COLUMBIA — The six candidates for the Columbia School Board are weighing in on district issues and their own priorities as they ramp up to the April 5 election. For more background, see our profiles of each candidate.
1. What sets you apart from other candidates?
Helen Wade: My personal experience, my legal experience working with families and lastly, I’m a mom. My kid goes to Columbia Public Schools, and I have very much a vested interest in making the best school system there can be in this town.
My work with families and kids over my entire professional career has given me a passion for their welfare. I am an advocate. It’s not going to change if I am on the School Board, or practicing law or doing anything else. I believe kids are extraordinary.
Jonathan Sessions: What separates me from not only the current board members, but also a lot of the other folks that are running, in addition to that year of experience, is, I’m local. I grew up in this community. I spent my entire K-12 career in the Columbia Public Schools. In addition to that, I have been actively involved in the community. I have my degree in education. My degree is in elementary education. I am the only person coming to the table with that.
Dave Raithel: I strive for coherency and consistency. I need to hear the pros and cons. I need to consider all the alternatives. I have got to make sure that I haven’t overlooked some consideration.
I’m not easily ignored, and on the one hand that I have no patience, but I would insist that I have the patience to bother you as long as it takes to get the answer I’m looking for. It’s like I will not go away. Persistence.
Liz Peterson: I have been in nearly all of the district's schools in some capacity in the last four years, most in the last two, and have really had the opportunity to get to know what CPS is really about. I've been a substitute teacher, a volunteer, a parent, PTA member and a graduate researcher.
I believe healthy teachers and healthy kids are what is best for performance and achievement in the classroom.
I have an open mind, open ears and a positive approach to problem-solving. I will always be looking for the most effective way to solve issues in the district.
Tom Rose: I do all of the financial management with my business, so over several years ... I've become very self-educated about how all of that works at the government and state levels and all that.
Through my involvement, especially with early childhood education, I've become educated about that in particular and feel that I can speak with some experience and some knowledge on those issues. The other thing is that I just love being in the classroom and seeing these kids.
Sara Dickson: I really don't feel that there currently is that voice that is going to provide that balance to reflect the view of our senior citizen community, our single business professionals who may not have children at this time but who pay taxes.
2. What can the district do to close the achievement gap?
Helen Wade: The achievement gap certainly needs to be addressed with regard to the type of curriculum and programming and environment children are in during the school day and after they get to school in kindergarten.
However, I don’t think a school district can be successful ultimately in dealing with an achievement gap and closing that achievement gap unless they invest in early childhood education — addressing, involving and reaching out to the kids that are going to be in our school system — whose achievement we will ultimately be measuring before they get here.
Jonathan Sessions: We need to get more and more students we can get into early childhood education programs so they are more and more prepared. There’s already a gap between our students in kindergarten. The gap already exists before they get to us.
To expect the public schools to close it when it exists between birth and 5 years old, just as much as it exists between kindergarten and 12th grade, is not possible. It doesn’t fall completely on the school, but a good portion of it does. The schools can work to do it. But it’s harder and harder to close that gap when our hands keep getting tied by decreasing revenues.
Dave Raithel: I’m not sure there is a simple thing. One of the things I have said is that you’re not going to close the achievement gap if the kids who are doing poorly also happen to be the kids more likely to get in trouble and be suspended, if your solution to their behavior is to kick them out.
I don’t have any proposals. I have been doing what I can, even though I have never been in academia since I finished my graduate program. I am a reader. I have arguments. I look at what people propose and I have been trying to find, trying to learn what I can so I can talk about it as an informed person.
Liz Peterson: While closing the achievement gap is a worthy goal, I think it should be an end and not a means in which we create policy. I think a preschool program that’s offered to absolutely anyone who needs it, without allowing facilities or budget or space to limit who you can offer it to, is a major step in decreasing the achievement gap.
If you were to have 100 percent of kids or even 90 percent of kids coming into kindergarten essentially on the same page of their learning in all areas, in particular their literacy and their readiness to learn, you’ve got a whole new system — nearly endless possibilities for those kids and those teachers.
