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Education

After Two Troubled Years, Lee's Summit School Board Candidates Say District Needs Stability

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Photo illustration by Elle Moxley
(From top left) Larry Anderson, Brian Austerman, Christine Bushyhead, Kathryn Campbell, Kim Fritchie, Mark Leetch and Megan Marshall are running for the Lee's Summit school board. Candidates Matthew Niewald and David Thompson did not return KCUR's survey.

After several tumultuous years during which the school district’s first black superintendent abruptly resigned, Lee’s Summit voters will again be electing new school board members this April. 

They’ll have nine choices for three open seats. Just one incumbent, Kim Fritchie, is running for re-election. (Board members Jackie Clark and Dennis Smith, who were also elected to the board in 2017, are not.) There’s also a bond issue on the ballot to build a new middle school and renovate some of the district’s oldest buildings. The initiative has broad support among school board candidates.

Whoever is elected will have to work with a new superintendent, David Buck, who will join the district July 1. They’ll also be joining a board that has, at times, been deeply divided over how best to implement diversity training and the former superintendent’s equity plan. 

Representation on the board has been an issue in the rapidly diversifying Lee’s Summit School District. One in four students is a child of color, but the suburb is overall more than 85% white. 

Voters have never elected a school board member of color.

The last day to register to vote in next month’s municipal election is Wednesday, March 11.

The Lee’s Summit Chamber of Commerce is holding a candidate forum from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11 at the Missouri Innovation Campus, 1101 N.W. Innovation Parkway. It will be livestreamed on the Chamber’s Facebook page

Suburban Balance, a group for families of color who live in suburban districts, will host another candidate forum from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 26, also at the Missouri Innovation Campus.

KCUR offered each of the candidates a chance to respond to a three-question survey in mid-February. These are the responses we received.

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Submitted photo

LARRY ANDERSON

Anderson is an engineer who previously served on the Butler R-5 school board, gaining certification as a master school board member from the Missouri School Board Association. He has two high school daughters who participate in band. His wife is a Spanish teacher.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District?

The Lee’s Summit R-7 School District is well-known for its success preparing students for careers and college. Now is the time for the school board to succeed as the district welcomes its new superintendent. We must transition away from the “overseer” governance to that of a co-leadership style that the students, teachers and patrons expect. With my leadership experience, we would be able to succeed as a team.

Do you support the no tax increase bond issue? Why or why not?

I do support the bond issue. We need to accommodate future student growth and provide capital investment to upgrade aging buildings.

What should the district do to close measurable achievement gaps for students of color and students from lower socioeconomic households?

I understand admitting we have disparities can be tough to discuss. If I say, “Yes, there is disparity,” I may sound as if I am blaming the teachers. I am not, but we know student achievement can be influenced by the teaching method used. As board members, we must continue to chip away at equity. The effort takes more than a few members with a good heart. We must adopt an equity statement that serves as a beacon. We must support our teachers and administrators with professional training and possibly a curriculum coach. I must be able to expand my own knowledge on how my unconscious bias influences racism and student learning.

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BRIAN AUSTERMAN

Austerman is the Assistant Chief of Administration and Support Services for the Lee’s Summit Fire Department. He has three daughters in the district – a senior at Lee’s Summit West, and two first graders at Cedar Creek. He majored in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has a Master of Public Administration from Purdue University.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District?

One of the greatest challenges facing the district is the potential for future growth of the district – and the compounding issues that this brings. The ability to grow in manageable increments with facilities, staff and programs will be strained to meet the increasing demand. It will be important to continue advancing existing priorities and not losing sight of where the district is or where the goals have been set for achievement, while managing the growth and competition for resources within the district. 

Do you support the no tax increase bond issue? Why or why not?

Our district will continue to grow in future years. The bond issue that will be on the ballot is but the first step the district will need to make to prepare for the increasing capacity and demand on the school district. As the school district is a reflection of the community, there are many components within the bond initiative to address a number of concerns that have needed to be addressed for many years. Passage of the bond will allow the district to realign how the schools are organized and create additional needed capacity, enhance safety and operations within many of the schools and provide many other needed amenities that have been long overdue. 

What should the district do to close measurable achievement gaps for students of color and students from lower socioeconomic households?

