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Two superintendent candidates share ideas for district

Tuesday, February 3, 2009 | 4:17 p.m. CST; updated 10:15 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 11, 2009

COLUMBIA — Chris Belcher and Jacque Cowherd, who are among six candidates for superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, have similar views on the direction of the district and cite similar qualifications for the post.

"Everything influences student achievement," said Cowherd, deputy superintendent of Columbia Public Schools until 2007. "Teacher salaries, the bond issue for the new high school and district finances all fit together like a big jigsaw puzzle."

“We must try to balance cutting budgets, meeting the needs of our students and maintaining competitive teacher salaries,” said Belcher, superintendent of the Kearney R-1 School District. According to its Web site, the district northeast of Kansas City serves about 3,600 students.

The names of the other four candidates have not yet been made public. On Sunday, the Columbia School Board canceled public receptions and interviews scheduled for this week with two or three finalists to accommodate an interview with the sixth preliminary candidate.

The school board is scheduled to interview the sixth candidate at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. After that, the finalists will be selected. The rescheduled public receptions have not yet been formally set.

Belcher interviewed with the board Jan. 26. He said Tuesday that the process is still in preliminary stages but that he and the board are looking for a good fit, saying it's up to board members to determine whether his background reflects what they want for Columbia Public Schools.

Curriculum and student achievement have guided the leadership of his district, he said. “Our district has seen remarkable student achievement gains in recent years,” Belcher said.

Belcher said his district operates on a much smaller budget than Columbia Public Schools and has lower expenses per student. “Still, no matter the size of the budget, the processes are basically the same,” he said.

The Kearney R-1 district eliminated teaching positions and closed an elementary school last year, moves he acknowledges were not popular with the community. He said these and other budget cuts saved the district $1 million over two years; its overall budget for 2008-09 was $33 million.

Cowherd, currently of FairCom Corp., a database software firm in Columbia, interviewed Jan. 28. He, too, cited the need to balance finances and improve student achievement.

Cowherd said that if the superintendent can get everyone to move toward the same goals on the same timeline, it will feed student achievement. He said he wants to facilitate better communication between the district and the community, including asking for input before major decisions are made. 

“My experience with the district means I will be able to hit the ground running,” said Cowherd, whose previous responsibilities included oversight of the budget, transportation and school safety.


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