Tom Rose: My answer to that has been a need to emphasize quality early childhood education and opportunities so that we cannot have an achievement gap already existing when they enter school, kindergarten.
That’s one area — to me that’s the key area — that we can do that, and studies have shown that’s not only good for the child but good for the economy, good for the community as well. … The return on the investment is high on that.
Sara Dickson: At the heart of it is the question — why is it that so many of the children in our district's public schools cannot read? That's the big question that seems to be on everyone's mind, so I want to find the answer to that.
It's going to take focus on individualized instruction, finding where those kids are in their learning and building them up from there, and working together as teachers, as a district and as a community.
One idea, too, would be to bring in some role models from the community so those individuals can inspire kids to greatness.
3. How do you feel about the current budget situation?
Helen Wade: I think the budget is a huge challenge. But it is a challenge because it impacts on so many of the other issues that are so pervasive in our district — things like the achievement gap, the graduation rate. It’s the first domino, and when that first domino becomes a little unstable, you have a very, very much far-reaching effect on all of the things we do as a school system.
At this point, when you look at our budget you look at what programs are remaining, and you look at what our plan is over the next five years, which includes deficit spend, there’s not much left to cut. There really isn’t.
Jonathan Sessions: There’s no good answer to that. There’s no one answer to that. The answer is we trim away at what some might consider fat, some might consider legitimate programs and muscle until we get down to the bone. It’s an unfortunate circumstance. As a district, the way that we have to make these decisions is very backward.
The goal is to make sure the things we do have to cut, because we’re going to have to make some tough calls, is a matter of cutting things in a way that’s equitable to all students, and we do it in a way that doesn’t interfere with student success.
Dave Raithel: I am not going to pretend that I know that the money is being spent right or that it isn’t being spent right. I am not going to have that arrogance. It is going to take a budget cycle for me to figure out exactly how that works.
I will support sending a tax levy increase to the voters of the district. I am not disposed to “target” any particular kind of program in the district to address budget constraints – e.g., I do not believe in “pay to play.”
I believe the performing arts, the plastic arts, the fine arts, are as integral to education as “readin' writin' n'rithmetic.” I am from the humanities. The world needs more of them — in more senses than one.
Liz Peterson: You know, I’m about responsible use of resources, whether it’s dollars or real estate, and I believe that in times like this, if you can tighten your belt, and obviously they’ve had to, but if you can find a way to excel in a time like this, that’s when you know that you’re doing things right.
It’s important that we continue to support our teachers, continue to be competitive as an employer so that we can get great teachers in and serve our kids. But I think just looking at every detail of every dollar that comes in as well as that’s going out, and really focusing on how do we get our kids to the end point, which is the achieving and productive adult.
Tom Rose: I tend to be rather conservative about my budgeting, as well, and I think Dr. Belcher's done a good job of doing that. There are just so many unknowns that you could never know from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.
I'm realizing the need to have the reserves where we have them so we can do that planned spend-down. So I'm really pretty pleased with where we are with that. And it seems like, in the state of Missouri at least, we're in a lot better shape than many districts might be.
Sara Dickson: (We need to) live within our means by reallocating resources to spend taxpayer dollars wisely without tax increases.
When I'm elected to a seat on the board, I'm going to open up the books, and everything's going to be on the table.
4. Name one concern you have regarding the district that has not been brought up.
Helen Wade: There should be more of a focus on making sure our city understands early and often the challenges that our district faces.
The district needs to do a better job of explaining to the public in maybe different ways, we have challenges, folks. … It’s a bigger town. Nobody is going to care about a problem if they don’t know it’s there.
Jonathan Sessions: Previous administrations … didn’t recognize the important of innovation in technology. You look at other districts' operating budgets; the amount they allocate for technology is dramatically higher than the amount we allocate to technology.
It’s hurt the district long-term. We have ignored it for many, many years rather than keeping it up-to-date.