This is an issue that has deservedly received a lot of attention in recent years. One priority for the district is to ensure they are consistent in providing the opportunities for all to succeed, not only within the district, but for success in their future. Standardized scores are the benchmark used to evaluate success. As with any evaluation that shows a gap, there needs to be a definitive problem stated where causes are identified, and to which achievable goals can then be defined and actions taken to improve. The data certainly shows trends to which conversations can be had, and further actions taken. As a board member, I would welcome these discussions, knowing that this is not a short or simple conversation but needs to be approached with a long-term commitment that focuses on continual improvement in closing those achievement gaps. 

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CHRISTINE BUSHYHEAD

Bushyhead is an attorney who received her law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She and her husband, Bob, have a son who attends Our Lady of the Presentation in Lee’s Summit. However, Bushyhead believes that the use of public school tax dollars should be distinct from her family’s faith commitment to send their son to a private Catholic school.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District?

Re-establishing financial credibility with its constituents, for without it, the funding will not be there to impact curriculum needs for early childhood development, closing the achievement gap and secondary education expansion programs. 

Do you support the no tax increase bond issue? Why or why not?

I am supporting the no tax increase bond issue for the capital projects presented primarily because I think the district is out of time for delaying any longer many of the listed projects. IF passed, construction, and thereby classrooms, will not be completed and available for three more years. The majority of the funding goes to projects that will positively impact early childhood development through middle school needs. Project cost management by the school board will be critical.

What should the district do to close measurable achievement gaps for students of color and students from lower socioeconomic households?

In addition to capital improvements, my two other priorities are curriculum and culture. These topics are interwoven into the success of the district. Regardless of the bond ballot question outcome, we need more human and academic resources in the classrooms now, and we need to foster a culture of kindness and community which reflects respect, integrity and compassion in all relationships in the conduct of the school district business. In addition, I would like to explore opportunities with input from Team Lee’s Summit for a centralized approach to some management topics to provide uniformity of approach and costs efficiencies across buildings. 

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KATHRYN CAMPBELL

Campbell works in information technology program management at Cerner, managing budgets, partnerships and contracts. Her two sons graduated from Lee’s Summit schools, and she says she loved working with students, parents, teachers and administrators as a volunteer during their school years.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District?

I think our biggest challenges are why I’m running:

  • Ensure we do what we promise: accountability on execution regarding commitments for Comprehensive Facilities Master Plan Phase II, the equity plan and Portrait of a Graduate
  • Plan for the future: lead, engage and listen to build and adopt a strategic plan for the district that includes strategic alignment with the municipalities included in our district
  • Transparency: creation of a comprehensive and actionable communication strategy and encouraging community engagement at all levels
  • Partner through change: partner and lead students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators, support staff and the community through the changes needed for our district for sustained growth, helping people see the why of change and engaging them as change agents, fulfilling the commitments on improving student experience and overall student achievement

Do you support the no tax increase bond issue? Why or why not?

I absolutely support the no tax increase bond issue, and I encourage everyone voting in our district to review the information and the benefits to our students in these capital improvements. These changes are needed now to build our district’s strategic planning on these foundational capital projects – we need everyone in our community to get behind this and support it! 

These plans include:

  • Increase safety and security for our students with specific changes in systems throughout the district
  • Build a new middle school
  • Renovations for our oldest high school, Lee’s Summit High School, and all three middle schools
  • Renovations much needed for Mason Elementary
  • Expand to a second site for an additional Early Education Center. We currently have kids on a waitlist. We cannot leave these early learners waiting in line!
  • High School athletic/activity improvements 

What should the district do to close measurable achievement gaps for students of color and students from lower socioeconomic households?

One of my priorities is to ensure that we as a board, our superintendent and our district are accountable to deliver on the commitments we’ve made. We approved initiatives in an equity plan that are strategic in their direction and are geared to drive the changes that over time should close these gaps.

I think we’re on the right track, and I think we do need to hold everyone accountable, tracking metrics that help us see the incremental changes that will build to the broader targets over time. 

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Courtesy of LSR7

KIM FRITCHIE

Fritchie is a retired teacher and school administrator who was first elected to the board in 2017. She has two daughters and three nieces who graduated from Lee's Summit North High School and two grandsons who are in elementary school in the district. She is involved with the Lee's Summit Educational Foundation, Lee's Summit CARES, the Pro Deo Youth Center and the First Baptist Church Children's Ministry.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District?

Because of our difficulties over the past few years, I feel that rebuilding public trust in our schools is very important. We need to involve all segments of our community in the conversation and move forward in a positive direction that will bring the focus back to our students and preparing them for a successful future. I believe we can do it! 

