COLUMBIA — Sam Phillips is aware of the expectations that come with the job title, "lawyer,” and how that could affect his role on the Columbia School Board.
“There is an assumption that the law part will make a forceful member of the school board, and that’s fair,” he said.
But Phillips, one of nine candidates for board in the April 7 election, also said lawyers should be able to accomplish things without “using the forceful nature of our learned skill.” Phillips said he thinks he can do that.
Phillips, who has a bachelor’s degree in public administration and a law degree from MU, said he hopes his experience in finance and law will aid his candidacy. He has worked with educational law organizations and ran the trust department of Exchange National Bank.
Currently, Phillips is the deputy chief disciplinary counsel for the Missouri Supreme Court and has traveled the world with the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law initiative. Phillips has also worked with local lawyers on ethics issues.
“Whether it is public service, nonprofit foundation boards and strategic planning issues," Phillips said, "I think it helps for a board member to have that kind of experience with those types of organizations.”
Phillips said that, through his work, he has developed a thick skin, and that, in addition to his “lawyer mentality,” it will contribute to his success.
Attorney Tim Harlan said he thinks his friend has the traits necessary for a successful school board member.
“He brings two important qualities to the board,” Harlan said. “One, a long experience in asking hard questions. Two, the ability to work with people and bring them together. He seems to have a natural talent for listening to everyone and getting all the facts before making a decision.”
Phillips said that while consensus is the ultimate goal, it is not always how the decision-making process ends up.
"We need to be working, literally, at having a cooperative attitude, and knowing we won't have consensus on everything, but knowing it should be clear to the public that the board thought about it, considered what to do and worked it out," Phillips said.
Phillips, 53, father of Price, 9, who attends Grant Elementary School, said teachers' voices are not being heard. He said he wants to make school board meetings a place where teachers feel comfortable having their say in district issues and that school board members need to take initiative and involve themselves in the district.
“It doesn’t just have to be at board meetings that teacher-board conversations occur,” Phillips said. “Board members can’t act individually, but they can listen individually and they can seek advice individually, and they can go visit schools and gain information on their own.”
Phillips also suggested looking into forums between the school board and teachers.
“We need to look into if teachers are actually getting a voice in these forums and whether teachers that might not always agree with the administration are getting a voice," Phillips said. "It seems to me that both with the teachers, and with the public, we need to recognize our critics are sometimes our best supporters because they wouldn’t be criticizing if they didn’t care enough to tell us."
Recognizing the importance of communication to a community, Phillips said the board needs to give more credit to the community and take those opinions into account.
“I think it is very important that we learn from our teachers — our teachers have a lot of expertise in teaching, not surprisingly. But it seems that at least some teachers feel like they haven’t been consulted either individually or collectively, on policy," he said. "I think we have to try to do that, to try to not only listen but to actively seek out their view on all sorts of issues that the board is facing."
One issue under greater board and public scrutiny continues to be how to teach math: through traditional, step-by-step math lessons or by integrating problem-solving into a real-world context. Phillips said he plans to consult experts when considering the best course of action for Columbia students, saying there must be a balance to ensure every child receives the appropriate education.
“There are math education experts that are convinced that kids learn better through studying math conceptually, and they have some data from around the world to back them up, that much we know,” Phillips said. “Math is going to have to be balanced.”
Phillips said he wants to create an environment where children can have individualized learning. He said this can only be accomplished with smaller class sizes. Phillips said children have different educational needs and the district can only cater to those needs if teachers have the resources to recognize and cater to them.
“It is a key goal of mine, and probably of many of the other board members and board candidates, to keep class size small, because teachers can succeed that way and individualize their teaching," Phillips said. He said realizing the goal will be difficult given the district’s budget constraints.
“The use of the reserve funds for hiring additional people was a mistake," he said, referring to a decision made by the board last year.
"We know that, and I think most people agree, to get the resources that we need to get to that next level, that we will have to regain the confidence of the community,” Phillips said, "because without their support or their trust we won’t be able to get them to support any tax levies."
Phillips said his experience and motivation will be beneficial to renewing the community’s faith in the school board.
“I do think that legal, financial and leadership experience will be of great benefit to me,” Phillips said. “I also think that my commitment to consensus-building will be beneficial to the board and, ultimately, to the community.”
Phillips said his goals for the district reflect those of his community.
“We have a very good school system," he said, "but Columbia expects it to be a great school system.”