School safety was an easy platform choice for Columbia School Board candidate Russ Still — nine years ago.
It was a year before Missouri passed the Safe Schools Act, and crime in schools was the issue of the day. Columbia residents elected Still to his first board term in 1996, and again in 1999 and 2002. This April, when his third term expires, he will not seek reelection.
“I’ve enjoyed my time on the board, but nine years was enough,” he said.
Still graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in history and was a junior high teacher in Michigan from 1968 to 1972. After his daughters, Allie and Susannah, were born, Still’s interest in education continued to grow.
His family moved to Columbia, where he received a law degree at MU and shifted his career to a disability and workers’ compensation lawyer. Even though the career change was drastic, Still remained committed to education and turned his attention to the school board.
During his three terms, Still said the school district has changed how it addresses school violence. Matters of violence are taken more seriously and the district is quicker to relay safety concerns to the Police Department, he said.
Still said his campaign today would have a much different focus, involving lobbying and upholding standards of excellence.
“I would stress the need to be active politically at the state level,” he said.
To improve education, the district needs more funding or it will have to raise taxes, he said, and further budget cuts are not an option.
“We’ve saved money on workers compensation by utilizing a self-insured plan, by refinancing bonds … but actual instruction is very difficult to cut,” he said.
Still thinks an increase in funding would help to maintain the current instructional environment in schools.
No Child Left Behind
Carrying out the programs mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal plan that sets the standards for schools to meet each year, is another issue. “No Child Left Behind wants greater achievement, and in order to do that you need everyone to work together; you need greater resources,” he said.
Still said increased state funding could mean smaller class sizes, increased technology and better parent-to-teacher communication, leading, theoretically, to higher test scores.
“I’d like to see the kind of programs we’re putting in at West Boulevard, where we have more intensive staff to student ratios,” Still said.
West Boulevard Elementary is participating in a model school program this year, with smaller class sizes, more home to school communication and an emphasis on literacy.
He also said more money would help solve the achievement gap — a disparity in standardized test scores between black and white students. Despite a lack of funds, the district is already trying to close the gap.
Testing is helping to identify children who are behind academically earlier, but Still said he would like to see a more well-rounded approach to closing the gap.
“We need to deal with the whole family; we’re not taking on just the students, but the whole family,” he said.
Standardized testing is another part of the federal act that is often criticized, but Still said testing stems from a national desire to see more accountability within the public school system.
“There’s greater public scrutiny of schools (today), people wanting to see quantifiable results, more of a consistent curriculum,” he said.
Still also said No Child Left Behind followed this trend as opposed to starting it.
“It is part of people’s need to make a more specific curriculum,” he said, in reference to the act.
He said the approach isn’t perfect because standardized testing cannot measure all aspects of student achievement, but that it’s still something the community finds important.
Changes in the school district
Besides becoming more analytical, he said the district is working to increase the age bracket, so more programs can be made available. “We’re going toward extending to (teaching) ages three to 20,” Still said.
Preschools that parents do not have to pay additional fees for are available at all Title One schools throughout the district.
To qualify for the program, children must test lower than what is considered standard on tests that measure their development.
Still said he would be in favor of having public preschools open to all students, which the district is also working toward.
He said the district has also developed education programs that extend past high school. The A+ Program, for example, awards seniors in high school who meet specific achievement standards with two years of tuition at area community colleges.
Offering and maintaining such programs, as well as hiring the best possible staff, is what Still said must continue for the district to increase student success.
Still said his years on the board have taught him about how the school system works.
“It’s a much more complicated process than I thought it would be … I have a better appreciation for us doing as well as we have done,” he said.
Still will continue to work as an attorney at Harlan, Harlan and Still and said he will continue to be active in education, but has not yet decided in what capacity.