Do you support the no tax increase bond issue? Why or why not?

Yes, I absolutely do support the no tax increase bond issue. We need the new buildings, renovations and additions to provide for student growth and programming to meet our students’ needs. This issue will also help to bring us some upgrades to safety, steps that are needed district-wide. It's essential that this bond issue passes so we can move forward and remain one of the best school districts in the state of Missouri. Since it is a no tax increase bond issue, it will not raise our taxes. 

What should the district do to close measurable achievement gaps for students of color and students from lower socioeconomic households?

There are many steps that can be taken to help our students who are in the “gap.” First, the addition of more classrooms for our early childhood education program will enable us to prepare more early learners for kindergarten. This will give our students a great start. Second, the increased interventions that are currently taking place and will be taking place that identify those students with deficits in learning can help our students gain ground and confidence in their abilities. This will enable them to achieve at higher levels. Third, our equity plan is addressing some areas that we have identified as important in the education of our students of color and other subgroups. These areas include inclusive hiring practices, culturally relevant curriculum and library materials and equity training for administration, staff, community, students and board members. However, the district can't do this alone. We must have a partnership with the parents and community to help each one of our students succeed. 

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MARK LEETCH

Mark is the director of Midwest region risk control for CBIZ, a business management consultancy. He has twin daughters who graduated from Lee’s Summit West in 2017, and his wife, Janet, taught third and fourth grade in the same elementary school in the district for 27 years. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge for the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District?

My answer is two-part; both equally important. We need to bring calm to the central office, which will eventually filter down to staff. Past decisions by the board and members of central office have created a loss of confidence and contributed to low staff morale and higher staff turnover. This must be reversed, confidence restored, and the district’s reputation returned to the premier metro district it once was. 

Another challenge is managing district growth. Growth has created increased need for staff, facilities and diversity awareness. Staff to student ratios must be maintained at a level that ensures every child is receiving the attention they need and deserve to be successful.

Do you support the no tax increase bond issue? Why or why not?

I wholeheartedly support the no tax increase bond issue. The passing of the issue is CRITICAL in addressing increased growth. As noted, to keep up with the growth requires additional facilities, additional staff and perhaps most important, a broadened approach to managing diversity in the way of programming. The no tax increase aspect of this issue makes it an easy issue to support.

What should the district do to close measurable achievement gaps for students of color and students from lower socioeconomic households?

I would assemble a diverse team of professionals to do a deep dive of the statistics to determine the root cause of gaps in achievement. Once deficiencies are identified the district has a responsibility to implement programming to correct the deficiencies and close gaps. Reducing gaps in achievement is a priority of mine within EVERY ethnic group in the district. 

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MEGAN MARSHALL

Marshall is a U.S. Marine with two children currently in Lee’s Summit schools and one who graduated last year.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District?

The greatest challenge for the LSR7 school district is to maintain a culture of academic excellence throughout every school in our district. Restoring trust to a divided community after a very contentious two years is paramount to maintaining and enhancing this culture of excellence. LSR7 school district is growing and with it presents issues of school overcrowding, school safety and the recruitment and retention of qualified teaching staff. All of these issues present an opportunity for LSR7 to evolve in the way we deliver results to students and families, while maintaining the core values that have been beneficial to our success as a school district. 

Do you support the no tax increase bond issue? Why or why not?

I support the no tax increase bond. LSR7 began a collaboration with the community in the fall of 2018 in order to examine how to meet the district’s future capacity needs and provide the school spaces future students and staff need to thrive. The bond issue includes many renovations, additions and other improvements to address safety, parity, and capacity in district facilities, reinvest in infrastructure and provide innovative learning environments for students. With an estimated 1,500 students projected to join LSR7 over the next decade, it is the responsibility of the district’s leadership to have the future of LSR7 at the forefront of every decision making process.

What should the district do to close measurable achievement gaps for students of color and students from lower socioeconomic households?

The district should promote policies which create school environments that prioritize a culture of educational excellence, student achievement, mental health support for every child, and reciprocity. Expanding early childhood education programming and capital improvement projects for this purpose should also be a priority to ensure all students are placed on a pathway towards success. The district must commit to valuing a high quality and diverse teaching staff through competitive wages, more collaboration time, and professional development opportunities that translate to increased student performance.

MATTHEW NIEWALD

Niewald did not return KCUR’s candidate survey.

DAVID THOMPSON

Thompson did not return KCUR’s candidate survey.

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

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