SMITHVILLE — Four candidates are running for three available Smithville Board of Education seats on Tuesday’s June 2 ballot. They are Denney Fales, Russell Fries, Scott Haggerty and Susan Whitacre.
Each candidate was asked district specific questions. Answers were limited to a minute for fairness and video recorded. The following is a transcript of their answers.
Some say being a school board member also means being an advocate for public education. What current public education issues are you most passionate about? What is your stance and how will you advocate your stance, if elected?
Denney Fales: “It’s a pretty long question. Public education; serving on the board for the past six years, usually on a weekly, if not monthly basis, we get updates from the legislature on all the issues down in Jeff City involving state funding, different issues involving public education. The biggest thing that continues to go forth is the funding; the funding formula for public education and the fact that the charter schools continue to be put in the same discussions with public education. State law, there’s so many differences between the public education and the charter school formula, and the way things are just required to be calculated and/or accounted for in the finance part of it. So, that’s a big thing that each year it seems like the political atmosphere in Jeff City, public education continues to be a negotiated issue.”
Russell Fries: “I’m concerned about the efforts for charter school expansion in Missouri. I’m not against choice and I could point out to the many choices or options that our kids have in our public schools. Missouri charter schools are not held at the same level of accountability that public schools are. Further, they generally are underperforming when compared to public schools. It is not a level playing field. Nearly 40% of Smithville’s funding comes from state aid. Any diversion of this funding to charter schools will be taking funds away from public education. I advocate for this position by being a board member of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City representing 33 schools and about 180,000 students. We fight for public schools on their rules concerning charter schools. As a local board member, I advocate by contacting our state representatives and senator about these issues when they are presented in bills in the state legislature.”
Scott Haggerty: “Well, it’s tough to give a thorough answer in 60 seconds so I encourage everybody to visit my Facebook page at Scott Haggerty at Smithville school board, where I go into more detail answering each one of these questions briefly. In the meantime, let me answer 2: Equity versus equality. If we define equity as giving each student what they need as individuals to succeed and equality as treating each one exactly the same, it is easy for us to see that equity has far greater value to us, both as students and in society. The second is what I call feeding the college machine. I speak as one who’s attended college and went that route and it was good for me. However, I work in an industry where I, along with other companies, struggle with getting significant, skilled craftsmen to help us out and do the work. These are good-paying jobs, ones where one can make an honest living. Society ought to place a greater emphasis on entrepreneurship and these skilled trades.”
Susan Whitacre: “I think two things that are important to me.(First), I know classroom size is an issue in public education today. I think we need to have smaller class sizes for the best education for our kids, and for the staff, so that they can do their best in working conditions. I think one thing we’re going to have to do is work on some policies and procedures. I know another thing that becomes important is the financial aspect of it, and that’s something that I’d like to dive into and learn more about it so that I can help this issue. And then also teachers and staff salaries are an important issue. I think in order to retain and get quality staff, we have to have good compensation for them. And so something I would like to do is to try to learn more about our district’s financials and how we can address that issue smartly.”
What qualifies you to make tough financial decisions in regards to public education? And given the current economic climate of the district, what financial decisions do you foresee having to make in the near future, if elected?
Fales: “Well, I would say the experience of the past six years serving on the Smithville school board. The first year or two is really a very strict learning curve as far as learning school finance and all the laws and requirements revolving finance. You mentioned the current economic climate of the district, things are going fairly well right now. We’ve been going through a budget recovery period for the last couple of years, but the main issue with that was that our reserves dropped below a board policy rate of 21%. So we’ve been working with the budget recovery to try to get those reserves back up to what we consider an acceptable level. Currently, that’s still an effort in progress. So getting those reserves back up. And crystal ball? You never know what’s going to happen.”
Fries: “Partly what qualifies me is my longevity on the board. I was on the board in 2008 during the last great recession and I began to understand the trade-offs that must be made in tight financial times. I was also on the board last year when we had to implement a budget recovery program to offset the operating costs of opening a new school. My time on the board has given me valuable insights in funding issues. I believe we need to focus on the essentials. In other words, avoid any cuts in the classroom and educational instruction. However, given that salaries and benefits are about 75% of the budget for school, there’s not a lot of other cost areas that can be tightened up. We need to support teachers as much as we can while realizing that we have financial limitations.”
Haggerty: “In my career, I have managed P&Ls and budgets well into the millions of dollars. At times, I’ve been called upon to make those tough decisions that affect the lives of people under my leadership. No individual can definitively know the challenges the future brings. The district has put together a decent budget and a plan going forward. They’ll help us get back on solid financial footing. However, this COVID-19 might put a wrench in everything and it definitely might force us to rethink the plan. It would not be surprising that our taxes, we have a lower tax collection. We might have elevated pricing. We might have issues with our population as a whole. So, with or without the virus, these might hold true. So therefore, we need to be wise. The dollars we spend in the district, be ever vigilant that every dollar we spend is spent with the student’s interests first.”
Whitacre: “By education, I do not have any financial experience, however, as a patron of the community and as a parent of two children in the community, in the school system, I have taken it on myself to learn about the financial aspects. (Dr. Todd Schuetz) and (Wayne Krueger) have put on some classes that I have attended. And I have also looked at the website. I think the district has been very open about their financial status lately, and I’ve explored that. And if I am a board member, I’d like to do that more, to explore more. I do think we’re going to experience some decreases due to revenue and COVID. I do think that will play a part. So I think the school board and the school district’s going to have to be smart about the resources that we get in and how we can use them to be both financially important to the community while giving our education to the kids and the students that we need to.”
