The Columbia School Board approved a collective bargaining deal between the district and the Columbia Missouri National Education Association on Thursday at its monthly work session.

After little discussion on the matter, board member Paul Cushing abstained, while all other members approved.

The agreement had been delayed for months because of a controversy over whether or not the union needed to recertify under a 2018 state law. Pay raises and working condition changes described in the agreement were already put in place by the board in the spring.

For the bulk of the meeting, the board explored issues related to students with special needs in the district. Members heard a presentation on special education and worked with Legos as part of an equity training that will be given district-wide.

Alyse Monsees, head of special services for the district, addressed the board in the wake of a Sept. 9 board meeting that featured many critical public comments by advocates for students with special needs. While the last meeting was difficult, Superintendent Peter Stiepleman said, it has led to continued conversation about issues such as accessibility of school buildings.

Monsees’ overview of how special education plans are developed was lengthened by frequent questions from board members, who asked how long it takes to develop the plans, how they are modified and at what stages parents are involved.

Board member Della Streaty-Wilhoit brought up concerns that black male students with simple behavioral issues are too often assessed as having a disability. While parents have to give their consent for every step of the process, some might not question teachers and other experts, she said.

The board and district administrators next moved to a circle of chairs at the back of the room for an equity training with Carla London, district chief equity officer.

London said all faculty in the district participate in two to four equity trainings each year, and that the training she did with the board is the same as what others will receive.

Local group Race Matters, Friends has questioned whether equity trainings in the district are actually effective, citing a lack of data.

During the board’s training, participants paired off and sat back-to-back in chairs. The designated “teacher” in each pair built a Lego structure, then tried to guide their partner to create an identical shape.

What the “teachers” didn’t know was that their partners were facing various obstacles. Some didn’t have matching Legos. Others were wearing ear plugs, goggles or bulky gloves, or were forbidden to speak.

At the end of the activity, group members connected their experiences with how students and teachers might respond to disability-related challenges, especially ones that aren’t diagnosed or communicated.

While it’s easy to know that “I need to accommodate what I see, what if it’s something I can’t see?” Board President Helen Wade said.

After Cushing asked how to relate the activity to his work as a board member, Stiepleman suggested following up on community members’ concerns, as expressed during public comment at board meetings.

He asked what administrators can do “to be responsive to the fact that we’re one of the only districts in the state that has that kind of public comment. ... It’s hard sometimes, but it’s wonderful.”

Supervising editor is Hannah Hoffmeister.

  • Education reporter, fall 2019 Studying investigative journalism Reach me at mariabenevento@mail.missouri.edu or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

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