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2024 election: Meet the Independence school board candidates

Top row from left: Independence school board candidates Wendy Baird, Carrie Dixon and Zac Harmon-McLaughlin. Bottom row from left: Candidates Jason Vollmecke, Brandi Pruente and Dennis Green. Not pictured: Eric Knipp.
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Top row from left: Independence school board candidates Wendy Baird, Carrie Dixon and Zac Harmon-McLaughlin. Bottom row from left: Candidates Jason Vollmecke, Brandi Pruente and Dennis Green. Not pictured: Eric Knipp.

Seven candidates are competing for three open seats in this year's high-stakes Independence school board race. Here's what the candidates have to say about school policies regarding trans students, cell phone use in class and mental health care for students.

An upcoming election could tip the balance of the Independence school board, possibly bringing in a new majority critical of the existing board for what challengers see as a lack of transparency and public involvement.

But if the votes go a different way, the election could leave the board with a strong majority that has been consistently supportive of Superintendent Dale Herl’s recommendations.

In recent years, the board has approved a switch to a four-day school week, upheld a decision to remove a book featuring a nonbinary character from elementary school libraries and faced criticism for the district’s pronoun policy.

A Kansas City Beacon analysis found that before mid-2022, the board had gone for at least a decade without a dissenting vote, regularly unanimously endorsing the superintendent’s proposals.

Unlike other large Kansas City area districts, the board does not record or livestream its meetings. In 2022, it started enforcing its public comment policy in a more restrictive way.

Seven candidates are competing for three seats on the Independence school board. Board members serve six-year terms, twice as long as those in many area districts.

Incumbents Carrie Dixon and Eric Knipp are running for reelection. (Knipp was the only candidate who declined to respond to our questionnaire.)

Along with Dennis Green, a recently retired district administrator, Dixon and Knipp are endorsed by the local chapter of the Missouri State Teachers Association, a statewide professional association that sometimes clashes with teachers unions.

The district’s teachers union, the Independence National Education Association, endorses Wendy Baird, Brandi Pruente and Zac Harmon-McLaughlin, three candidates who emphasize transparency.

Jason Vollmecke, who has also called for a more transparent school board and has criticized the district’s treatment of staff, is the final candidate.

Vollmecke was escorted out of a school board meeting and arrested for trespassing when he tried to address the board after its open session adjourned. Herl then barred him from school property for a year. He later sued the school district over the ban.

Here’s why the candidates say they’re qualified to be on the board and what their positions and priorities would be.

Responses have been edited for grammar, Associated Press style and clarity.

Meet the candidates

Eric Knipp

Eric Knipp, who declined to respond to the questionnaire, is the current president of the Independence school board and was first elected to a six-year term in 2018. Knipp is endorsed by the Independence Community Teacher Association/Missouri State Teachers Association chapter, a professional association that is separate from the teachers union.

On his campaign Facebook page, Knipp said understanding school finance is crucial for board members and outlined some of the board’s history related to finances and building improvements. “To succeed we need top notch curriculum and programs, the best teachers and support staff, safe and up to date schools, and a strong administration,” Knipp wrote in another post. “The ISD has all of these!! We are a strong school district but we cannot stop.”

Knipp has decades of experience in the insurance industry and formed his own insurance agency in 2020. According to his school board bio, he has served as an Eagle Scout coordinator, on the SantaCaliGon Festival Committee and on the board of directors of the Independence Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club of Eastern Independence. He, his wife and their two children are graduates of the Independence School District.

Wendy Baird

Occupation: Stay-at-home mom, self-employed

Background and qualifications: Bachelor of arts, mass communication and journalism, Kansas State University; master’s degree in public administration, nonprofit management, University of Missouri-Kansas City; worked with various nonprofits and government organizations; multiple PTA leadership positions; Big Sister; cheerleading coach; and Girl Scout troop leader.

Favorite school event: All of them. Family involvement is so important in our schools. As a PTA volunteer, I have had a front-row seat to most of the fun events our schools and PTAs have put on over the years. I have a special spot in my heart for the elementary school classroom parties, though. Volunteering for those allows me to see my own children interact and have fun with classmates. It also provides me the opportunity to get to know the amazing kids and staff members who spend so much time with my own children.

Carrie Dixon

Occupation: Assistant camp director, The Salvation Army Three Trails Camp

Background and qualifications: I have worked for The Salvation Army for over 30 years.

I’ve been able to see our ISD schools from many angles: parent, volunteer, PTA leader, student mentor, advocate for our child with a 504, parent/friend of a teacher and school board member.

Favorite school event: Certified Employee and Employee of the Year Breakfast. This event honors outstanding teachers and staff in the Independence School District who have made significant contributions to the school community throughout the year. It’s an opportunity to celebrate achievements, showcase talent and express appreciation for the hard work and dedication of individuals who have positively impacted their schools.

Zac Harmon-McLaughlin

Occupation: I am currently the dean of the Community of Christ Seminary at Graceland University.

