Shawnee Mission school board candidates on the issues: What qualities do you want to see in a new superintendent?

Superintendent Jim Hinson retired from the Shawnee Mission School District after four years in June.
Superintendent Jim Hinson retired from the Shawnee Mission School District after four years in June.

We continue this morning with item two from our questionnaire for the Shawnee Mission Board of Education candidates:

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?

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 or second questionnaire items.

At-large race

Robert Roberge

Roberge_300Job requirements are simply a screening tool to filter a candidate pool down to 10-12, from which a list of 3-4 applicants can be interviewed to fill the job. Long before this is put into action, the board needs to distill a clear, concise vision, with rational goals and objectives. This will create a blueprint for the superintendent to implement, and enforce. Anyone who feels we need to hire a new superintendent to prescribe policy for the board is on a slippery slope, as this is putting the cart in front of the horse. As far as the job requirements; we have an interim superintendent who is highly paid, and qualified to be the acting superintendent. In fact, they are now paid to perform dual roles, and the board should consider creating a career path into the deputy superintendent position for those current employees who have risen from a certified teacher, to principal; that have the credentials and desire to become a superintendent. Otherwise a strategic confidential leadership search conducted by the Kansas Association of School Boards could be utilized to find others currently employed by a Kansas school district, who have risen from teaching, to administration, that are eager to move up into a superintendent position. This search should be repeated every 18-24 months, as a scouting report in parity with the expectation that we will be looking for a new superintendent, every 2-4 years. The requirements are simply for screening candidates, and the hiring decision should be based on the characteristics of the candidates. The ideal candidate has the leadership characteristics of a team builder. Someone like Ewing Kauffman, who hedged risk, with a rational approach to team building and creative ability to leverage outcomes through entrepreneurship and scholarship. And the qualities of leadership seen in Booker T. Washington, who empowered others with the tools they needed to do their job, and distilled a team effort through cooperation and collaboration. Combined with the resilience and persistence of Cesar Chavez, who was the voice for the under-represented, these leadership qualities embody the character of a true team builder. My prescription for the ideal superintendent is a team builder, that others will follow, who will execute and enforce board policy, that has worked up the ranks, grew up in the Shawnee Mission District, and has a vested interest in open communication models that distill transformational agendas, for families.

Mandi Hunter

Mandi_300Choosing the next superintendent is in fact the biggest immediate challenge for the district. Over the past several years, our stakeholders have felt increasingly alienated from the process. It is imperative that we restore the community’s trust in the Board and the administration. In hiring the next superintendent, the Board members must look beyond a candidate’s resume. Credentials are important but a candidate’s demeanor, method of operation of the district and interaction with staff, parents, teachers and the community must all be evaluated to determine the best candidate for our district.

Given the concerns over transparency of the Board and Dr. Hinson, the next superintendent must have a personality and demonstrated experience that reflects a willingness to embrace change within a similarly-situated district and experience that reflects openness in the candidate’s interactions and communications with both the members of its Board and the constituents of the district. Pointed questions concerning the use of a consent agenda and the proposed use of a finance committee to review budget allocations should be addressed in interviews.

Our district needs to open channels of communication between the administration and constituents. A candidate for superintendent that has demonstrated a willingness to engage advisory boards to assist with the district’s initiatives is imperative to bridging gaps and creating community partnerships to which Johnson County has grown accustomed.

The next superintendent must be proactive and supportive of his/her Board, administrators, staff and teachers. A superintendent with a positive and collegial demeanor will permeate the district and create a working environment that ensures teachers and staff want to build their careers in the district which benefits the parents and ultimately, our children. This can be accomplished through seeking recommendations from teachers, paraprofessionals, and classified staff within the candidates’ current districts to discern the relationship with employees.

We have an excellent opportunity with the hiring of our next superintendent and I look forward to being part of the solution.

Heather Ousley

Ousley_300I believe the biggest hurdle facing the District currently may be low teacher morale. Educators feel that they are unable to speak up for fear of potential push back from the Board and others in power in the administration, and they’ve been demoralized after so many years without any significant pay increase. When Dr. Southwick received his raise at the last Board meeting, one of the justifications for the 17% increase from $195,000 to $239,000 was that he would be performing additional tasks, as they were not back filling his position. However, teachers in the District have been asked to do more for less year after year, including increased class sizes and duties, and they’ve not received a 17% increase in income, despite the fact that the District has saved money through the loss of experienced teachers (retirement incentive offers were provided a few years ago to cut costs on salary expenses). Many teachers feel that they are not valued, and several have reached out to me with their concerns about being able to continue with SMSD when Blue Valley and Districts across the state line offer better pay and benefit packages. Time and again, studies have shown that the two most important factors in providing a quality education for our kids is the size of the classroom, and the skill and expertise of the educator in front of it. We must recruit and retain our amazing educators.

With this in mind, the new superintendent must help foster an environment of appreciation and trust. Teachers are on the “front-lines” so to speak with our children, and we need to be able to hear what their concerns are in an atmosphere of cooperation and willingness to do better by our students. The new superintendent must be willing to lead in the spirit of allowing parents and educators to be heard, rather than herding us along to simply implement their vision. She or he must be able to collaborate, and put the vision and mission of the SMSD before their desire to build their own reputation. We have strengths to be capitalized on, including a long history of success, and we have opportunities for improvement, but we need the voices of parents and educators at the table, contributing and being heeded.

