COLUMBIA — In front of more than 100 people, Chris Belcher, a finalist for the position of superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, drew strong audience reactions with laughs, applause and even a shout.
The loudest cheers followed Belcher's statement that he would consult teaching staff before making decisions regarding specific curriculum.
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“The longer I've been in this (position), the dumber I've become,” Belcher joked, “but the more collaborative I've become.”
Belcher, 48, said teachers and parents want to feel their needs are being heard and that there is a plan.
Parent activist Robin Hubbard agreed with Belcher on many points, especially regarding the district's budget.
“He hit it right on the head,” Hubbard said. “I've been saying for years I want a five-year budget plan, not a yearly one.”
Belcher said the district's finances are uncertain for the next few years. He said there could not be a new tax levy because, in the current economy, it would be inappropriate and wouldn't pass. But he admitted that, eventually, there would need to be new levies to increase revenue.
Retired Columbia Public Schools teacher Tony Naylor said of Belcher, "I feel really good. I don't have a dog in this fight, but this guy is smart.”
Laura Sandstedt, president of Columbia Public Schools Employee Organization, said teachers were happy the candidate expressed an interest in transparency and fostering open dialogue with teachers. She said staff feel decisions have been made without their input.
“The more we try to make everything the same for everybody, the less control teachers have in their classrooms,” Sandstedt said.
Sandstedt and other staff members met with both candidates in meetings before their respective receptions. She said the other candidate, Skip Deming, 62, provided the group with detailed responses to its questions. She also said Belcher revealed his plans for addressing the needs of educators.
“He would sit down with different people in different positions and ask them to tell him three things they want to change and two things not to touch," Sandstedt said.
Sandstedt plans to meet with School Board President Michelle Gadbois on Friday to share the opinions of district faculty in the selection of the new superintendent.
Although the decision is ultimately the school board's, Gadbois said she plans to meet with teachers and encourages input from the public. She said the public's interest is fantastic and the board's decision is extremely important, one that will guide Columbia for years to come.
“We certainly won't jump to any quick decisions,” Gadbois said. “We have to choose the person who shows well-roundedness in finance and curriculum and is willing and able to communicate with the entire population of Columbia.”
Gadbois said whichever candidate best meets those criteria will have her vote, but that a final decision from the board should not be expected before next week.
For more information about the session, go to SchoolHouseTalk, the Missourian's education blog.