School board candidates on the issues: How can Shawnee Mission attract, support and retain quality teachers?

Sixth graders at Briarwood Elementary.

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

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?

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, second or third questionnaire items.

At-large race

Heather Ousley

Ousley_300As I noted in my answer regarding the primary challenge facing the District yesterday, I am aware from my connections with educators in the District that for many educators, there is a feeling of underappreciation and for some a low morale. Many have noted to me that they are not comfortable speaking out on issues they see occurring in the District, because they fear there may be repercussions for doing so. This hurts the District, as teachers are on the “front-lines” with our students, and we need to be able to hear what their concerns are in an atmosphere of cooperation and with an aim to providing the best education experience we can for every child in the District. There have been multiple retirements over the last few years, as the District incentivized retirement so as to reduce the expenses associated with compensating experienced educators. In addition, I have spoken with several teachers who have applied and been hired by BVSD, or who’ve moved to Missouri or Nebraska for higher pay and benefits packages.

We can take concrete steps to help prevent the loss of these professionals:

  • First, we must ask educators what they need, and listen when they communicate to us what that is. Their work environment is our student’s learning environment, and as professionals, they understand what needs to be present to create a desirable work space and an effective learning space.
  • Prioritize reducing class sizes.
  • Provide educators with raises that will help them keep pace with cost of living increases that have occurred over the last eight years while their pay remained low to make up for the lack of state funding.
  • Re-create mentorship relationships with experienced educators and new teachers for subject areas, providing opportunities for collaboration and support, especially when implementing new initiatives, such as the technology roll-out that occurred with little training for educators.
  • Share the burden of funding cuts with administrative level positions.
  • Foster and encourage communication between educators and administrators, without fear of repercussion. Under Dr. Kaplan’s leadership (the superintendent prior to Dr. Johnson), regular discussions were held between Dr. Kaplan and District teachers, and Dr. Kaplan regularly subbed in for educators and visited them in their rooms, so she could see how things were running.

The SMSD held the reputation as being a desirable District to work and live in for years, and a few systemic changes should help us restore that atmosphere, for both educators and support staff.

Robert Roberge

Roberge_300The organizational culture of the district is somewhat toxic. It resembles a military hierarchy that is highly dynamic in responding to incremental change, while highly static in the institutional chain of command. Peering is discouraged unless it is engineered in a 1:1 supervisory relationship characterized by closed communication models that foster frustration, confusion, and hostility. 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 site administrator; that have the credentials and desire to become a superintendent. The same model can be applied to identify, attract, and deliver eager and qualified applicants for certified special education and English language educators from across the region. Simply creating a career path for those who have leadership ability accelerates mobility across the organization while creating a career path within the district to solidify a culture of empathy, support, retention and mentorship. The same model can be applied through scholarship to leverage others to achieve the academic and certification credentials to become a certified teacher. Momentum for a cultural paradigm is found in the leadership characteristic of a leader who has been, is, and always will be the superintendent. Long before the ideal heroic superintendent is hired, 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 chicken before the egg. Where the board distills a policy prescription for the superintendent to implement and enforce, the leadership characteristics of the superintendent is the main ingredient in motivating and empowering teachers, administrators, and staff with the tools they need to do their job. While the perceived value of the superintendent solidifies the district foundation with effective management of bills, bonds, busses, and the board, the intrinsic value is in their leadership qualities and strategic open communication models that give families, students, teachers, public private partnerships, local, state, and federal government, higher education, human resource professionals, and the public a seat at the policy discussion table. Enterprising transformational engineering of programs, and conventional rules and strong leadership supporting title, and special education services, and academic goals that support meaningful occupational goals, leads to exceptional student outcomes.

Mandi Hunter

Mandi_300Hiring a superintendent, early recruitment, engaging teachers in the communication process and providing them support are essential to attracting and retaining quality teachers for our district. Shawnee Mission needs to hire a superintendent that will make it once again a desirable district in which to teach. The superintendent must foster a collegial environment, one that supports the teaching profession through professional development and mentoring, and have a personality that makes him/her approachable, regardless of whether or when you agree with him/her.

Being proactive and vigorously recruiting teachers when they are in college to get the best teachers available is imperative to attracting quality teachers to the district. Furthermore, providing an excellent K-12 education and exhibiting the teaching profession as one of high personal and professional growth will encourage students to become the teachers we want to hire.

The district must provide open channels of communication with our teaching professionals – and not only listen to them, but seek to implement policies to improve the workplace environment. The implementation of advisory boards and town halls that include teachers, paraprofessionals and staff should be created to assist with the development of district policies and procedures. Part of that process should include restoring planning periods and a reduction in class sessions, or at a minimum, a reduction in class sizes.

And the Board can provide direct avenues of support to our teachers. The Board should ensure due process protections for teachers in their contracts. In addition, the creation of a finance committee for the district will ensure a review and proper allocation of funds within our district’s budget to support arguments for adequate compensation and to provide professional development that is needed in both the general and special education populations.

Being the most established district in Johnson County coupled with our community engagement provides an excellent opportunity for teachers, paraprofessionals, and staff. With the implementation of the foregoing, the Shawnee Mission School District will be a flagship district for the county and state and a district where teachers will choose to make a career.

