Growing up, Paul Harper and his family took occasional road trips to his grandma’s farm. For Harper, a highlight was stopping at his Great-Aunt Florence Vehmann’s apartment in Lebanon, Missouri. He and his cousins gathered around as Vehmann told stories about her job as a teacher and later a principal at the local elementary school.
The stories had a great influence on Harper, who along with several of his cousins went on to teach.
“She was probably one of the smartest people I knew,” Harper said. “She died in the early '90s before I actually started teaching, but I'm sure she would have been proud of myself and my cousins.”
Inspired by his great-aunt, Harper pursued a special education degree focused on dual disabilities, which describes people who have multiple layers of disabilities. He taught special education for two years before realizing his temperament was better suited to another kind of work.
With a personal understanding of the juggling act that goes into teaching and a deep appreciation for education, Harper is now a first-time candidate for the Columbia School Board.
Harper spent a majority of his career as a state attorney and believes his legal experience will help in understanding audits, finances and policies. He also believes his ability to listen and collaborate will help with the School Board's communication with the community. Running for the board is his next step in a career of public service, Harper said.
After teaching, Harper took his skills to the legal realm. He graduated from law school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has worked as a state attorney for 20 years, serving in various departments. He spent 7½ years as the general counsel for the Missouri State Auditor’s Office, where he oversaw litigation related to the office, reviewed audits and investigated local political subdivisions.
Harper moved last October to the Office of Childhood in the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, where he works as legal counsel handling child care regulation. He said the change has allowed more time and flexibility in his work schedule that he can direct toward board service.
“I'm not out there to make big money," Harper said. "I'm out there to serve the people.”
Aligning actions, educational goals
In his campaign, Harper is focused on three issues: teachers, students and transparency. From his perspective, the three are interrelated.
The Columbia School Board has three standing committees: Finance, Long-range Facilities Planning and Policy. With years of experience as an attorney, Harper said he wants to bring his understanding of finance and policy to align the district’s financial actions with its educational goals.
An example Harper listed was improving teacher wages. He noticed that although the district has said it wants the best teachers, its 2023-24 budget instructions said it would aim to pay teachers a beginning salary in the middle of the salary range of comparable districts.
“If you want to be the best, that means you need to be the best for your teachers — and that means that you're going to have to pay them like somebody who you expect to be the best,” Harper said.
Being a competitive employer goes beyond salary, he said. Teachers also need stronger benefits and programs, such as wellness or child care programs, to support the demands of their job.
“You can stretch a rubber band so far — you stretch it too much and it breaks,” Harper said. “I think a lot of our teachers are at the breaking point, so we need to make sure that we release some of that tension.”
He believes that by supporting teachers, student learning will be directly improved.
The Columbia Missouri National Education Association, the teachers’ union, officially endorsed Harper, saying his knowledge of board policies and school budgets will benefit the district.
Harper has been paying attention to student academic achievement. He said he appreciated that the current board was transparent about test scores being low throughout the district and, using this information, the board will now be able to focus on improving them.
Harper is interested in improving educational resources for students in special education. Columbia Public Schools released an audit of the Special Education Program in February, which outlined recommendations for the district and aspects of the program needing improvement. Harper said the audit gives the board a framework to follow over the next several years.
Another focus for Harper is the district's transient students who change schools frequently. Harper said making sure curricula are more or less aligned across schools will help improve the quality of education the students receive.
Throughout his campaign, Harper has maintained that increasing transparency between the district and the community is a priority. He said this includes having all public meetings recorded and easily available online as well as putting expenditures online in a format that is simple to search and access.
Harper has started posting resources on his social media accounts to help the public with actions, such as Sunshine Requests, that allow people to obtain public records. Harper has had experience dealing with public records in his career, so he said he is aware of the process and wants the public to be as well.
Bringing in the stakeholders
Harper's approach to working with issues begins with his being a good listener and collaborator, said Samantha Green, Harper's campaign treasurer. After Green graduated from the MU School of Law in 2016, Harper was her first boss when she went to work for the state auditor's office. She said that when she first met Harper, she was taken aback by his wealth of patience.
“His entire approach has always been to lead by example,” Green said. “He's a team player. There's no work that's above or beneath him, and he's willing to put in the hours in order to find the best way of doing something.”
Green pointed to Harper’s ability to make his legal team feel united. She said this quality will transfer well to the School Board.
“He was particularly talented at taking a look at the big picture, and then seeing where his skills fit well, and also where he thought he could delegate, and seeing their talents, plugging those people in well,” Green said.
This approach, to draw on the skills of a range of people, is what Harper aims to bring to the board. He said change is made by setting incremental benchmarks, assessing and readjusting the plan and listening to those who are most affected.
“You don't just do it in a vacuum. You don't do it from the top down. You need to bring in people from all levels to make sure that it works,” Harper said. “That means teachers, that means parents, that means administrators, that means principals — you need to get them in the room.”
To draw parents into the conversation, Harper favors creating parent advisory committees who advise the board and superintendent on specific issues.
Harper said he would advocate particularly for a special education committee because the recent audit showed that students in special education have some of the lowest test scores.
“One of the things that parent advisory committees can do is suggest policies and changes to progress us forward,” Harper said. “Studies have shown that the schools that have them actually increase those scores more than those that don't have them.”
While campaigning, Harper has reached out to teachers to gain their perspectives. He has had conversations with both teachers now working in Columbia Public Schools and those who have left.
“Most of (the teachers who left) have said, ‘I don’t feel listened to. I don’t feel like I had input on my job. I feel like decisions were made with no rhyme or reason to them,’” Harper said.
Harper said it is likely the board had valid reasons for its decisions but did not communicate about them or collaborate effectively.
“We’re teaching kids — the people on the front lines of that are the experts," he said. "We need their input.”
An ear for the community
Harper would bring to the board his experience as a father of two children educated in Columbia Public Schools. He and his wife, Jen Harper, are soon to be empty-nesters: Their oldest daughter, Alexis, graduated from Rock Bridge High School in May 2020, and their youngest, Becca, will graduate from there in May.
Harper is active in the Parents4Parents program within the Center Project, which provides a space for parents of LGBTQ youth to gather and have open dialogue.
Howard Hutton, former board member of the Center Project and an LGBTQ advocate, said Parents4Parents and similar programs have been made up mainly of women over the years. Harper's presence in the space as a father is truly special, Hutton said.
“He has spent thousands of hours with the Parents4Parents group, listening and helping people navigate the things their child needs on their journey relating to gender issues,” Hutton said.
One of Harper's strengths in the program is his ability to meet people where they are, Hutton said. Harper’s attentiveness and understanding helps create a safe space.
“A lot of people have gotten really upset with parents that would go through any type of grieving process if their child came out as trans,” Hutton said. “But he's really careful with those folks and allows them to have that space to grieve so that grief wouldn't adversely affect their children.”
Hutton, who has been in contact with Harper throughout his campaign, said Harper’s desire to listen to the community extends past the organizations to which he is already connected. Hutton recalled a conversation in which Harper first decided to run for the School Board. In that conversation, Harper talked about the various community groups he wants to reach out to as a School Board member.
Combining Harper’s ear for the stakeholders and his legal experience, he will be able to make an impact on the board, Hutton said.
“His experience with our vulnerable groups is unmatched,” Hutton said. “And his experience as a lawyer is most needed.”