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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. 

Dr. Zach Roberts is challenging incumbent Mary Sinclair to fill a seat on the Shawnee Mission School Board. Here’s a look at what Roberts and Sinclair 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? 

Roberts: It is hard to be critical of the board’s decisions during 2020. Considering what little we knew about the behavior of COVID disease at that time, the decision to close schools after spring break was both wise and outside of the board’s control. The virtual/hybrid model was a failure for most, and many students left SMSD during this time. From this, many have concluded that in person school is a priority, and thus far the district has been successful in maintaining an in-person learning environment. 

The current in-school mitigation strategies have been put in place by the Johnson County Commission as of August, 5 2021. In general, I do not think the school board should be making public health policy decisions. However, I would like to see a more data-driven approach as we move forward. 

We are now 18 months into this pandemic. I think it is important for the school board to carefully examine the effects of the mitigation strategies (both positive and negative) specifically as they pertain to education, school activities, and the emotional health of all involved parties.  In my opinion, many have been hyper focused on COVID prevalence, and have not given balanced consideration to what effects reactionary measures may be having on students, families, and educators. 

Mary Sinclair, Shawnee Mission School Board Candidate

Sinclair: Yes, Shawnee Mission School District has worked continuously since March 2020 to implement responsive COVID mitigation protocols. