“Go to hell.”
“Big fat F.”
“Flabbergasted and flummoxed.”
Some state legislators’ displeasure with Columbia Public Schools and a teachers’ organization has erupted into a public war of words.
Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, has used strong language in criticizing the district and the Columbia Missouri National Education Association.
In response to a Facebook post from a district teacher, Basye called the Missouri National Education Association a “terrible, dishonest organization.” He went on to say CMNEA members are “proven, proficient liars” and that they “can go to hell.”
“I don’t apologize for what I said,” Basye told the Missourian. “In context, I think it was appropriate, and sometimes you gotta use forceful language to get the attention of people that’s not listening. And now they’re listening.”
The disputes come at a time when Columbia Public Schools and many public school districts throughout Missouri have been targets of lawmakers in Jefferson City.
The district’s handling of seclusion and restraint was the focus of bipartisan criticism from lawmakers from St. Louis and Eureka last year and was cited as a major motivating factor in proposed legislation governing such policies. Basye has proposed legislation to allow for the recall of school board members, saying complaints about the district motivated his actions.
Public schools in the state’s largest cities have been targets of complaints from conservative lawmakers who are pushing charter school expansion, education savings accounts and other measures that many school district leaders say will hurt their schools financially.
Columbia School Board President Helen Wade said the COVID-19 pandemic is being used as a “springboard” to pass legislation that hurts public education, and the School Board has long had the public stance of opposing charter schools.
“Columbia Public Schools is an outstanding district,” Wade said in a written statement. “Those that represent this community should be proud of its public schools and recognize the importance good schools have on a successful and thriving community.”
CMNEA President Kathy Steinhoff said she was confused about what motivated Basye’s comments and called them unfounded. “I honestly don’t know where this is coming from other than thinking that it’s just political rhetoric that is trying to bring this anti-union sentiment to our local community.
“It’s hard to combat when somebody calls you dishonest and they’re not even giving you any kind of evidence to say why we’re being dishonest,” Steinhoff said. “It’s awful to think that we’re under attack in this way by people that have been elected to represent us.”
Steinhoff said the CMNEA is made up of Columbia educators, and they “are not an enemy of this district.”
Basye isn’t convinced.
“If it wasn’t so serious, it’d be entertaining,” Basye said. “They’re claiming they don’t understand why I’m attacking them, which is absolute bullshit.”
Basye explained his frustrations with the group. “They advocate for things that have nothing to do with kids. As a matter of fact, I think they advocate for things that harm children.”
Basye listed examples of causes the MNEA has supported, including Medicaid Expansion, Clean Missouri and Right to Work. He said that Medicaid Expansion will cost the state a lot of money and budget cuts could come to education.
Steinhoff said the MNEA advocates for its students and staff, and it engages in social justice issues that it thinks will harm them.
Even though Basye is now term-limited from the House, he doesn’t feel that his words are any stronger than they used to be. “I’ve never shied away from what some people call controversy,” Basye said. “I try to do the right thing and let the chips fall.” He added that he is considering a run for the state Senate.
“In my opinion, I feel very strong that the NEA is steering the ship in the Columbia Public School system,” Basye said. “It’s more about, in my opinion, political power and political influence with them than it is about what’s the best for kids.”
Wade took issue with Basye’s characterization of the district.
“What guides the ship in Columbia Public Schools is our students,” she said, adding that district employees “go above and beyond for our students. Not just during a pandemic, which has been extraordinary, but also during any other school year.”
Wade said the school board annually negotiates with CMNEA through a collective bargaining process that is required by law. Wade added that the school board also listens to the 1,500 employees that are not represented by the CMNEA.
Basye and some other local lawmakers have been complaining that the district has taken longer to resume full in-person classes than some other districts in the region. It announced last week that in-person classes are resuming after spring break.
Rep. Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, said many of her constituents have been frustrated with the district, adding that Basye and Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch were working to figure out the situation. “I think it’s important that parents’ voices are heard, and I think it’s important that the school district does all that it can to open up.”
Reisch, R-Hallsville, said constituents in her district had expressed their desire to move to other school districts or even pay to send their children to private school. Reisch’s only complaint with the district has been that students have not been in school full-time and in-person, which she said is detrimental to students’ emotional, mental and educational needs.
Of the four school districts that Reisch represents, Columbia was the only one that didn’t have in-person classes in the fall. At a House Education Committee hearing earlier this year, Reisch was quoted as saying, “I give (Columbia Public Schools) a big fat F. My three rural districts, they have been in school doing it right.”
Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Peter Stiepleman wrote a Letter to the Editor to the Missourian in response. In it, he equated Reisch’s comment to mean that the people and community of Columbia are deserving of an F grade, calling her comment “the antithesis of all anti-bullying efforts we promote daily.” He described himself as being “flabbergasted and flummoxed” by Reisch’s criticism.
Reisch called Stiepleman’s letter “overblown” and “out of proportion,” saying that she was giving an F to the effort of being in-seat, not to the community. Reisch said that her quote came after hearing from an upset Columbia parent that shared her experiences with virtual learning.
Wade said the district is not fighting with lawmakers.
“We are not engaged in a war of words,” she said “Columbia Public Schools offered an olive branch and asked for civility. The district has not graded its representatives or said anything other than returning to respectful conversation and discourse would be more productive.”
The prospect of expanding charter schools is once again a hot topic for the legislature. Basye believes “school choice” bills would force public schools to improve in order to compete, and that charter schools are gaining popularity as people see problems with virtual learning.
Parents “are seeing the struggles now big time, and that’s really opened their eyes. Where some of the school choice stuff, reforms, probably wouldn’t be as popular as it is now. I think this is the year we’re going to get some stuff done.”
While the district opposes charter schools, Basye is joined by almost every member of the legislative delegation that represents it in supporting expansion. The latest version of the proposed expansion legislation would exempt towns smaller than 30,000 to win the support of some rural Republicans whose districts oppose charters; that won’t exempt Columbia.
According to Wade, every 100 students that enroll in a charter school would take $1.2 million away from the school district they live in. Wade said that 98.6% of public schools earned a 70% or higher on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Annual Performance Report, while only 54.5% of charter schools reached that level.
“Public schools across the country have been in similar situations as Columbia Public Schools when it comes to the pandemic being used a springboard to pass legislation that hurts public education,” she said.
On a more fundamental level, Wade talked of the need for a positive outlook.
“When you are representing a community you need to be its biggest cheerleader,” she said. “You have to love it. You cannot represent a community well when you don’t love it.”