COLUMN: Tales from the Columbia School Board forums

Thursday, March 11, 2010 | 3:47 p.m. CST; updated 10:34 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I’ve mentioned before that one of the valuable functions journalists perform for a generally ungrateful public is that we go places you don’t want to go and pay attention to dull but important issues so you don’t have to.

In that spirit, I’ve attended a couple of forums for Columbia School Board candidates in the past week. (Actually, I have no cause to whine. The Muleskinners, hosts of one forum, are a pretty congenial bunch, at least for Democrats. And the League of Women Voters even served refreshments Wednesday night.)

I made a few notes on your behalf:

— First, it’s an unusual election, with only five candidates running for three seats. Two positions are full three-year terms. The other is a one-year term created by the resignation of a board member last year. Given our community’s focus on education and the financial problems confronting the schools, I’d have expected more aspirants. Last year, we had nine hopefuls for two seats. None of this year’s five has talked much so far about the most important ballot issue, the biggest bond issue in our history. Jan Mees did write a pro-bond piece the Missourian published in print Thursday.

— Second, it’s too bad we can’t vote for both the candidates who are seeking the one-year position.

Phil Peters has been the most impressive of all the candidates. An MU law professor, he’s just coming off a two-year stint running a program that works to improve the readiness of pre-schoolers in poverty. His resume is full of other civic leadership.

Jonathan Sessions, his opponent, is young – by about 40 years the youngest of the candidates – but full of enthusiasm and already deeply engaged in the community and the schools.

—The two incumbents strike me as awfully nice, well-intentioned public servants. Neither seems to have quite the passion of Mr. Peters or Mr. Sessions. Perhaps that’s a function of experience.

Jan Mees, the current board president, emphasizes her years of experience as a volunteer and school librarian. She stresses that she and her board colleagues have learned and changed a lot in the past three years. Like all the candidates, she talks about the importance of skilled, well-paid teachers; but like all the candidates, she doesn’t explain how we’ll increase their pay.

Jim Whitt, a retiree from General Electric, occupies what has come to be the African-American seat on the board. He was appointed last year when ill health forced Rose Tippin to resign. She, in turn, had succeeded David Ballenger. Mr. Whitt has a five-point program that puts at the top raising achievement and closing the gap between minority and white students. The other candidates agree that’s important, but none has said just how we might do that.

— The non-incumbent running for a three-year term is Dan Holt, making his second try for the board. Mr. Holt, an unemployed banker, seems to rely a lot on his wife’s experience as a 25-year teacher in the Columbia schools. He says he’d insist on the “basics,” without specifying what that means. He also, in a response that worried me, said he thinks critics of the bond issue have “a valid point.”

— The visible and vocal spokesperson for those critics, whose slogan is “It’s Okay to Vote No,” is Robin Hubbard. She describes herself as the “loyal opposition.” She opposes mainly the planned new high school, which she characterizes as a "big box” built in the middle of nowhere. Her preferred alternative would be a set of smaller “learning centers” scattered through the central city.

I thought Superintendent Chris Belcher had much the better of their polite argument at the League session. For $120 million – and no tax increase – we’d get a third comprehensive high school, another elementary school, fewer transitions, fewer trailers and smaller classes for students and much-needed upgrades at existing buildings. To me, that looks like a really good deal.

That’s my report. No need to thank me.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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