Background and qualifications: I work in higher education and am very engaged in our community. I am a member of our local Rotary club. I serve on the board for Community Services League. I am an ordained and practicing minister for Community of Christ.

Favorite school event: My nephews have been very active in athletics and I have loved watching them play high school sports.

Jason Vollmecke

Occupation: Chiropractic physician and certified medical examiner at Vollmecke Chiropractic, a self-run small business in Independence.

Background and qualifications: I have 10 years of experience working in community mental health, volunteered extensively in the district for seven years and have coached youth sports for 14 years.

Favorite school event: STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program outing to Cleveland University-Kansas City for anatomy labs and student STEM awards (White Coat Ceremony, HOSA competitions).

Brandi Pruente

Occupation: Educator with Liberty Public Schools

Background and qualifications: I have worked as an educator for 18 years, have my master’s degree in education and have been a part of the professional development committees, curriculum development and negotiations committees most of my career.

Favorite school event: School dances.

Dennis Green

Occupation: Retired from Independence Police Department and from Independence School District as the public safety director.

Background and qualifications: I retired from the Independence Police Department after 33 years of service as a police officer and then became the public safety director for Independence School District for six years before retiring in February 2023.

Favorite school event: I have many. I enjoy the sports programs and watching my granddaughter dance with the Truman Starsteppers during halftime ceremonies. I am also a musician and enjoy the instrumental vocal performances of all the high schools.

Multiple-choice questions

School funding

Knipp: No response.

Baird: Missouri is sitting on record surpluses, yet our teachers are some of the lowest paid in the country and the Independence School District had to cut bus routes. We need to fully fund our schools so that all of our students can succeed.

Dixon: I feel like the Independence School District does the best it can do with the funding that it has available. I would love to see our school district have additional funds to do more.

Harmon-McLaughlin: While I do believe we could make meaningful adjustments to our budget to better reflect the priorities of our educators and students, in general, I am not running for the Independence School District Board of Education because of our financial situation.

Vollmecke: The local community contributes significantly, repeatedly approving measures for anything the district asks. Missouri needs to adequately fund public education; the state has an all-time budget surplus and all-time teacher shortage

Pruente: We need to spend more money on staff. Our classified and certified staff members need significant raises in order to meet the demands of cost of living and also stay competitive with area school districts.

Green: I believe the district should spend what it takes to make our buildings and classrooms comfortable and safe for our kids to learn, provide competitive salaries and benefits for staff, and provide reliable transportation.

Controversial books

Knipp: No response.

Baird: While guardians should be able to stay informed on what their children check out, other parents should not decide what my children can or cannot read.

Removing books should always be the very last resort after a thoughtful and careful process.

Dixon: The Independence School District and school board have been following their policies and procedures regarding book concerns.

Harmon-McLaughlin: I was deeply concerned about the Independence School District’s conversation and process regarding book banning. Our schools and community have many problems. Books aren’t one of them.

Vollmecke: Infamously, the district has been too quick to pull books from shelves without providing viewpoint-neutral reasons for doing so. The policies in this regard have also been woefully unjust. Newly adopted policies demonstrate improvement in this area.

Pruente: Our district pulled one book from a shelf when one parent filed a complaint. The process was completed behind closed doors without engagement with district families and then was approved by the board in a similar process.

Green: The current board has taken time to review books and decide if content is age appropriate for our libraries.

Transgender students

Knipp: No response.

Baird: It has been well documented that the trans community suffers higher rates of depression, anxiety and death by suicide. One of the easiest ways to prevent harm to our trans kids is by accepting and protecting them. It’s how kids live and flourish.

Dixon: The school district already has policies in place on this matter. We support all students.

Harmon-McLaughlin: Creating a safe space for all students within the Independence School District is paramount. We can do more when it comes to protecting our youth. We can create meaningful and contextually appropriate policies that ensure the safety and deserved respect of all of our students.

Vollmecke: There are different types of people that exist, always have been, and not only is that OK, it’s a benefit. We don’t get to go around telling other people who they are, and schools shouldn’t be any different.

Pruente: Students should always feel safe at school to go by whatever name with which they are comfortable, pronoun, etc. Students should also always have a safe place to use the restroom within their school building.

Green: There are policies regarding these matters. It is the district’s job to educate children with parents assisting with the child’s education. Parents have the final say so on most of these issues, but a student 18 years old can choose their name, etc.

Mental health

Knipp: No response.

Baird: Students cannot reach their full potential when they are burdened with the weight of trauma and mental health struggles. We must support them.

Dixon: The school district has robust support services for mental health.

Harmon-McLaughlin: No matter what, we can and should always be striving for continued support in our students’ mental health. While I think we should be more involved, this answer is not an implicit diminishment of our current involvement. We can simply always do more.

Vollmecke: While the district has numerous programs to help prevent bullying, it lacks in its clarity, procedure and interventions should bullying occur despite these measures, which they inevitably do. Family school liaisons and counselors need more support.

Pruente: In order for students to be successful academically, they must be healthy mentally and there simply are not enough supports in place currently to serve all students.