Given the pandemic, do you think the district was adequately prepared for extended closure of school? If not, how can the district be more prepared going forward?
Fales: “Adequately prepared? I think the district was as prepared as we could be. There was a plan in place. We followed the plan. I say ‘we,’ you know, serving on the school board currently. It’s a ‘we’ atmosphere. And the thing about it is, the one thing that could be different, is we could have been one to one (Kindergarten) through 12th (grade) on the devices. As it was, some students K-5 are currently using personal devices and others came up to the school and picked up devices that were furnished by the school, but they weren’t on an individual one to one. Getting us to that point would be a big plus, as far as, if we don’t know what’s going to happen. This could carry into the fall, and we’ve already got a good start on what might happen, but we’ll see what happens when that time comes.”
Fries: “Most people would agree that it’s hard to be fully prepared for a 100-year event. I do believe that while we were not preparing for this particular event, we were more prepared than what we’d anticipated. And this is because of two areas: materials and mental attitude. In materials, we had achieved a one-to-one technology in grades seven through 12, which provided this group the Chromebooks necessary to transition to distance learning at home. We were also able to scrounge equipment from around the district to provide these devices for our K-6 students who needed them. Most important was mental attitude. Our staff has the deep commitment to their students that propelled them to develop ways to stay engaged with them. Our staff also has the desire and capability to undertake new initiatives. Years ago when new education standards were being promulgated by the state, our staff wrote their own curriculum to teach to these new standards. This is organizational culture – a desire by staff to do the best for students. The culture begins at the top with expectations set and supported by the board.”
Haggerty: “I’m not sure any of us were fully prepared for what happened the last couple of months. I think it’s unfair of us to say to the teachers and the school district that they should have been prepared for such a pandemic. Having said this — my experience with my kids and the district — the teachers have done a remarkable job of handling this situation, truly. Kudos goes out to each and every one of them. The support staff, the administration, the school has really done a good job of handling the situation. As I listen to other patrons in the district, I hear a lot of praise about how the teachers rose to meet the uncertainty of the last couple of months. Now, going forward, I think we need to be prepared for a second wave. There’s a lot of rhetoric that there will be a second wave. Whether it happens or not, I don’t know, but we should be prepared. Having said that, I think it’s important that our teachers, our staff, our administration are way ahead of the classroom and are ready for another possible potential shutdown or closure.”
Whitacre: ”I do think our school district was adequately prepared. I don’t think you can say any school district was adequately prepared, but compared to other school districts that I have friends in or people that teach in, I think our school district was prepared. Our middle-schoolers and our high-schoolers were already one-to-one using Chromebooks and they were already using Google classroom extensively, so that was not too much of a change for them. I do think what we can work on, as a school district, is helping our elementary kids because they were not used to using the computers and the Google classroom as much. But I do give a shout out to all of our school district and educators, because I think they put in a huge effort to try to help our students do the best they can during this hard time.”
The district is seeking a voter-approved bond issue later this year for upgrades to facilities in accordance with the district’s master plan. Do you support the issue? Why or why not?
Fales: “I do support the issue. I was a part of several meetings back in the late winter/early spring, where we went through and looked at the 10-year master building plan. There were two issues that will be on the August ballot. The first one is a no tax levy (increase) bond issue. And the main reason I support both of these is they’re good for kids. That’s the reason I serve on the board. It’s all about the kids and the kids of the Smithville community. But there are so many things that are being addressed equally across the district from playgrounds to an activity center at the stadium, we’ve got some overcrowding issues in a few areas in the high school that would be addressed. So yes, I do support that issue.”
Fries: “Yes. First we need to complete the new school at Eagle Heights. When we built it, we told the patrons that it would be in two phases and now’s the time to complete it. Second, last year, when the board did its semi-annual facilities tour, we visited one of the training rooms at the high school and thought that they’d be too crowded and potentially unsafe. We need facilities suitable for our kids. Third, the district has always had a 10-year master plan for facilities. The most recent update, with ample staff and patron input, identified the additions we need to meet the needs of our growing school community. We proactively plan to address the needs of our kids. Fourth, this will be a no tax rate increase bond for construction. We are funding it with our current levy. Fifth, this is a good time to build. We anticipate that building costs will be down due to the current economic conditions. Finally, public works projects are a good way to inject business activity into the economy, helping overall growth and recovery.”
Haggerty: “There are actually two issues on the ballot in August. One of them is the general obligation bond and the other one’s going to be the operating property tax levy. Unfortunately, the legal language that’s going to be on that ballot is going to be difficult to understand. It’s kind of worded strange. In simple terms, a general obligation bond is kind of like your house payment, extending a house payment into future years. It trades cashflow now for adding onto future obligations. I’m not sure, I’m a little bit leery of this tactic, but it is a popular tactic that’s been used in the past with great success. And it does allow districts to cover short term financial need without having to raise property taxes. The second issue is that of the operating levy, that one’s the right call. It’s simply asking the voters to take money out of one budget and transferring it to another budget, into the operating budget, to increase the operating budget of the district. So that one’s a right call.”
Whitacre: “I do support this issue. The reason I do is it is a bond issue. It’s not a tax rate increase. I think we, as a district, we have to keep up with maintaining and improving our facilities. Our children, they need these adequate facilities, whether it be for education or for sports. I think that what they are proposing will be used by all students in the district. And I think what we need to remember as a district and as patrons is that if we don’t maintain and keep up with our things now, then we’re going to have a bigger problem later on when our buildings and growth keeps increasing and we need to do more work. So I do support it in order to maintain and update our facilities for our students.”