SM West area race

Christopher White

White_300There are many challenges facing the district. The delivery of excellent education to a very diverse population, the restoration of financial stability and the re-establishment of trust in the Board of Education and District’s decisions, are among the outstanding challenges.

The Shawnee Mission School District has been known for more than half a century for providing exceptional education to all children within its boundaries. We need to continue finding ways to improve the delivery of excellent instruction using appropriate technology, improved classroom support and resources, and viable teaching methodologies.

There are several financial issues to be addressed by the Board of Education and the new Administration. These three for me are the standouts: a) Funding: What will future Federal and State funding be? How will that money be allocated? What will be the guiding principles determining program funding? We are fortunately moving in a positive direction with State funding and I feel in the future this will continue. It will be very important to discuss with the community how any additional funds are to be allocated. b) Administration Costs: The District Administration grew from 11 cabinet level administrators to 28 in 4 years. The classroom aides and paras have been drastically reduced. We have out-sourced our substitute teachers, among other things, and eliminated curriculum specialists. We have cut many programs due to state funding cuts, as well as other reasons, but we have increased the administration costs by 3 times. As SMSD patrons, we need to monitor this issue very closely. c) Reserves: We are self-insured up to a catastrophic loss. But our reserves have been drained due to state funding cuts, among other reasons. We need to work toward a more financially stable district.

The new superintendent should be respectful of our community and knowledgeable of the many aspects of our diverse district. The candidate should be a person who is accessible and dedicated to the idea of public education and academic excellence and she/he should embrace the idea of transparency. The delivery of education to our children is changing and it will be a real challenge to provide education in the 21st Century. I look forward to hearing what kind of ideas concerning the future of education the candidates will present.

Craig Denny (incumbent)

Denny3002In my opinion, the breadth of diversity among the children and families that we serve is the biggest challenge the district faces. Our next superintendent must be able to communicate clearly with all stakeholder groups and must be able to engender their faith and trust in him/her to lead our district in a manner and direction that serves ALL children and that will ensure that each child reaches their full potential.



Laura Guy

Laura_GuyThe demographics of our district are changing. We are becoming more diverse and we have more families with special needs. We need a superintendent who sees the current landscape as well as the changes that are coming. He/she must have ideas for how to prepare for and respond to those changes while still providing an excellent education to all of our students. The new superintendent should be familiar with other districts who have faced some of these same challenges and have continued to provide high-quality education. This kind of success can only be replicated in our district if the new superintendent can foster cooperation between teachers, parents and administrators. If we don’t first create a coalition with engaged and energized constituents, we will not succeed in the challenges that are ahead and we will not serve our students to the best of our ability. We have a strong community that supports our schools. The new superintendent should build on that support and increase engagement with excellent communication and transparency with the public.

SM East area race

Mary Sinclair

Mary_300One of the biggest challenges facing the district today revolves around school finance. The capacity of public education across the state has been undermined by the uncertainty of federal funding for students with disabilities and the severity of state education budget cuts over the past several years. State education funding per student is still well below pre-recession levels, even with the recent progress made during the 2017 state legislative session. If the new school finance bill is deemed constitutional by the Kansas Supreme Court, Shawnee Mission will receive an additional $10 million or more for the coming school year. Yet this increase reflects only a third of the $25 to $30 million in our cumulative annual losses.

Our district would benefit greatly from a new superintendent who recognizes the disproportionate burden this challenge has placed upon our students and teachers. Class sizes have increased, teachers’ instructional loads have increased, and more Kansas youth are living in poverty. These changes came at a time when teacher pay was frozen, instructional resources and planning time reduced, and multiple initiatives launched at once by district leadership, all while the state education standards continue to rise.

We need a culturally competent superintendent, who is an inspirational instructional leader for our teachers, principals and district administrators. A collaborative management style would serve to rebuild trust within the district, as well restore relationships among community stakeholders. An appreciation for evidenced-based decision-making will be needed to strengthen district programs and guide the restoration of state funds. A superintendent who listens and recognizes that informed parents, patrons and staff are an asset to the Shawnee Mission community and public education at large would be valued above all.

I appreciate the opportunity to bring my educational research and parent advocacy perspectives to the process of hiring a new superintendent. I am interested in learning what our collective community identifies as the preferred qualifications and will continue to encourage the active participation of parents and patrons in this important decision.

James Lockard

Lockard_300Gaining the trust of the community and staff will be his/her biggest challenge as some people have described our current condition as a “climate of fear” among the staff. Someone willing to set a less autocratic and more collegial tone is the first quality I would look for. I would advocate hiring someone with a proven track record of improving collegiality and school climate in their district by being a great communicator. Anyone can talk a good game; can they show us the before and after surveys? The Board needs to see and consider tangible data before making a decision. Data that shows us how the candidate got everyone to pull together in their previous stops.

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

3.) What does the Shawnee Mission School District need to do to attract, support and retain quality teachers? Do you view the district today as an attractive place for teachers to make a career?