Five candidates for the Columbia School Board discussed diversity, equity and the superintendent at a Thursday evening forum hosted by the Columbia Missouri National Education Association.
Teresa Maledy is the only incumbent in the race, facing candidates Lucas Neal, Aron Saylor, Katherine Sasser and Jeanne Snodgrass for two open seats in the coming election on April 6.
Cortni Gonzalez, a math teacher at Hickman High School, and Shelli Thelen, a third-grade teacher at Paxton Keely Elementary School, moderated the forum, which was livestreamed to 100 viewers via Zoom.
Gonzalez asked the five candidates a question she believed would "rock the boat."
"How will you as a School Board member actively retain and then recruit teachers of color for CPS?" she asked.
Maledy, who applauded a current program through local colleges called "Grow Your Own," said it was important to understand why teachers of color are leaving.
Neal, who noted his mother’s career in the district and his involvement in Young Life, mentioned a program that gives scholarships to high school students toward an education degree. He said he wants to put more effort into the program and look inward toward the district.
While Maledy and Neal approached their answers by backing current efforts, Sasser, the only candidate who has taught in Columbia Public Schools, responded with the following:
"As five white people running for School Board, the first thing we need to say is that we need to address systemic racism," Sasser said. "We need to address the fact that our system has been built for white people. And that includes oppression for Black teachers and other teachers of color — in particular those teachers of color in intersectional spaces."
"How are we making it difficult for you to continue to do your job as a person of color in this district?" she added.
Sasser then presented information that she collected from teachers of color who previously spoke with her. She mentioned microaggressions, a lack of support in comparison with white teachers and challenging workloads.
Both Saylor and Neal also mentioned finding people who are transitioning to a second career and recruiting them more directly.
The moderators then asked how the district can support LGBTQ+ students, families and staff members.
Neal said the district needs to continue to provide training for teachers so classrooms can be accepting spaces for every child. He added that teachers who defy that acceptance should be reprimanded.
Snodgrass, who currently has children in elementary school, middle school and high school, distanced herself from previous answers made by Maledy, Neal and Saylor and instead focused on policy implementation.
"It's important that there are changes to the systems so that those students understand that their dignity as a person, just as they are, is being respected and supported," she said. "We know that there are much higher rates of suicide for students and for others that identify as LGBTQ."
She mentioned changes such as preferred names on legal forms, using terms like "guardian" instead of "mother" and "father" and providing nongendered physical education.
Sasser, who has a child who identifies in the LGBTQ+ community, said this question was very personal. Although her daughter has struggled to get support, some teachers have learned and adjusted.
In order to improve, the district must have more representation in its staff and implement a human development curriculum that centers around all experiences, Sasser said.
The moderators also posed this question: “What qualifications do you think our next superintendent should possess to meet the needs of our community?”
Neal said that he would like a superintendent who has done the job before.
Saylor and Snodgrass added that the next superintendent must be able to communicate, be transparent and collaborate with teachers.
Sasser addressed the question from a teacher’s perspective.
"Our superintendent … has to have a proven record of transformational equity work in their background," she said. "Not just be able to say the buzzwords."
Gonzalez also asked what programs need more funding and what cuts should be made.
All five candidates said they understand the crucial decisions of budgeting and the importance of funding early education programs. They all suggested that the School Board analyze the current allocation of finances and identify programs that are not currently serving students.
"We've lost 800 students, which is a major loss of funding from the state of Missouri," Neal said in reference to the pandemic. "One of our first priorities should be to restore confidence in our schools and hopefully gain back trust in the community."
He argued that the best option was to turn to the district’s chief financial officer, Heather McArthur.
Snodgrass noted that the community and the School Board must prioritize and support programs for students who have been underserved and underrepresented.
"If you can raise them up, you raise up the quality for everybody," she said.
CMNEA will announce its endorsement for School Board during the week of March 8.