting but rewarding. I look forward to continuing my advocacy and using my voice on behalf of our students across the District during Board meetings.

Robert Roberge

Roberge_300There is an inherent morality when individuals choose to serve on the school board. Many say they do so to serve scholarship, learning, science, truth, and so forth. So, serving on the school board is infused with dedication and purpose and part of one’s identity; yet the board members’ history of unanimously overriding alternative courses of action has an invidious connotation.

This may be evidence of groupthink behavior, where concurrence-seeking behavior helps explain the flaws when major policies become fiascoes. When a group of people who respect each other’s opinions arrive at a unanimous view, each member is likely to feel that the belief must be true. This reliance on consensual validation tends to replace individual critical thinking and reality-testing. Stereotypical symptoms of groupthink permeate the board members’ persistence in conveying to each other oversimplified images of political enemies in Topeka that has embodied long-standing battles over school funding. There is an illusion of invulnerability where the board seems to feel outsiders lack knowledge and credibility.

Heightened uniformity makes the group overconfident, so facing less testing and challenge, the habits of thought become more foolhardy and close-minded. This small group of neatly defined insiders are mostly concerned about security leaks or other constraints that lead it to put a premium on secrecy. When the school board has dealt with an issue of great importance, the board’s bad beliefs are shallow and are not concerned about issues of identity. No one outside the board is qualified to judge the group and insiders safely ignore outside opinion.

The board members’ collective rationalizations distill elaborate dogmas to justify the omission of challenging ideas. Board discussions that explore substantially different options are dismissed as “advocacy.” Voluntary versus coercive action are systematically dismissed as illusory and ideological. The school board has functioned much like a genteel society where criticism is muted, and acts as if it is impolite to alienate colleagues. As the board’s beliefs have become more defective, the group is more sensitive to tension, and more intolerant of would-be challengers. This development leads to tighter vetting and expulsion, more uniformity, more intellectual deterioration, and more intolerance. The failure of the board to survey alternatives, objectives, and initially rejected alternatives combined with selective bias in processing information at hand, and the treatment of alternative options that are ignored by way of elaborate dogmas, defines the character of the legacy school board as potentially negative.

SM West area race

Craig Denny (incumbent)

Denny3002Actions taken at school board meetings occur following weeks and sometimes months of research, study, questions by and feedback to board members. By the time an item is placed on the agenda for action, each board member has a thorough understanding of the agenda item. In cases where board members have not felt their questions concerning a particular agenda item have been sufficiently answered by administration, they notify the board president and that item is removed from that meeting’s agenda. In my opinion, unanimous votes at monthly board meetings are a clear indication that board members have done their homework, understand the issues and questions asked have been answered. In my opinion, this is an indication of a high-functioning board-administration relationship, which is positive for our district.

Laura Guy

Laura_GuyMany of the decisions the School Board makes can be made quickly and without much discussion, although they should be made publicly if they will have any impact on students or the teaching environment. At the most recent School Board meeting, the Board moved some items previously on the consent agenda to the public meeting. These items were decisions about renewing contracts for some curriculum the district has been using. These are decisions that one would expect to be approved by unanimous votes without much discussion. However, there have been other decisions with serious implications – boundary changes, adding another innovative school, etc. – that should evoke lots of discussion and back-and-forth dialogue among the Board. If Board members are truly thinking of the impact of their decisions on all the families in the district, then there should be extended discussion about the pros and cons of each decision and how it will affect students, parents, teachers, administrators and the public. These kinds of serious decisions might create dissent among members who believe that the majority decision is not the correct one. Our district will be stronger, more effective and more equitable if the Board engages in more discussion for these important decisions.

Christopher White

White_300I view this conformity by the board as an approach that at times is very positive and at other times has been very negative for the district. The board as well as approving budgets and project and services funding, sets the policies and procedures the district administration is to implement. There are many non-controversial decisions the board can and should affirm unanimously, but if there is a dissenting vote on an important issue to the community, why shouldn’t a board member publicly express their dissent and share why?

I support open public discussion of the important issues facing the district. There are so many issues that we can and should openly talk about. The District should discuss, possibly in public forums, the important issues of concern, whatever the topic might be: teaching methodology, technology, bullying, building and classroom security, safe schools, boundary changes and neighborhood schools, etc. These are important issues to the families of our school district and it should not be a problem for the board and the community to openly discuss them. The District’s patrons want to understand the sources of the information being used to make the decisions and how and why the decisions are being made. I want an informed community.

Debatable and controversial items should not be on the consent agenda. Openness, transparency, and honesty about important issues facing the district should be the Board of Education’s guiding principles. There are many issues that are important to the entire community and there should be a conversation about them. Any meetings to discuss issues should be efficient, follow appropriate procedures, and the conversation should be polite and respectful. We are a district serving a very diverse community with different needs and priorities. It should be the District’s goal to find consensus on important issues and decisions facing the District.

SM East area race

James Lockard

Lockard_300I see it as unhealthy. Open discussion and a frank and honest exchange of opinions is healthy. Being a rubber stamp for whatever the superintendent presents is not. I have heard some put the blame on the consent agenda, but any board member can ask for any item to be removed from the consent agenda. In my opinion, that has not happened nearly often enough. Recently, Dr. Southwick has had departments explain their items in the consent agenda as a short report to the board. Great idea, it should be standard practice. If memory serves, the board used to meet twice a month, one was a business meeting and the other for reports and discussion. I would be in favor of giving that a try. Transparency is essential to rebuilding trust with the SM community.

Mary Sinclair

Mary_300The Shawnee Mission school board’s culture of conformity has become a negative factor for the district.  The SMSD community has been very clear about wanting more effective communication and greater transparency in the decision-making process.  An erosion of trust in district leadership has been compounded by the board’s priority for unanimous votes, minimal discussion and overuse of the consent agenda.

As a legislative liaison for the PTA, I have raised numerous questions over the past 15 years about policies and procedures that impact student learning. A significant portion of my volunteer efforts have been spent seeking answers to these questions and sharing what I have learned with parents and patrons. I have worked together with the PTA advocacy team to facilitate communication by presenting legislative updates at PTA meetings, writing Issue Briefs and MythBusters (Spanish version), drafting action alertsand policy positions, preparing vote counts, and testifying on education related bills in Topeka. Just recently, I recognized that the initial set up in the new board room would be more welcoming to parents and patrons if the seats were closer the front of the room. Having my observation affirmed though the SMAC PTA network, we passed along the concern to district leadership and promptly resolved the emerging issue.

If elected, I will continue to promote effective communication, asking relevant questions and conveying to the Shawnee Mission community the rationale for district policy decisions and their capacity to enhance learning opportunities for SMSD students. I would like to see the school board build upon and strengthen communication channels between parents, patrons and personnel. And more importantly, I would like to see the board adopt a routine practice of overtly integrating the district’s strategic plan into the decision-making process.  I am running for school board, because I want to part of the process of rebuilding trust and re-establishing a more collaborative relationship among the Shawnee Mission community of stakeholders.

Tomorrow we’ll be running the candidates’ responses to item number two:

2.) Members of the school board will be charged with selecting a new superintendent in the coming months. What is the biggest challenge facing the district today, and what qualities will a new superintendent need to address it?