Our local elections in Lee’s Summit have experienced varying degrees of formidable discussion and hyperbole over the years at the annual Chamber of Commerce forums.
Forums that feature double-digit candidates and races among multiple districts can offer, some times, less substance than ones that feature fewer candidates or a narrower scope, like a board of education race.
Last week’s forum offered a little of everything.
Incumbent Ryan Murdock, former Lee’s Summit council member and city attorney Christine Bushyhead and political newcomers Rodrick Sparks and Michele Surber all took the stage at the Missouri Innovation Campus to a somewhat lean in-person crowd (far more watched online) to go over their sound bites and answers about specific qualifications they posses to serve on our school board.
Save one question about the CSIP rollout, the topics from moderators Kent Kirby and Drew Reynolds were on point and mostly relevant to the issues of the day in our district: growth, budgets, equity, salaries and student achievement among them.
Bushyhead was forced to tackle a topic that lingers on social media about her suitability to serve on the board since her son attends private school. She addressed it at least three different times at the forum, along with stressing what she calls (rightfully so), her “servant leadership” and reaffirming her resume, one that clearly stands out among the other candidates.
Murdock, wisely, reminded the audience of his teaching background in his opening statements. Sparks and Surber used those minutes to introduce themselves to the community.
The role, and, ultimately, performance of our school board and superintendent has been a rolling topic of conversation for years in our district. During the forum, most of the candidates focused on their role as hiring and supervising the superintendent. Which isn’t at all the wrong answer. Bushyhead said her role would also be to “provide leadership,” including directing the policies, culture, direction and tone.
“Our product is educated students,” she said, adding that a key piece of that goal is teachers and staff.
Candidate awareness of district priorities for 2020-21, set by the board, came into focus as well at the forum, with Surber and Sparks failing to mention any of the three priorities. Bushyhead came out firing, saying there wasn’t much substance or many action items in the priorities, noting she would focus on lower class sizes, kindergarten readiness and the education and achievement gaps. Murdock, the current BOE president, was quick to note that each priority did have action items attached and that, specifically, the communications priority had seen improvements in the district.
(Side note: he’s right, communications have improved under Katy Bergen).
Murdock and Bushyhead have clearly thought through the “future ready” discussion in LSR7 as well, with the board president noting the home of the forum — the MIC — as a shining example and the need to plan “for the jobs we don’t even know exist yet.” Bushyhead said the district would do well to continue workforce readiness through both four-year degrees and promoting skilled work.
How the district handled the pandemic was an inevitable topic.
“I think we’ve made strides and we’ve made mistakes,” Murdock admitted, saying the ping-ponging in November was one of the mistakes. Sparks said he would have liked better tools in the fall for virtual learning while Bushyhead pointed out how other districts opened up and made it happen for the 2020-21 school year, and did so as they (and we) had an entire summer to plan. Surber said she wished the district had gone to the community for ideas, which is one of those things that sounds nice, but honestly isn’t realistic.
An equity plan (now two years in the making) was bound to come up at the forum as well. Surber said the plan is not enough and Sparks asked for the plan that was voted on to be followed. Bushyhead called it “exclusive and not inclusive” and said it was “divisive.” Murdock took a deeper dive than most, noting the goals of hiring a diverse staff and including others such as special needs, LGBTQ students and even promoting girls in STEM programs.
As the prospect of virtual learning still looms over the district this semester and likely into the 2021-22 school year, candidates weighed in, with Surber saying virtual should always be an option now and Sparks noting some kids learn better virtually, while others need to be in the classroom. Bushyhead said she didn’t want to give kids a pass on classes they’ve failed during the pandemic; Murdock said we should expect some form of learning loss and gap as a result of COVID-19, but that the board and district should develop an academic plan that includes student intervention and recovery.
On teacher salaries, Bushyhead said that they need to “be paid and be paid now,” adding that the district has largely neglected paying educators what they deserve. Murdock, although he could not go into details, said he likes the chances of some movement in that area based on upcoming (but not yet released) Team LS recommendations. Sparks said if we don’t pay teachers well, they won’t show up to do their jobs, a statement that likely all teachers would take issue with.
School safety has to be an ongoing topic in our district, as we are not that far off from gun issues at Lee’s Summit High and a suicide by gun at Lee’s Summit North. Unfortunately, every candidate missed the obvious answer when this question was clarified at the forum: just stop doing active shooter drills. They are terrible for our children and their mental health, and experts have little if any evidence that they do any good.
While they missed that one, the candidates did have even more to say about public school legislation making its way through Jefferson City; homeschool athletes; school board recalls; curriculum; and the support our schools may or may not have from local state representatives like Keri Ingle, Rick Roeber and Dan Stacy (hint: two of these three are not friends of our public school system … I’ll let you investigate who.)
If you missed the forum or need a refresher on who’s sound bites landed and who may have the best resume to lead our Board of Education, catch the video here.