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Independence school board election could change dynamic with the district superintendent

Two men sit at a large, wooden commission desk. Between them is a large sign on the wall that reads "ISD, Inspiring Greatness, Independence School Board."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Independence School Superintendent Dale Herl and School Board President Eric Knipp listen to public comments on a proposal for a four-day school week. Knipp is running for re-election April 2.

Some candidates say they'll be more skeptical of Dale Herl's proposals, like the four-day school week, than the current board. Herl has given a $100 contribution to a candidate.

No matter who ends up on the Independence school board after the April 2 election, the four-day school week likely isn’t going away — at least not for a couple years.

Most of the seven candidates running for three open spots either think that giving students Mondays off was a success, or want time to study the effects of the change.

But the differing ways candidates talk about the four-day week showcases a struggle for the future of a board that has reliably backed Superintendent Dale Herl’s recommendations, prided itself on its unity and put limits on public participation.

Herl has weighed in on the contest with a donation to at least one candidate, former district administrator Dennis Green, who would be a newcomer to the board.

Green is running alongside two incumbents, Eric Knipp and Carrie Dixon, and four other challengers.

The other challengers — Wendy Baird, Brandi Pruente, Zac Harmon-McLaughlin and Jason Vollmecke — say that if they had been on the school board during the four-day-week vote, they would have pushed for more public engagement, more open discussion, more time to consider, more attention given to those who might struggle with the new schedule.

“Whether we agree or disagree with going to a four-day week,” Baird said, “I don’t think any of us felt that we actually were part of the conversation and were allowed to weigh in.”

Those candidates say that when evaluating the four-day school week and handling other board business, they’ll bring a focus on transparency to the board and more actively hold the superintendent accountable for problems. Vollmecke has taken a definitive stand in favor of reverting to the five-day school week.

Knipp, Dixon and Green emphasize their experience in district leadership roles. Though they’ve said during candidate forums that they want to strengthen communication with the public, they express a generally positive view of the Independence district’s culture, leadership and handling of decisions.

“I want to keep the board going the way it has been going,” Green said during a candidate forum.

Maintaining a board that trusts Herl’s direction could make it easier to enact bold changes like the four-day school week, which has drawn mixed reviews from the public, inspired legislation and, Herl says, caused a spike in teacher applications.

The board’s relationship with Herl

One of the primary responsibilities of the seven-member board is to hire, supervise and evaluate the superintendent.

The Independence board has a history of supporting Herl’s recommendations, voting unanimously for at least a decade until mid-2022. Herl became superintendent in 2013.

Anthony Mondaine, the board’s newest member, broke the unanimous vote streak by dissenting on a June 2022 vote to remove a book from elementary school libraries. The book, “Cats vs. Robots,” features a nonbinary character and an explanation of gender identity.

Since then, Mondaine has been at the center of several split votes, dissenting from the board majority or proposing agenda items that were voted down. Veteran school board member Denise Fears joined Mondaine on one vote and also voted against a handbook approval.

Even with those recent dissenting votes, a strong majority has stuck together.

Incumbent candidates emphasized teamwork and said board members’ power comes not as individuals, but as part of the collective, during an Independence Council PTA candidate forum March 21.

The board speaks as “one voice,” Knipp said. To provide services students need, he said, “we have to be a cohesive unit.”

“We don’t have the privilege of each of us having our own views that represent” the whole board, Dixon said. “We get to represent the one opinion of all of us.”

The board could become more willing to question leadership if union-endorsed candidates win, said Sarah Nelson, president of the Independence National Education Association. The INEA endorsed Baird, Pruente and Harmon-McLaughlin.

Those candidates have pushed for changes such as livestreaming and recording board meetings, adding more detailed information to meeting agendas and expanding communication between the board and the public.

They are approachable, active in the community and resistant to “being led by one person or a small group of people,” Nelson said. “They will ask questions. They will take the time to educate themselves and to facilitate that engagement with the community and the parents that needs to happen.”

Vollmecke, who along with Baird and Pruente is endorsed by Missouri Equity Education Partnership (MOEEP) Action, has also challenged the board and superintendent.

He was escorted out of an Independence 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. Vollmecke later sued the school district over the ban, and the trespassing charges were recently dropped.

Vollmecke’s willingness to speak out helped win him the endorsement, said Ken Susman of MOEEP Action. “If he’s going to work from the outside, we’d like to have him on the inside.”

Joining with current members who are willing to buck the majority vote, any three of those candidates could sway the seven-member board into a more skeptical posture, making it harder for Herl to advance agenda items and challenging him on what they see as a culture of fear and retaliation for those who speak up about problems.

A leader of the Independence chapter of the Missouri State Teachers Association, a professional association that has sided with the administration in recent disputes with the union, did not respond to a request for an interview about its endorsements of Knipp, Dixon and Green.

Herl’s donation to a candidate

The potential for a shift in the board’s balance could help explain why Herl donated to at least one candidate.

But that donation could have negative repercussions if the candidates that Herl didn’t support end up on the board, said Brian Jordan, executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards.

“You really need to stay out of election issues for school board members, because you’re going to work with whoever gets elected,” he said. “That person is directly supervising you and evaluating you, so it just creates an opportunity for maybe some hard feelings.”

Jordan said the ethical and practical issues at stake are the same in Missouri and Kansas. The Missouri School Boards’ Association did not respond to interview requests.

Herl’s $100 donation to Dennis Green, and a $100 donation from his wife, Rebecca Herl, are the highest possible amount an individual can give before a candidate is legally required to include them on an itemized, public list of donors.

While Green chose to disclose the donation, it’s possible other candidates also received donations from Herl of $100 or less that they didn’t disclose.

Baird, Vollmecke, Pruente and Harmon-McLaughlin said they hadn’t received donations from Herl and would decline one if offered.

“Once you leave your office, you don’t leave your role,” Vollmecke said. “It just looks like he is paying to support who his boss will be. And that may be OK, technically, as a personal citizen. It’s a really terrible look.”

Knipp and Dixon did not agree to interviews.

“I am one of the most ethical people that you will ever meet,” Dixon said during a League of Women Voters candidate forum in response to a more general question about ethics, conflict of interest, nepotism and campaign donations.

Knipp responded to the same question by saying “there’s nothing unethical going on on the board … There’s no conflict of interest going on that I’m aware of.”

Herl did not agree to an interview or respond to follow-up questions, including whether he had donated to other candidates.

In a statement sent by a district spokesperson but described as being offered “in his role as an individual, not as the Superintendent of the ISD,” Herl defended the donation.

“Dennis Green is a tremendous human being, and I would support him no matter what role he was running for,” he wrote in part. “I am happy to exercise my right as a taxpayer, parent, and Independence resident to financially support someone I believe would be a great asset to any elected position in our community.”

A disclaimer doesn’t erase the issues with donating to candidates, Jordan said. He advises superintendents to also avoid endorsing candidates on social media or even being more friendly with certain candidates during in-person events because “the public is always watching.”

“(If) you give the disclaimer, ‘a personal friend of mine is Joe Schmoe, the school board member,’ it doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’re still in the position of the superintendent, and so you’ve got to have enough awareness to step away from some of those things.”

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.
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