COLUMBIA — The Columbia School Board candidate forum, hosted Friday afternoon by the Boone County Muleskinners, began as a lighthearted buffet lunch for members and the public to get to know the six school board candidates a little better.
Twenty minutes into the luncheon, however, the social atmosphere quickly turned sour as Muleskinner president Kay Callison stepped up to the podium to get the question-and-answer session for the candidates under way. Sean Spence, vice president of programming for Muleskinners and a candidate for state representative of the 25th district, moderated the room full of people used to speaking their minds.
Five of the six school board candidates attended the session in Stephens College’s Stamper Commons, and a hodgepodge of public figures from numerous government offices throughout Boone County and Missouri — as well as many individuals hoping to win over concerned Columbia voters in other arenas — put away their personal agendas for an hour to investigate the candidates who will face an election for three open seats April 8.
Tom Rose, a current member of the board, was the only candidate not in attendance because he had another meeting scheduled beforehand.
The Muleskinners, a local Democratic organization that meets at noon every Friday in Stamper Commons, is notorious for asking guests hard-hitting questions, so the candidates came to the luncheon knowing their platforms would be scrutinized.
Third Ward City Councilman Karl Skala asked the candidates how they respond to the perception that the school board is top-heavy and has too much insulation and secrecy.
“A lot of people want the increase in taxes — we see the good in it — but we want it to go to the kids,” Skala said.
Candidate Ines Segert, who sat beside Darin Preis, the school board vice president, agreed that the public perceives the board in a negative light.
“Many Columbia citizens are unsure to approve the tax levy because a) they don’t trust the current administration and b) they are frustrated that they are unable to have their voices heard,” Segert said.
Preis, the only incumbent candidate, retaliated by saying the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education defends Columbia Public Schools’ current administration size and salaries.
“Columbia Public Schools is one of the best in the state. We have received ‘distinction in performance’ four years in a row now,” Preis said. Only about 7 percent of Missouri’s 524 school districts are at the same level, he said.
Callison, who quietly listened while the candidates responded to Skala’s question, posed a new question: What is the role of the school board in relation to the superintendent?
“Evidently, (Superintendent Phyllis Chase) is setting the agenda. Aren’t you supposed to be the leaders, not the followers?” Callison asked the five candidates.
Segert responded by saying the board needs to reevaluate how community input is implemented into the decision-making process.
“The role of board members is to set policy that is concordant with community values and aspirations,” she said.
Candidate Rosie Tippen added that the board does not get enough input from experts when deciding on issues such as school curriculum and increasing the tax levy. She went on to say that “as an educator, to say that we have too much money or enough money in the district is just wrong. Teachers and staff can always use more resources.”
Preis defended the board, saying that board president Karla DeSpain sets the agenda, not Chase. “I know this, because I am the vice president. I see what goes on,” he said. “Our superintendent is one of the best we have seen, and we have more and more students doing well academically as a result.”
He also responded to Tippen’s allegation, saying that because the board members are not experts in each issue, they appoint committees with people who are.
“We don’t choose curriculum as a school board,” he said. “There are committees involving teachers, administration and community members as well.”
Afterward, Callison said she was not satisfied by the responses to her question. “Recently, the superintendent made a decision not to let board members see budget cuts before the school board meeting. That is outrageous.” Callison said. “As a school board member, you have to ask questions because you are elected by the public, and the public has a lot of questions.”
Candidate Arch Brooks did not hold back in his critique of the current administration.
“I see how they operate over at 1818 W. Worley St.,” he said, “and I want to rock the boat. I want to take it out to sea and flip it over and see who can swim.” He went on to argue that the administration is overpaid and accused them of “taking the taxpayers’ money and lining their own pockets with it.”
At the end of the hour-long session, the candidates were quick to remind attendees that despite their opposing agendas, the candidates had one common interest among them.
“We must not forget that kids are the reason we are here today,” candidate Gale Hairston said. “I took a leave day today, and this morning, I visited the high schools in Columbia and was reminded of how wonderful our school system is.”