Incoming Shawnee Mission board members say patrons can expect more openness, communication from day 1

Heather Ousley is among the three new board members who will be seated Monday.
Heather Ousley is among the three new board members who will be seated Monday.

After months of rigorous campaigning, the election, and orientation, three new members of the Shawnee Mission Board of Education will take their seats on Monday — and patrons are likely to notice their presence right off the bat.

In interviews this week, incoming board member Laura Guy, Heather Ousley and Mary Sinclair said they believed district patrons would see an almost immediate change in the way the board conducts its business on a number of fronts. Perhaps most obvious among them will be the way the board treats concerns brought forward from patrons at meetings.

Laura Guy is the new SM West area representative.
Laura Guy is the new SM West area representative.

Guy, a pastor whose children went through SM West area schools, said she and other board members are committed to assuming a much more open posture .

“There has to be some real human interaction at the meetings, not just a wall of people on the dais who don’t respond at all when people raise concerns,” Guy said. “We need to be able to have genuine conversations with people. You don’t have to have the answers to everything, but you need to at least acknowledge what you’re hearing.”

Sinclair offered a similar take on what she expects from future interactions between the board and patrons at meetings.

“I hope and fully expect we are embarking on a new way of interacting with the community, in part because the culture of the school board will be different,” Sinclair said.

Both Sinclair and Ousley noted that the board will recess to executive session on Monday night to discuss possible changes to the current open forum policy, which explicitly restricts what patrons are allowed to say — a feature that had drawn criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Even apart from the First Amendment issues, I think we’re going to be looking at the open forum protocol because even from that level, we want to be opening up the way the district is communicating with people,” Sinclair said.

Those changes in communications may also include the board or individual board members become more active on social media, said Ousley. While noting that there are serious considerations that have to be weighed about open meetings regulations and board members’ ensuring that ideas they share on their personal social media channels aren’t confused for the opinions of the board as a whole, Ousley said she intends to push for policy that allows for much wider use of modern communications tools by the board. She said the use of such channels will be expected by district parents who are from the millennial generation, like her.

“Our use of social media is very different than what folks who are a little older might be comfortable with,” she said. “We need to balance how we use it to make sure we’re not violating any open meetings laws or anything like that. But it’s a tool that we should be using.”

Guy said she believed all of these steps would be moves toward greater transparency.

“And when people talk about transparency, I don’t think what they mean is just more information. It’s about how decisions are being made,” she said. “In anything that comes before the board, there are going to be pros and cons. And at the end of the day, you have to make a decision and move on. But I think what people have been asking for is information on how we get there. Even if you don’t agree with the ultimate decision, at least you can see how the pros and cons were being thought through.”

Of course, the top priority for the new and sitting board members in the coming weeks will be review of the applications for the next superintendent. The board will have a four-hour session Jan. 20 to review Ray and Associates’ selection of top-prospects from the 65-applicant field as part of a process that should have the district making an offer to a candidate by the end of February.

“I’m really excited to look at our applicants, and I’m thrilled that there were that many people who want to be part of our team here,” Ousley said. “And more than anything I’m just thankful to everyone who has supported me through the campaign and shared ideas and information. I’m so grateful to have this opportunity.”

Mary Sinclair, see holdin her son Sam Huffman's jersey, ahead of the 2014 6A football championship, will be the new SM East area representative on the board.
Mary Sinclair, see holding her son Sam Huffman’s jersey, ahead of the 2014 6A football championship, will be the new SM East area representative on the board.