SMSD Board of Education candidates on the issues: Improving relations between teachers, administration

Shawnee Mission teachers packed the board chambers Monday to lobby for a new contract after negotiations broke down last month.

Last month, we asked our readers what issues they wanted to hear the candidates running for local office address ahead of this fall’s local elections primary. Based on the input we received, we developed a five-item questionnaire for candidates running for the Shawnee Mission Board of Education.

Today, we are publishing the candidates’ responses to item three:

 Relations between teachers and the administration have been strained at times in recent years, with secondary teachers raising concerns about their six-section teaching schedules, and the NEA-Shawnee Mission dissatisfied with contract negotiations. What’s your view of the current status of administration-teacher relations in SMSD? What, if anything, do you think the district should be doing to improve them?

School District Member 1 (SM North area)

Lisa Feingold

The current lack of trust within the SMSD community has crippled collaboration, and the result is repeated stalemate and inability to set and accomplish goals. In order for our district community to thrive, the board of education, the superintendent, and NEA-SM need to be able to act as partners to make decisions.

This includes engaging in respectful discourse and negotiations around resource allocation, priorities, challenges, and identifying innovative solutions. Administration needs to rebuild trust. They must make a visible commitment to actively demonstrating that they value the expertise of teaching staff. The district’s top priority should be investing state-allocated funds into reducing classroom sizes, shifting secondary instructors back to teaching five sections, and meeting teachers’ compensation packages as intended by the state.

After listening to our district community at the October 14, 2019 SMSD BOE meeting, temporarily freezing administrators’ salaries, consolidating positions, re-assigning administrative support staff, and redefining administrators’ responsibilities could inform an effective approach to improving the fractured relationship between administration and the teachers that serve our students.

Brian Koon

From everything I’ve observed, relations between teachers and the SMSD administration is poor, and there seems to be little trust on either side. This problem, like so many others we’re dealing with in SMSD, has its origins in the previous administration. We didn’t get to a place of mistrust overnight.

It’s true that Secondary teachers are teaching 6/5 sections, but so are Elementary specialists, and that’s not fair to my children or yours. This 6/5 schedule was supposed to be a stop-gap measure which teachers could temporarily cope with, and teachers had an understanding that it wouldn’t become the new normal – instead, it’s gone on for years. This means that our administrators already expect SMSD teachers to work 20% more than every other teacher in the county by teaching 6/5 sections, and that’s before taking class size into account. All of this must end.

What should the district be doing differently to resolve the issue? The administration needs to demonstrate high levels of respect for teachers, and consistently make good on promises – like reducing class sizes and getting back to 5/5 sections.

1.) Throw open the district accounting books so that the Union negotiating team can see that there is no money to pay decent raises. Take away the perception that the SMSD is stashing money away rather than paying teachers.

2.) If there truly is no money left – and I look forward to the Fact Finding stage of negotiations – the district needs to give teachers every single non-monetary demand that they can. Let teachers elect their own Building Leadership Teams (BLTs), and have consistent staff meeting nights that don’t exceed contracted time, etc.

3.) Going forward, the district must commit to a plan for the 2020-2021 contract year, and plan to spend a significant amount of money to:

  • give teachers a good raise above the inflation rate
  • return to the standard of 5/5 sections for all teachers
  • hire more teachers for the purpose of reducing class size
  • Some combination of the above

We may have already reached a point where teachers would rather have smaller class sizes and teach five sections instead of higher pay, but I would want NEA-SM members to weigh-in.

The administration must make good on this commitment during 2020 contract negotiations to regain credibility.

We must retain our highly qualified, experienced, professional teachers. Teachers are the single most important part of every classroom.

Sara Goodburn (incumbent)

In my eight plus years on the board, I’ve seen example after example of our administrators working hard to create a positive, professional and collaborative culture for both our staff members and students. I believe that discord/friction is bound to be present whenever you have the district and the teacher’s union engaged in the negotiation process. I am supportive of moving to our secondary staff teaching five sections of classes. It is listed as a priority in the district’s new strategic plan and will be evaluated.

School District Member 3 (SM South area)

Brian S. Brown

For starters, the optics don’t look good. If the Shawnee Mission School District is truly wanting to recruit and retain quality educators, one could say that the recent actions leading to the unresolved contract discussions are not sending the appropriate message.

There is a strong push by educators that teach on the secondary level to go back to a 5/2 schedule versus the current 6/1 schedule. From conversations that I have had with educators, they feel that they are giving students the “acceptable minimum” that they can offer with their current capacity levels. They have cited that they are having to do more with less [qualify that by what every resource you wish to allocate]. Ultimately, they feel that are losing work / life balance.

The cost to make this shift would cost the Shawnee Mission School District an estimated several millions of dollars. Dollars that individuals have stated the district does not have.

