2021 general election forum: Shawnee Mission school board

Shawnee Mission general election forum 2021

Six Shawnee Mission school board candidates participated in the Post's general election forum on Thursday. From left to right: Zach Roberts, incumbent SM East area member Mary Sinclair, April Boyd-Noronha, Sean Claycamp, Brian Neilson and At-Large incumbent member Heather Ousley. Post Editor Kyle Palmer, far right, moderated the event. Photo credit Leah Wankum.

COVID-19 protocols, the district’s efforts at diversity, equity and inclusion, and students’ use of digital technology were some of the topics discussed at the Post’s forum Thursday night featuring candidates vying for three seats on the Shawnee Mission school board.

Three of the board’s seven total seats are contested this year.

Incumbent At-Large member and current Board President Heather Ousley faces a challenge from investment banker Brian Neilson.

In the SM East area, incumbent board member Mary Sinclair is being opposed by orthopedic surgeon Zach Roberts.

In the SM West area, two candidates are vying for the seat being vacated by Rev. Laura Guy: cybersecurity consultant April Boyd-Norohna and medical salesperson Sean Claycamp.

The Post livestreamed the candidate forum on our Facebook page, and the entire event can be viewed in the embedded link below.

The questions are below, with corresponding timestamps if you would like to fast-forward to a particular issue:

  1. Fair to say that the most discussed topic in Shawnee Mission over the past year, as in many school districts, has been its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. School board members here and elsewhere have been confronted with an unprecedented crisis, and had to make critical decisions that involve complex science and passionate emotions. What do you see as the school board’s proper role in navigating the COVID-19 pandemic in setting policies that affect student health and the learning environment? [13:48]
  2. Currently, Shawnee Mission — like most other public school districts in Johnson County — requires masking for all students, staff and visitors inside its facilities. Families can request exemptions based on certain medical conditions. There are also situations, like eating lunch or playing sports indoors, where students can take their masks off. There is no specified end date to this mask policy. First part to this question is a simple YES or NO, and then I’ll ask a follow up of each of you. But first: do you support the district’s current universal mask policy? [26:05]
    1. If elected (or re-elected), you may very well face a vote in relatively short order on whether the district’s mask rule should continue. How will you decide whether the universal mask policy should stay in place or be loosened or rolled back? What evidence or data will you use in deciding for yourself whether this policy exists going forward and in what form?
  3. Teacher morale was a major issue in SMSD before the pandemic. Lengthy negotiations over a new teacher contract in the winter of 2019 and 2020 left some hard feelings. Then, the pandemic happened. SMSD saw an unprecedented wave of early retirements and teachers quitting last fall. And the district began this year with some 20 open teaching positions, and has contracted with several outside agencies to try and fill dozens of staff vacancies, that is teachers and also for jobs like custodians and classroom aides. As a member of the next school board, what steps would you want to see the district take to help support teachers and staff and boost morale? [38:50]
  4. Maybe now more than ever, parents, families and students are aware of the impact technology can have on learning — both good and bad — after the pandemic last school year forced many kids to spend big chunks of time learning at home. In Shawnee Mission, use of one-to-one digital technology was a hot topic long before the pandemic… with some concerned parents raising alarms about the potentially damaging effects of extended screen time and kids’ access to inappropriate material at school. In general, do you think the district’s use of one-to-one technology has advanced student learning or hurt it? What, if anything, could be improved about its implementation in classrooms? [47:07]
  5. We have had some readers raise concerns about student achievement, expressing worries that state assessment data suggest that too many SMSD students are either behind or not on track to be college and career ready. For instance, some readers have cited state testing data from 2019, the last year of state assessment data, which showed about 35% of SMSD 10th graders landed in the lowest quartile when it came to math, and 26% of 10th graders fell in the lowest quartile when it came to English Language Arts. For some readers, those percentages seemed too high. What do you state assessment benchmarks say about where SMSD students are at in terms of being college and career ready? And what can the school board do to push more students towards higher achievement? [57:15]
  6. In the 99-00 school year, about 88% of SMSD students were white, according to district data. By the 18-19 year, the proportion of White students in SMSD had dropped to 63%. Now, Black students make up 9% of the district’s population, Latino students 19% and Asian-American’s nearly 3%. In the context of those demographic shifts, two years ago SMSD hired its first-ever diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator and also launched a three-year cycle of teacher training known as Corwin ‘Deep Equity’ aimed at training staff members on “culturally responsive teaching practices.” These steps were recommended to the board by a parent-led committee that included several Black parents who said the district at that time needed to improve on how it served an increasingly diverse student body, especially students of color. Given that history, do you support the district’s current approach to diversity, equity and inclusion? If so, can you give examples of how it supports student learning? If not, explain what you would want to see done differently and how that would impact student learning? [1:07:04]