The mood was civil, the atmosphere inviting and the candidates were mostly sharp and informed.
A school board candidate forum hosted by the Lee’s Summit Chamber of Commerce and the Lee’s Summit Journal March 19 at the Stansberry Leadership Center provided an opportunity for four candidates for the three open seats on the R-7 school district’s board of education to engage in public commentary on issues affecting the district.
Ron Williams, a former city councilman in Lee’s Summit, moderated the forum in front of nearly 50 citizens in preparation of the general election April 8.
Incumbent candidates Terri Harmon and Chris Storms, who both joined the board in 2011, participated in the forum with Bill Baird and Mark Ousnamer, both of whom are pursuing school board candidacy for the first time.
In a question-and-answer style forum several questions were presented, with some more than others drawing pointed responses from the candidates including inquiries on school safety and obstacles and opportunities that await the school district down the road.
“School safety is a topic that is kind of near and dear to me,” said Harmon, the mother of two young currently children enrolled in R-7 schools. In fact, each of the candidates has multiple children enrolled in R-7 schools. “A couple of years ago we put in a long-range plan to improve that. I’ve seen great strides in that improvement over the years. I believe in the district we are doing the right things to improve not only the facilities but also providing teachers and administrators with the training that they need should something happen.”
“I’ve worked in private security my whole life,” added Storms. “When my boys started school at Hawthorne Hill (Elementary School years ago) I was surprised that you could just walk in; there was nothing stopping you. You could walk right past the secretary’s desk that was there and you could go right on into the building in any given` area. At that time the kindergarten classrooms were right at the front and it concerned me.
“Knowing a lot about security and a little bit about school security, it was a poor school design. But as we all know it takes a lot of money to fix things that needs to be fixed in schools. Over the last 10 years, the school district has worked to fix that.”
Baird chipped in: “ I think we probably need to more concerned with educating and training, which Terri mentioned. Training the staff, training the administration and even training the kids; let them know, if you hear something strange, it’s your duty to communicate with your teacher, talk to your parents. I also think it’s critical that the school district works with the city and the emergency departments.”
Ousnamer’s thoughts included: “From a practical viewpoint, there are not a lot of things we can do to stop a tornado; there is not a lot of things we can do to stop a gunman. What we need to do is have protocol set up in each individual building…we need to coordinate (with emergency personnel) and practice and plan. Whether it’s a man-made problem or a natural disaster, we need to coordinate those so that they are seamless and work effectively; and that is about all that you can do.”
Other topics included technological advances and how they affect the learning environment and rather or not the school district’s school board meetings should be televised, which each candidate supported but with the caveat looking at the costs involved in doing so.
The role of the district’s superintendent, David McGehee, who was not in the audience, was also mentioned during the forum with one of the questions being what grade would you give the district’s leader?
Harmon, Storms and Baird all gave the reigning Missouri Superintendent of the Year an “A” grade, but Ousnamer, who didn’t immediately answer the question until pressed by Storms, broke ranks with a grade of C-minus for McGehee, chiding the superintendent’s mantra of “tough on issues, soft on people.”
“It’s one of those things where I could go ahead and sing Dr. McGehee’s praises, but I’m not going to,” Ousnamer said. “I’m going to be honest. You can’t pay me enough to take on his job. He’s juggling politics, he’s juggling parents, he’s juggling teachers, he’s juggling staff. It’s an incredibly difficult job.
“In a moment of candor, in a conversation I had with Dr. McGehee, he stated: ‘The district promotes leadership. My administrative staff are not trained supervisors, nor are they trained managers, but they’re really nice people doing the best they can.’ As a businessman, that freaked me out. That is not a good thing for the leader of our district to state. He should be saying: ‘I want them to get different kinds of training, I want more focus on this, and I want more focus on that so that we can provide a better support for our teachers consistently as trained supervisors and administrators.’”
Later, Harmon came to the defense of McGehee and his “tough on issues, soft on people” stance. She said that soft on people doesn’t mean that the district doesn’t hold leaders and administrators accountable, but merely suggests that staff and administrators are treated with kindness and respect.
“Going back to what Mark said...we don’t have accountability issues in our district,” Harmon said.