Dave Raithel: The one thing that I have asked people about and everyone kind of goes, “yeah, we’re not quite sure,” is how the Career Center is going to fit with the new high school as far away as it is.
One of the reasons Hickman is going to go to the block system is the transportation time to get kids down to the facility. I first asked teachers at the Career Center when I went down there for the open house, "How do you think it’s going to work with the new high school?” The answer was, “Well we’re not really sure yet.”
We’re not going to be able to solve this problem unless we admit out loud: It’s in the wrong place.
Liz Peterson: Health. Absolutely. It's not discussed enough by the policy makers, and it's not put into action enough by the policy makers, the teachers. I'm not saying the teachers are doing it wrong. I'm saying we have to stop talking about it and start doing everything we can.
I think we ought to look into offering health-related education to our professionals, and our classroom teachers, staff. I think the environment itself is set by the leader, and the leader in the classroom is the teacher, and the leader in the school is the principal. Those people should be setting healthy examples, and we should be giving them the tools to set those examples.
Tom Rose: There are a lot of things we're looking to address. One is certainly our space issues and our facilities. Having quality space available for our students and what we're going to need in the future, and trying to get rid of our trailers that aren't efficient.
Another concern is ... in order for us to be successful, we need to have an effective but satisfied staff, employees, our teachers especially, but all levels of employees.
Sara Dickson: The tax situation. One thing when we're talking about the budget is that I feel citizens of Columbia are already taxed enough.
So many of our homeowners are senior citizens. They're on fixed incomes, and they pay taxes all their lives. I feel it would be irresponsible to force them to bear the burden and risk them possibly losing their homes by suggesting other tax increases, property tax increases. I believe we have to live within our means.
5. If elected, what do you hope to have accomplished by the end of your three-year term?
Helen Wade: We are going to have to work within the confines of a very small budget, and we are going to have to make really prudent and reasonable decisions with how to manage those funds and how you manage the potential for requesting additional funds.
I would like to at the end of my three-year term, if elected, be able to look around and say, OK, we did a really, really good job on handling these major changes. We were open with the community. I was open with the community. I involved myself in those discussions and debates in a way that I felt was meaningful.
Jonathan Sessions: Obviously a smooth opening to Muriel Williams Battle High School. I want to see that opening be successful and smooth with everything from just making sure the doors are open to making sure the transitions for two years after that are very, very smooth.
I want that to be a successful, smooth and celebrated occasion.
Dave Raithel: If by the end of three years I were to see a reduction in suspensions from school — maybe not in absolute numbers because the student body is going to go up, so in proportion — and if student performance scores had gone up … I’ll count that as a success for the board. If we’re able to pay teachers what they’re really worth, that would count as a success.
Liz Peterson: I hope to have made a positive impact on the environment in Columbia Public Schools. I hope to have facilitated community involvement in the district in general as well as in the schools specifically. And I hope to have positively impacted health, physical activity and teacher and student achievement.
Tom Rose: One of the things I was looking for when I first started on was more financial stability. We really didn't have good five-year plans and all that. I think we're approaching that.
I would like to see increased acceptance of the importance and the effectiveness of providing quality early childhood experiences for all kids, especially those that are of highest need ... And heck, I just hope that, of course in time, that we see the narrowing of the achievement gap, that we see positive performance for all students.
Sara Dickson: Increased transparency regarding the effectiveness and types of curriculum and materials being used in our classrooms. Enhanced communication between CPS and all stakeholders, especially our taxpayers who do not have children enrolled in CPS, a record of voting for no tax increases. Increased transparency between the board/administration and taxpayers in financial decisions before they are made.
Modifying the schedule of the board meetings to ensure public comment and discussion of the agenda action items occur before the day of the vote. Ensuring each individual making a public comment at a board meeting has the opportunity to meet with a staff member before leaving to schedule an appointment to more fully address his or her concern. Effectively listening to and voicing the concerns of our voters before the rest of the board and administration.