Independence parents say school board 'operates in the shadows' as it considers a 4 day week
Families in Independence say they struggle to get information from their school board, and it's gotten more difficult since the board started enforcing a policy limiting public comments.
For almost five months, Arthur Smith has been a regular fixture at Independence school board meetings.
In June, the school board voted to remove the book “Cats vs. Robots Volume 1: This is War” – which includes a nonbinary character – from its elementary school libraries. As the parent of a nonbinary child, Smith decided to speak up at the following meeting.
“I've made the commitment to myself to be a better parent, and to pay more attention to our local school board,” Smith said. “So I've been kind of a monthly fixture sitting in board meetings since then.”
Now, though, Smith wouldn’t be able to raise his objection to the book’s removal.
The Independence School Board is now enforcing an existing policy that requires speakers to choose a specific agenda item that they want to address. Previously, speakers could sign up to address any topic they choose.
Since Smith didn’t learn about the book’s removal until after it already happened, he would have missed his chance. Even if he read the agenda ahead of time, he said it didn’t include enough information for him to understand what was being voted on.
“Essentially, this policy would completely shut down any kind of public comment related to an action like that,” Smith said.
Transparency concerns amid big schedule changes
This newly enforced policy is just the latest move by the Independence Board of Education that has families concerned about a lack of transparency, and it’s adding stress as the district weighs switching to a four day school week.
The Independence school board started exploring a shorter school week in August amid difficulties recruiting and retaining staff. The move followed a trend of other Missouri schools — most of them small and rural — adopting a shorter schedule. At the start of the school year, 25% of the state’s school districts had a four day week.
With nearly 14,000 students, Independence would be the largest district in the state to make the switch. The next-largest is the Warren County School District west of St. Louis, with more than 3,000 students.
The proposal for a four-day week has an informational page on the school district’s website, which makes it easier to access than many other issues the board works on. Board of education meetings aren’t streamed or recorded, which Smith said frustrates parents.
“It's a district that in many ways just kind of operates in the shadows without very much publicly available information,” Smith said. “Or if information is available publicly, you have to jump through a bunch of hoops to be able to actually find that information.”
Other boards make meetings available online
Nearly all Kansas City area districts record and stream their meetings. Other school districts may ask residents to keep their comments about policy or district matters, but they don’t specify that they have to stick to agenda items.
The easiest way to find information about the Independence school board is to go to a Facebook page called Independence, Missouri, Education News and Information that’s run by a district parent. The page shows the latest district updates, information on the four day school week, and recordings of public comments at otherwise unrecorded board meetings.
Wendy Baird created the Facebook page after she had difficulty finding out how to address the board when her child struggled with the switch to virtual learning during the pandemic.
“I believe that the school district, they've just been allowed to operate quietly and privately,” said Baird. “I'm not saying that there are dark, nefarious things going on, but I am saying they've been allowed to operate without anyone questioning or asking them to do better. And I kind of see that as my role now.”
She became aware that the district was changing how it enforced its commenting policy after she signed up to speak at November’s board meeting and was told she needed to wait for the agenda to be posted and pick an item to comment on.
A district spokesperson told KCUR in an email that while previously allowing speakers to choose their own topics “allowed for a wider range of topics upon which members of the public could speak,” it violated the board's policy.
Baird said she does believe that following policy is important — but if it’s a bad policy, it needs to be fixed.
“I still do not believe that that's the best way to do things. I think it should be allowed to be an open forum,” Baird said. “I do believe that anybody with a concern that would like it to be brought before a board of education should be allowed to do so.”
According to the Missouri School Board Association, districts don’t have to stream or record meetings, or even hold a public comment session.
Kelli Hopkins, the organization’s associate executive director, said for some districts, public comment is a way to build relationships with their community.
“In some districts, however, it is just a time when people are talking about things they haven’t thought out well, and there's often subjects that the board is not prepared to discuss that night,” Hopkins said.
"They've been allowed to operate without anyone questioning or asking them to do better. And I kind of see that as my role now.”Wendy Baird, founder of Independence, Missouri Education News and Information on Facebook
Missouri law change could shift boards' policies
A Missouri law enacted in June created a process for residents to place an item on their school board’s agenda – but it also allows a school district to require residents to meet with the superintendent first to resolve their issue.
The law also requires school districts to come up with an engagement policy based on community input by July 1. The bill says the policy should provide residents a way to communicate with their school board.
“I think it is going to help guide the discussion to more meaningful engagements with the board, as opposed to just standing up and speaking your piece and sitting down,” Hopkins said.”
Some families are still wary about the changes to board policy, like parent Arthur Smith. He already talked to administrators about his concerns on the book’s removal, so he’s not optimistic they would add the matter to future agendas.
He’s also worried people will miss their chance to comment on the four-day school week if it’s not clearly listed on the agenda far enough in advance for residents to prepare to talk about it.
“It's not on the agenda, you would not be allowed to speak about it – even if it's very topical in the district, even if it's a huge thing that obviously is looming before us – unless it's specifically on the agenda of that board meeting,” Smith said.