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Why This Year's Shawnee Mission School Board Primary Is So Unusual

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3

You don't often see a school board election as contested as the one percolating in the Shawnee Mission School District (SMSD) but that's exactly what's happening this year.

There is a primary election on Tuesday, August 1 for two of the three seats up this year.

Which leads to a number of questions about why the school board contest in the SMSD is so hot this year.

So, why is it hot?

There are several reasons, but perhaps the biggest one is transparency. Those challenging the incumbents, and those backing those challengers,  say the district isn't transparent and makes it difficult for parents to gather information.

One of the transparency issues that sticks in the craw of many is a pay raise quietly given to some administrators a year ago. Those hikes weren't discussed during an open board session and were approved in something called a consent agenda. The pay hikes came up during teacher contract talks last year.

Consent agenda. You're getting a little wonky.

I know. I'm sorry. Basically a consent agenda is something most government bodies use to approve routine matters of bill paying or contract letting. Critics of the current board say double digit raises for administrators are anything but routine. That's why it's important.

Does this board election have anything to do with the former superintendent? I forgot his name.

Jim Hinson. Yes, it does. The challengers, plus many parents and teachers, believe the current Board of Education was way too deferential to Hinson and the administration. Last year Hinson got one of those big raises. His salary jumped 9.5 percent, from $232,280 to $254,280. How did that, many want to know, escape public discussion?

The Shawnee Mission Post analyzed board votes during Hinson's tenure. It discovered that out of 2,200 Board of Education votes all but four were unanimous.

Many of his opponents believe that parents and teachers really began to lose confidence in Hinson when he, and ultimately the board, banned staff from wearing safety pins after the election. Staff said it was a sign of safety to students but Hinson said the safety pins were politically motived after the election of President Trump.

Who is being challenged and how long have they been on the school board?

Shawnee Mission West representative Craig Denny and at-large member Cindy Neighbor are both in tough primaries. Shawnee Mission East representative Donna Bysfield filed for reelection but pulled out when two challengers filed for her seat. All three have been on the board for at least 20 years.

Are school board primary elections rare?

Yes. This year the two in Shawnee Mission are the only primaries in Johnson County. There will be a number of contested school board seats in the November general election. In fact, the school board elections prompted the creation of a new grassroots political organization, Education First Shawnee Mission.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR and the Kansas News Service and is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff.

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