Shawnee Mission patrons headed to the polls Tuesday and delivered a crystal clear message to the district’s central office: It’s time for a big change.
With the election of three new board members — Heather Ousley in an at-large seat, Mary Sinclair in the SM East seat, and Laura Guy in the SM West seat — district voters showed clear favor for candidates who campaigned hard for the upending of the status quo, calling for more transparency in board proceedings, a more balanced relationship between the board and the administration, and a proactive approach to dealing with the area’s changing demographics.
“I think there’s a clear message from the voters that they’re looking for a culture change from the board,” said Sinclair, who defeated former SM East teacher Jim Lockard 77-22. “They want a board that is going to be actively listening and interacting with patrons, and they want a board that’s going to have a different relationship with the superintendent.”
The election cycle saw two long-time incumbents defeated at the polls and a third who initially filed for reelection withdraw after attracting two credible challengers. Cindy Neighbor, who had served in the at-large seat since 1997, was knocked out of the race in the August primary, falling 14 votes behind Mandi Hunter for a spot on the general election ballot. Donna Bysfield, the SM East area representative since 1993, filed for reelection in March, but dropped out two months later when Sinclair and Lockard entered the race. Craig Denny, the SM West area representative since 1997, managed to fend off a challenge from Christopher White in the primary and advance to the general. But his campaign message emphasizing the value of steady experience found little traction Tuesday with SM West area voters, who gave Guy a 60-40 advantage at the polls.
“The voters said they are ready for new voices and new perspectives and all of the things we’ve been talking about this whole campaign, more transparency and more collaboration,” Guy said.
Ousley, a civil rights attorney who gained notoriety for hiking to Topeka to raise awareness of state funding cuts to K-12 schools, walked away from the night with an easy win over Hunter, a Leawood attorney, taking two-thirds of the 31,427 votes cast in the at-large race. Ousley was perhaps the most aggressive voice among the candidates in calling for major changes to the way the district conducts its business. She said that her wide margin over Hunter, a candidate who had been backed by many current and former moderate Republican elected officials, gave her license to push for real changes.
“I’m really appreciative of the fact that they gave me a margin where if I do try to make change or I do try to do things differently, I have the support of the community and I’m not acting alone,” she said. “We spoke together tonight.”
Guy’s defeat of Denny, the sitting president of the board, will trigger two consequential changes in the coming months: Not only will she replace him behind the dais, but the board presidency will be transferred to current vice president Brad Stratton, who has been a vocal critic of the way the board has conducted business in recent years. A coalition of Stratton and the three newcomers would form a majority voting block as the board considers candidates for the next full term superintendent in the weeks after they are seated in January.
Stratton said he expected patrons to see almost immediate change from the board.
“The first visible change will be more dialogue from behind the dais,” Stratton said Tuesday night. “I’m confident that the new board members will have many questions for our administrators, and they’ll be asking them in public during the meetings. It’ll be a much more robust conversation than you’ve seen in the past.”
Stratton said he also intended to make one of his first acts as president opening up election of board officers to the full board.
“And if I’m chosen to continue in the role as president I’ll look forward to the process of our superintendent search,” he said.
That search will loom large over the new members when they’re seated in January. Ousley and Guy said they were committed to doing detailed research on the candidates before making a decision to avoid some of the oversights that led to the hiring of Jim Hinson, who is widely considered to have been a bad cultural fit for the district, in 2013.
“I think obviously [patrons] want someone who is willing to be transparent and collaborative,” Guy said. “And so we need to look for those kinds of characteristics in the resumes that come in. I think we’re going to do a very thorough job of background checks and talking with other people the candidates have worked with before. We want to make sure that we don’t make the mistake that was made last time and are doing all of the work that could have been done to see some of the red flags.”
Ousley said it will be important to check the work of Ray and Associates in vetting the candidates they bring forward.
“I will be doing my own due diligence to screen those folks,” she said.
The results from Tuesday were great news to members of Education First Shawnee Mission, the advocacy group formed earlier this year in response to persistent concerns about transparency from the district. Education First had endorsed Guy and Sinclair alone in their races and both Hunter and Ousley in the at-large race.
“We formed because so many people felt like there was a lack of information and communication coming from the existing school board,” said Education First’s Liz Benditt. “The need for more transparency came out loud and clear. And the candidates we endorsed embraced that.”