COLUMBIA — Michelle Pruitt and Christine King are the newest members of the Columbia School Board.
Celebrating at the home of her campaign treasurer, Linda Dellsperger, Pruitt, the top vote-getter, said she is happy with the results. "We've been working for this for three months," said Pruitt, an information technology specialist for the USDA's Agricultural Research Service at MU. "I just thank all of my supporters."
Although she couldn't cast a ballot for her mother, Pruitt's youngest child, 11-year-old Stella, gave a double thumbs-up as she ran by her mother at the party. She and Pruitt kept dancing together as Dellsperger called out the election results. Pruitt, 43, has served on district committees for years; two of her children attend the public schools, and her oldest is a Hickman High School graduate.
King celebrated more privately at her home with her family and a few close friends. "I really wanted to get into the schools, and I feel like I've done that — and it feels wonderful," said King, formerly with State Farm Insurance Co. King, also 43, has two children in the public schools.
"My entire family is here," King said right after the election was unofficially called shortly before 10 p.m. "I think the kids don't really understand, but I know they are excited for me. Nicholas understands I'm going to be involved at school, but I think he thinks he's going to be getting more homework."
The election drew about 10,500 people, or about 10 percent of registered voters. The pair outdrew seven other candidates: Sam Phillips, Marc Bledsoe, Jeannine Craig, Adam Sorg, Greg Flippin, Bill Merideth and Dan Holt. Pruitt garnered 3,894 votes, King 2,858. They will be sworn in on Monday evening and then go straight into their first board meeting. .
With this election, five of the seven board members are new or relatively new. Newcomers Rosie Tippin and Ines Segert and Tom Rose, who had been appointed to the board in 2007 when Don Ludwig stepped down, were elected last year. Jan Mees was elected for the first time in 2007; Karla DeSpain, elected in 2001, is serving her third — and what she has said is her final — term, ending in 2010.
Ludwig, who was vice president of the board when he stepped down after five years of service, said it takes about a year and a half to acclimate. People typically come onto the volunteer board knowledgeable about certain subjects, but, he said, "wrapping your arms around" running the district takes time and seasoning.
"You have to vote on cap requirements, payroll, classroom materials, (supplying) bus transportation," Ludwig said. "It's almost like running a mini city."
But he doesn't think that board turnover poses much risk to the district. "It may be beneficial as the people on the board have a newer, modern point of view on how to run things," Ludwig said.
This year, the board faces leadership changes as well: The seats Pruitt and King will fill have belonged to board President Michelle Gadbois and Vice President Steve Calloway.
The election results do not appear to have been directly related to fundraising. Phillips raised the most money of the four who reported, with $11,410.57 as of March 30, according to documents from the Boone County Clerk's Office. Pruitt followed with $5,336, Bledsoe with $3,809 and King with $2,225. (Dellsperger, Pruitt's treasurer, said Tuesday evening that the campaign had raised $4,500 and had $75 left.)
Assistant Superintendent Lynn Barnett, who has served as board secretary for three years and is retiring from the district in June after 26 years, said the high number of newcomers to the board presents special challenges.
"It’s critical that board members develop working relationships with the other board members, and that takes time," Barnett said. "When there are so many new people, it really is a challenge for them." She said the administration sets up an orientation for new board members to familiarize them with the district's programs and procedures.
With Gadbois and Calloway leaving, new leadership will need to be elected. Barnett said that although it's not the rule, those positions go to board members with the most seniority. DeSpain has been president and is unlikely to hold the post again. Barnett said Mees is likely next in line for the presidency but added the decision belongs to the board.
Pruitt and King inherit several challenges, many of them longstanding. They include: a $3.2 million deficit; how to proceed on paying for a new high school and other bricks-and-mortar needs; how and when to ask voters for an increase to the property tax levy; whether to operate the teacher salary schedule or suspend it for another year; and how to continue to build community trust.
In looking forward, Pruitt said it's now a matter of getting to know the other members and communicating in a friendly and cooperative way. "It needs to be a team effort," said Pruitt, whose party was attended by board member Segert.
"We have really reached out to teachers in our community," King said of her campaign efforts, "and I plan to deliver on my promise to get their voices heard."
"I'm really looking forward to learning from Michelle as we learn together on this new school board," King continued. "I would encourage the seven who were not elected to e-mail me or Michelle with their ideas because I know they are all dedicated to this district and want to see it thrive."
The district will also have a new superintendent. Chris Belcher, superintendent of the Kearney R-1 School District near Kansas City, begins in July. He follows former Superintendent Jim Ritter, who resumed his old job on an interim basis after Phyllis Chase retired in August after five years with the Columbia district.
Belcher said a school board of newcomers suffers from not having more experienced hands, but the excitement that comes with being new makes members more energetic and eager to learn.
"A lot of (issues) cycle around," Belcher said. "But we have a very senior administration that should help with (the inexperience)."
Belcher said he's been reading about the candidates in the news media. "It seems we have nine people with a diversity of backgrounds," he said, "and the discussion will lead to making the best decision."
Missourian reporters Taylor Barney, Mallory Vargon, Amanda Branco and Joshua Nichol-Caddy contributed to this article.