Green: My district is involved in mental health. It has good programs that have helped with suicide awareness and prevention middle and high schools. It also has a mental health response team ready to assist schools during a crisis.

Social emotional learning

Knipp: No response.

Baird: Kids should feel like they belong in school. The student who uses a wheelchair should feel just as comfortable in our classrooms as our star football player. Everyone in our district should work together to ensure all feel welcome.

Dixon: The Independence School District has social emotional learning in place. All students should understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, establish and maintain healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions.

Harmon-McLaughlin: More and more employers are looking for people with emotional intelligence. Everything we do in our lives encounters social constructs full of complex layers. We should be doing our best to prepare our students for the world we live in.

Vollmecke: We owe it to students to give them the tools necessary to be a successful adult; right now that means a higher focus on social emotional development (i.e., emotional IQ, conflict resolution, personal responsibility).

Pruente: It’s important for students to know at each age how to manage emotions and build character skills. There are a variety of methods to approach social emotional learning and each one works differently depending upon the student. We should always be looking to learn more.

Green: Students need to learn how to get along and the value of being a good citizen. COVID set us back a little, but I believe it’s improving. During my time at the Independence School District the school resource officers developed the STEP program, Students Transitioning Exceptionally Prepared.


Knipp: No response.

Baird: Technology is only going to grow. Students need to learn the time and place and how to use it in an appropriate manner. If we aren’t teaching them in school, we are not preparing them for the world they will live and work in.

Dixon: Cellphones can be a distraction for many of our students and should not be used in the classroom. Technology is important for all students to understand and utilize in the classroom setting.

Harmon-McLaughlin: I believe that we should be integrating technology in appropriate and responsible ways, without diminishing the necessity of learning independent critical thinking skills. Regardless of our thoughts on technology, it is the world our students live in.

Vollmecke: Advancements in technology aren’t going anywhere and will only accelerate. Early exposure and use of technology is beneficial. Perhaps what is more important is teaching personal responsibility and guidance on how to use technology ethically and safely.

Pruente: The management of restricting cellphones and artificial intelligence (AI) and other technology is daunting. These are tools that they will use for the future; we would be better off embracing them and teaching best practice rather than banning them.

Green: Cellphones and technology are never going away. I believe this is an area where kids should be taught how to properly use them and make it a learning experience for them in the classroom. Students should be taught when to use their phones and not.

Open-ended questions

If elected to the school board, what would you do to improve outcomes for students in your district? How well do you believe students are currently learning and achieving academically in your district?

Knipp: No response.

Baird: Our proficiency and college readiness scores are lower than nearby districts. To improve, we must change our district culture. We desperately need accountability and to empower one another.

An easy way to improve outcomes is offering free meals to all students, for which we meet eligibility.

Dixon: Strong partnerships between administration, teachers, staff and parents keeps our schools strong and helps to ensure our kids are well-educated and safe. We need positive voices and leadership in our school district to help our students to continue to show good academic growth.

Harmon-McLaughlin: If elected, I will work diligently to ensure the voice of students in the decision-making process of our district. I believe that our students are a bright spot within our district. My goal will be to continue to invest in our students through innovative and meaningful possibilities.

Vollmecke: I am afraid that the move to the four-day school week is creating learning deficits. The correlation between learning and achievement with social emotional development and food security needs to be better appreciated. Students should not have to pay for meals at school.

Pruente: I believe that we should focus on increasing academic progress in a variety of ways. First mental health and social emotional learning must be priorities because these hinder academic progress, then I believe our district needs to focus on a more inclusive education program and data-driven decision making.

Green: My background is in safety and security. When students are in a safe environment, they are able to be calm and learn. If their stress level is low they’re able to concentrate on what is being taught.

What is your biggest concern about the school board's recent decisions or actions?

Knipp: No response.

Baird: I have been bringing my concerns about our district’s lack of transparency and accessibility directly to our board for three years. It’s why I started my Facebook page. Despite my advocacy, very little has changed. We have to build an Independence School District where families and staff feel informed, engaged and included.

Dixon: The school board was required to set its levy amount during protests of Jackson County taxes. We had to estimate the revenue the district would receive and it was difficult. I am concerned about the outcome of these lawsuits as it could negatively affect our revenue.

Harmon-McLaughlin: While I have many concerns, the primary concern would be the lack of transparency. The community, including our students and educators, simply have not been part of the decision-making process and also have not had access to the data and information being used by the current board to make decisions.

Vollmecke: Our district has the reputation of having a hostile workplace, with bullying that begins with the CEO of the district. Our current board has allowed this to happen and recently approved brand new policies that have been gutted of protections for the constitutional rights of the community.

Pruente: My biggest concern in recent board decisions is a lack of transparency and accountability for their decisions. As an elected body, it’s important to provide clear information and the reasoning behind decisions to the community.

Green: I have no big concerns about the current school board’s actions or decisions. My concern is with three open positions, the board’s agenda which should be our kids' education could sway toward the individuals' agendas and not what’s best for our students. Kids come first.

More 2024 school board election guides

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.
More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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