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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. —In Johnson County, advance voting by mail for the general election begins next week.

To help voters get a better idea where candidates stand on issues impacting residents in the metro, FOX4 sent out a questionnaire to candidates in more than 50 races in Johnson County. 

Jim McMullen and Lindsay Weiss are competing for voter support to secure a seat on the Blue Valley School Board. 

Here’s a look at what McMullen and Weiss had to say:  

Q: Do you feel the district’s COVID response has been adequate? If elected, what metric would you use in deciding district COVID precautions in the future? 

McMullen: I do not believe the district’s COVID response has been adequate. My primary criticism has been that every decision has been driven almost exclusively by the district’s taking direction from the Johnson County Health Department. The health department has a specific responsibility related to COVID, but I do not see that its responsibility (or authority) should continue for an unlimited or uncertain duration, which is the situation we currently find ourselves [in].

Specifically, as it pertains to the masking requirement of children in the public schools, the health department has imposed an indefinite restriction for the duration of this school year for all children under 12, with no specific metrics in place to end that policy. Meanwhile, the health department has implemented no restrictions on any other aspect of life in the county. That is an absurd policy.

Editor’s Note: Johnson County Board of Commissioners approved an order to require masking for all students through 6th grade in local school districts. Unless extended by county leaders, the order is set to expire at the end of May. You can read our previous coverage here.

I view required masking of children in school for such long periods of time to require the consent of the child’s parents.

The board should consider not just the physical health metrics presented by the health department, but non-medical considerations as well, such as the social, developmental, psychological, emotional, educational, and financial considerations when implementing this masking policy.

All data is in the past. All risk is in the future. The data informs us that children are the least affected by COVIS, including with the Delta variant. In my view, the policy responses have been far beyond what should have been implemented. That said, things could change in the future. If the impacts on children of this virus materially change for the worse, then the policy needs to be able to adjust. 

Weiss: I think we’ve learned that we have to do whatever it takes to keep kids in school full-time, continuously and uninterrupted, because it’s the key to their academic growth and mental health. The most important job a Board of Education member has is to make sure kids get the best education possible and they have to be IN school to do that. I will always consider public health recommendations that allow us to remain in school and, second to that, allow kids to participate in sports and activities that they love.

Q: How can the district address learning loss students may have experienced during the pandemic? What initiatives would you support to prevent students from falling behind? 

McMullen: First, never again allow the district to inflict hybrid learning on our students or staff.

Second, every one of my own child’s classes last year and in the close of the 2020 school year materially loosened the academic expectations on students. Anecdotally, this was an across-the-board experience for students. There should be no delay in returning to Pre-COVID expectations. I am assuming that has been done this year, but it’s still early in the school year.

Third, the district needs to reintroduce some rigorous summer reading and math requirements that must be turned in on the first day of school. This should be a basic expectation of all middle and high school students.

Fourth, and this is not specific to COVID learning loss, but it will help, the district needs to implement a true interdisciplinary writing program that spans middle and high school and that is grounded in principles of logic and rhetoric. This should include science and mathematics. Writing is the true intellectual enterprise. It is what develops young people’s minds and develops life-long benefits when instilled at a young age.

Weiss: We are just beginning to wrap our arms around the extent of learning loss incurred over the past 18 months. Luckily, the district anticipated this and began working on a plan last spring. Over 1,000 students attended summer school (our largest ever) including “step-up” programs to bridge gaps between grades. High school students could attend in-person credit recovery for the first time ever. As we begin the current school year, our federal ESSER dollars are providing impactful opportunities to mitigate learning loss. Specifically:

Blue Valley School Board Candidate Lindsay Weiss   
  • Reading specialists for all elementary and middle schools. 
  • Interventionists at the high school level – provide individual and small group support.
  • Social workers in every school.
  • Before and after-school tutoring at every school — free to anyone who needs it.
  • Extra paraprofessional staff for small group pull-out and/or one-on-one support.

I fully support these interventions. My only concern as a board member is making sure we have a plan in place for some of these programs to continue as needed when ESSER funding runs out. 

Q: What plans do you have to help the district attract and maintain qualified staff? 

McMullen: Blue Valley’s pay scale is slightly below that of neighboring districts, it appears to me, though apples to apples comparisons are actually quite difficult to make from the outside because there’s not enough public information to be able confidently adjust for staff age and experience compared to other districts.

We are in an inflationary time, and that could continue for several years. Public institutions are notoriously bad at quickly reacting to rapid changes in financial conditions. We need to ensure that the district has adept financial leadership at the board level to ensure that the district’s finance team has both oversight and support to think creatively and act decisively.

I am in favor of a different approach to staffing and student interaction. I believe the district needs to seriously look at reducing the number of classes that students take in a semester at the middle and high school levels by adopting more interdisciplinary courses that are less compartmentalized than what exists today. This would necessarily lead to teachers having fewer students in a semester while allowing those teachers to go further in depth in their classes. This would, I think, provide far greater teacher engagement. 

Weiss: This has been more of a challenge this year than ever before. Even with pay increases, we are having a hard time attracting classified staff and certified teachers. I would love to see us implement a “Homegrown Teachers” program where we identify our Blue Valley students interested in teaching and mentor them, give them experience and even incentives/scholarships.  In exchange, they have an opportunity to come back and teach for us after college. This is a win/win — they get a great job, and we get employees who already know and love Blue Valley. I think this loyalty will go a long way toward retention.

Q: What changes, if any, would you like to see in the district budget?

McMullen: The primary change that would be welcome would be an end to the unnatural allocation of money tied to specific accounting funds as authorized by the state legislature. However, that is largely outside of the district’s control. Thus, on that front, I would try to leverage my financial and legal expertise to bring some more sanity to the way that school funding is distributed by the state. But let’s not pretend that there is some magic bullet here; there is not.

Within what the Board can control, and in particular the $200 million (or so) annual operating budget, I would like to see the following objectives examined and, if feasible, implemented:

Blue Valley School Board Candidate Jim McMullen 

(a) Pushing out more administrative tasks away from the central office to local schools. Not every administrative function has to be executed by an administrator. Some administrative tasks may not be necessary. 

(b) Shrinking class sizes (subject to physical plant limitations), which would allow for some reallocation of functions mentioned in (a) above. This would likely require $4million to $10million annually (depending on how aggressive the effort is) from some other area in the budget towards more staff compensation. Some of this financial burden could be alleviated by my suggestion, referenced above, that our students’ educational experience (and teachers’ teaching experience) would be better served by higher quality and lower quantity courses at the middle and high school level, reducing the total number of teachers required to be employed, relative to the number of students in the district.

While these are fairly specific goals, this really needs to be expressed more as an aspirational objective and requires considerable further analysis. My working theory is that we have the ability in the district to reorganize certain roles around this goal of delivering a less frenetic learning environment to students and teachers, which would enhance the depth of the learning experience, reduce the overall quantity of classes, change the manner in which we staff the entire school system, and improve the opportunity to operate more efficiently. 

(c) The district should consider examining whether some of the non-core functions that it administers on its own and with its own leadership team could be developed with neighboring districts into a consortium that would reduce overall administrative cost and enhance purchasing power.

Weiss: We need to be planning ahead right now for when ESSER funds run out. It’s a blessing and a curse to be given nearly $20million in relief funds. While the primary goal is learning catch-up, we would be wise to make sure we’re using much of it in ways that can have a lasting impact. I have been part of our board advisory committees during several budget cuts and it is heartbreaking to have to cut programs and people when our funding is short. I’d like to start planning for when the ESSER source runs dry right now and make sure we’re getting the most value for our dollar.