Candidates for Columbia School Board met for their second forum of the campaign season Tuesday evening, when they answered questions on allocating district money and attending bargaining meetings, among other topics.
April Ferrao, James Gordon, John Lyman, John Potter, Paul Harper and incumbent Chris Horn attended the online webinar hosted by the Columbia Missouri National Education Association, the teachers’ union. Chuck Basye, whose name was recently added to the April 4 ballot after he sued Columbia Public Schools, declined the invitation, moderator Cortni Gonzalez said.
The forum was moderated by Gonzalez, who teaches at Hickman High School, and Jill Villasana, who teaches at Battle High School. About 80 people tuned in.
In December, the board approved raises for several administrative positions, and four new positions were added to the district’s administrative staff. This decision cost the district over half a million dollars. One of the first questions asked of the candidates was if they had been on the board at the time, how would they have voted? For Horn, the board’s current vice president, the question was how he voted.
Ferrao said she would have voted no on the funding based on the information she has. She recalled that during the meeting where the decision was made, raises and new positions were based on recommendations from a curriculum audit.
“I don’t think anyone has seen that curriculum audit yet in detail,” Ferrao said. “There was also a separate audit done for special education, and that audit seems to be at odds with what the curriculum audit, I’m guessing, recommended, which resulted in these additional fundings.”
Ferrao said she is interested in seeing the curriculum audit when it is made public and comparing it to the special education audit.
Gordon said he would not have voted for the funding. He said it betrayed the needs of the district’s teachers.
“My understanding is that educators were not even notified about these new positions until after the decision was being made,” Gordon said. “That is something that was a clear signal to me of not doing the work of building consensus and communicating and even being in relationship with those who can be most impacted by that decision.”
Harper said he would have tabled the matter or voted “no” on the decision.
“It’s my belief that financials should show our values, and CPS always talks about being the best,” Harper said. “But whenever we talk about the financial picture and whenever the board gave its budget instructions, their budget instructions actually said that for teachers’ wages, they should be in the middle. Well that’s not showing our best.”
Horn voted in favor of the funding.
“This was not a decision the board picked up on its own,” Horn said. “This is not a decision that Dr. Yearwood picked up on his own. This was a decision that was informed by an audit as well.”
Lyman said the money spent might have instead gone toward classroom aides, substitute teachers or reading and math specialists to support district teachers, who he called “frontline workers.”
He said he would have asked “a lot of questions” about the fund allocations if he were a board member then.
If elected, Lyman said that he would work to “find the next $500,000 for our teachers.”
Potter said he probably would have voted no based on the information provided.
“I think we need to take care of teachers before administrators,” Potter said. “I think we need to take care of staff before administrators.”
He said the district should have presented numbers comparing administrative hires with new student enrollment at the meeting because it would put into perspective whether more administrators are needed due to a growing district or whether administrators are simply fulfilling their own needs.
Candidates were also asked if they had ever attended a teachers’ bargaining meeting and whether they would attend one if elected.
Ferrao said she has attended such a meeting. She said she thinks all public meetings, including bargaining meetings, should be recorded and available for all community members.
“It would be helpful not only for the public, (but) for the bargaining team and for board members who would like to see the context of the discussion,” Ferrao said. “They get the notes but also what led up to those notes, the feeling and ‘the why.’”
Gordon said he has attended a bargaining meeting.
“As a board member, I don’t want negotiations between our district and the teachers union to be adversarial,” Gordon said. “It should be a partnership, and we need to think of it as such.”
Harper said he has not attended a bargaining meeting but is familiar with the process because of his experience in litigation and negotiation. Harper said he thinks it would be good to attend a meeting if elected.
“The teachers shouldn’t have to force the board to listen,” Harper said. “The board should always be listening to its employees.”
Horn prefaced his answer by saying he has met with current and prior CMNEA leadership. However, Horn said he does not attend bargaining meetings because of his commitment to the unity of the board.
“As an individual, that would not bode well with other board members, so we have to be mindful of that as well,” Horn said.
Horn said he and the board are interested in the negotiations that occur and keep themselves updated on the meetings.
Lyman has not attended a bargaining meeting but said he looks forward to attending one.
Lyman said he would not like to see the board acting as a disconnected “final arbitrator of sorts” when it comes to bargaining.
“That’s going to create a division between our bargaining unit and the district office,” Lyman said. “Board members need to be involved in these conversations.”
Potter said he has not attended a meeting but is willing to.
“I think it would be a great education opportunity,” Potter said. “I’m not too familiar with how the bargaining process works, but I would definitely like to attend one before I became a board member.”
But Potter also said he has heard different explanations on attending bargaining sessions as a board member and would need to gather more information before deciding to go.
Missourian reporters Katie Taranto, Max Dike and Yasmeen Saadi contributed to this article.