SM West area race

Laura Guy

Laura_GuyI am very concerned about the morale of our teachers. I have heard stories of Shawnee Mission teachers encouraging bright student teachers to apply in other districts but not Shawnee Mission. This is a dramatic change from my own time of student teaching in the mid-80s when Shawnee Mission was seen as the premier district for a new teacher. So my answer is sadly, no, I don’t view the district as an attractive place for teachers to make a career. But I think we can change that. Obviously, the first place to start is a competitive salary with other districts in the area. I don’t know any teacher who chose their profession to get rich, but they do want the means to be able to buy a home, have a decent car, take a vacation and save for the future. We need to make sure they are valued as professionals and are compensated as such. But money isn’t the only thing teachers need in order to feel satisfied and content in their jobs. They need appreciation, not just from parents but from the administration. They need to know that their wisdom and experience are valued and that their input is sought out. They need to be given some agency to make decisions for their classroom and they need to be able to make suggestions or report concerns and know that they have been heard. They need administrators who will help them and support them. These are the things that increase job satisfaction and make great teachers want to stay. These are also the things that make future teachers want to teach in our district. I taught as a substitute teacher for several years, and I could tell within a few minutes of walking into a school whether it was a place I’d ever want to be on staff or not. You can feel it when teachers are supported and energized and happy, and you can feel it when they are not. I want our district to become, once again, a sought-after place for excellent teachers to begin, sustain and, one day, retire from teaching.

Christopher White

White_300As a Board of Education member, I will dedicate myself to championing policies that provide teacher and student support services. There are many concerns teachers in the district (and many who have left) have expressed, and most of these concerns have a direct affect on every classroom, teacher and student in the district. Unfortunately, many of the classroom support services that have been eliminated are controlled by state funding. As state funding improves and budget decisions and allocations are made, what the students and teachers require needs to be the top priority.

There has also been a “climate of fear” that many staff members have expressed over the last four years. Fortunately, this is a passing phase. That which is ahead is even more exciting now.

Equitable compensation is respectful and supportive. A teacher’s education, responsibilities, and experience should be considered in any compensation package. I support employment and compensation policies that are equitable, respectful, and based on appropriate qualifications and experience.

It is also important to question and understand the administrative style of the new superintendent candidates. As we proceed, we need to share with the district’s patrons and staff just what the processes are for making administrative staffing decisions. There’s nothing wrong about being open and honest on how decisions are made. (Especially if they’re good decisions.)

WE ARE A TEAM and we need to work well together. We need to be honest and supportive of each other and work for what’s best for the students. The adversarial relationships of the past could and should be replaced with a collaborative and communicative relationship. (We are in this together!) If teachers feel supported with respect for what they do and receive appropriate compensation, this will help in attracting and retaining qualified teachers.

Craig Denny (incumbent)

Denny3002The district competes with other school districts locally and around the country to attract the best and brightest teachers. Under Dr. Kaplan and Dr. Johnson, we waited until late in the school year to hire new teachers until HR identified specific openings. By then, many teacher candidates had already received job offers from other districts. More recently, we changed our practice so we now offer contracts to new teachers much earlier in the year, sometimes as early as 1st semester. In my opinion, Shawnee Mission is an excellent district for teachers to begin their careers.


SM East area race

James Lockard

Lockard_300We need to implement and fund a new teacher mentoring and support program that is second to none. This will use resources, but will save resources in the long run as more teachers stay in the profession and are not replaced. Yes, we offer an attractive salary, but we also need to realize that most teachers are not in it just for the money. Teachers need to have the district listen to them and to feel appreciated. As a new board member, I will visit schools regularly and make it a point to listen to teachers and building administrators. Most importantly, it is difficult to retain teachers when their workload is at burnout level. Reducing class size/workload will do the most to retain staff. This is still an excellent district and a great place to teach, thanks especially to the great parent and community support, but we can always do better.

Mary Sinclair

Mary_300High quality teaching is a critical element of academic excellence. The retention and recruitment of effective teachers, and principals, is a common characteristic of high performing schools. Educational research consistently points to two factors that influence this characteristic: working conditions and competitive compensation. A sharp increase in concern over both factors has been voiced by our educators for several years now.
The Shawnee Mission National Education Association noted that top concerns for district teachers include: increased class sizes and teaching loads, lack of building level support staff, reduced plan time, and limited support for student with special learning needs. And while Shawnee Mission offers one of the more competitive salary schedules, our teachers’ base pay rate has not been increased for over five years.

Although these circumstances stem largely from state education budget constraints, our former superintendent and school board chose to add new instructional initiatives during this stressful time. Morale was negatively impacted as much by circumstance as by a lack of respect for the challenges our building personnel experienced during our state’s budget crises. Educators are more likely to remain in the profession if provided reasonable conditions to meet the learning needs of their students. I will work to ensure our district is devoting adequate resources for the professional development and support of our novice and veteran teachers.

I would also vote to allocate a portion of the new state aid to salary increases for district personnel whose wages have been frozen. This overdue teacher compensation should be followed up with a comprehensive analysis on the compensation of all district personnel – district administrators, building principals, certified staff which includes teachers, and classified staff. As a board member, such an analysis would allow me to make informed decisions about future staffing patterns and pay.

One other important tool to address recruitment and retention is regular communication between the school board, superintendent and the district’s legislative delegation. College students will be less inclined to enter the teaching profession, if lawmakers are allowed to pass one destructive bill after another without a challenge from local education leaders. Kansas public school districts must speak out and maintain working relationships with elected officials in order to prevent a repeat of the 2012 to 2016 legislative sessions.

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

4.) In 2014, the district launched its “one-to-one” technology initiative, investing tens of millions to provide every student with his or her own Apple MacBook or iPad. Since the roll out, some teachers have expressed concern about lack of training opportunities on integrating the devices into lesson plans. Some parents have complained that their kids are spending a good deal of time of the devices for non-classroom activities. Do you think the one-to-one initiative has been a success? Why or why not? Does anything with the program need to change?