As an individual that served on the 2019 SMSD Strategic Planning Committee, recruiting and retaining quality educators is something that was cited several times. However, with Shawnee Mission NEA and the Shawnee Mission School District not successfully completing contract negotiations to date this year, it appears to leave priorities open to one’s interpretation.

I believe that there exists an opportunity to create a collaborative dialogue to understand what it will require to understand and impact the concerns that educators have as it relates to the district’s budget constraints. Collectively working with operations and human resources, there is the potential to redesign the perception of our district’s culture and begin to experience positive trends regarding educator retention and teacher job satisfaction, while in good faith working to successfully continuing to negotiate the needs of the educators as well as the school district.

If the district shows a culture of supporting our educators, the message outside the district should be quite clear. We want high-value educators that will be able to positively impact our student’s future. If we build a culture that values the needs of our workforce, those educators will come; however, it will require an inside-out approach to impact the current perception regarding the district/educator divide.

Jessica Hembree

As a school board member, I will seek out input from all stakeholders and work to find solutions that are in the best interest of students. Our students are best served when the Board of Education, Superintendent and NEA are on the same page and working cooperatively to achieve a shared vision. When different bodies diverge in that vision, the Board of Education is composed of the elected representatives of the district’s patrons and as such should feel empowered to hold the superintendent accountable, rather than deferring. To do this job effectively, I will be responsible for understanding the complexities of the district, including the perspectives of students, parents, teachers and administrators.

Our teachers deserve our utmost respect for the incredibly difficult work they do each day. We show them this respect through fair compensation, and by giving them autonomy and opportunities to provide input to shape the character of their schools and to shape the district’s policies and agendas. Middle and secondary teachers have spoken powerfully about the need to return to five block sections rather than six. When teachers took on a sixth section, they understood it to be a temporary increase in workload that would not result in an increase in their total number of students. Since the policy began, class sizes have increased resulting in more students per teacher and less planning time. I’m hopeful that this can be prioritized within the budgeting process.

Attracting and retaining highly effective teachers will, ultimately take additional resources. We must do everything possible to offer competitive salaries to teachers. Recruiting, retaining and supporting our teachers is absolutely necessary to achieve strong student outcomes. Teacher input is incredibly valuable to school board members as they make important strategic and budgetary decisions.

I am committed to prioritizing teacher input. We must find ways to give teachers meaningful and supported opportunities to share their experience with the school board. I have talked to some teachers who don’t feel safe advocating for changes in our district. I’m disappointed to hear this. I hope to join other voices in encouraging the creation of district committees and task forces that can be safe spaces for teachers, parents, students and administrators to come together and problem-solve on behalf of our district. I think we need to create structured and sanctioned opportunities for teacher input into the work of the school board.

School District Member 5 (SM Northwest area)

Devin Wilson

There is work to be done to rebuild relationships and trust between teachers and administration. Rebuilding trust will not happen overnight. In putting students first, we must also prioritize teachers and support staff. Some of the sacrifices made by teachers were supposed to be temporary, like teaching six sections instead of five, which is a large increase in workload.

The hard truth is that the problems created by a decade of underfunding by the state legislature, combined with a five year phase-in of new dollars to reach a constitutionally adequate level of funding has left the district with a difficult situation that will take time and patience to resolve.

I fully support our teachers. They are the front lines and can make all the difference in the lives of our kids. We certainly need to continue to work on the salary schedule, and we also need to address other aspects of the teacher workload and working conditions. Ensuring we have smaller class sizes and reducing the workload of high school teachers requires more hiring. Meeting the needs of students with counselors, school social workers, nurses, librarians, and other special staff members takes resources as well.

With a new vision for the district as outlined in our strategic plan, new leadership implementing changes and steadily increasing funding, I am committed to helping restore trust and rebuilding relationships within our community. Clear communications, citizen involvement and thoughtful approaches to problem-solving will be the hallmark of my service on the board.

Jamie Borgman

Teachers are superheroes. I have knocked on over 4,000 doors and have met dozens of area teachers. Recently, on a Sunday afternoon, I knocked on a teacher’s door. She told me she was working on her middle school lesson plans. She had two little girls running around. It was very touching that she was giving up part of her weekend with her family to be the best teacher she could be. I believe if teachers taught five blocks instead of their current six, teachers would have more plan time which would benefit teachers AND students.

Teachers are on the ‘front line’ working with kids. We need to set our teachers up for success and that starts with listening to their needs. It is critical we are doing everything we can to attract and retain quality educators to ensure student success. I am the only Northwest area candidate endorsed by SMSD teachers (SM NEA) and I intend to work hard to make sure our teachers feel valued, heard, and we take action to support their needs. Students win when the district attracts and retains the very best teachers.

Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item four:

 The district is considering a new bond issue that would in part pay for the demolition and reconstruction of three schools in the near-term, with the potential for other building replacements possible in the mid-term. Do you support the idea of a new bond issue that would in part fund building replacements? What process should the district be using to identify priority projects for the bond funds?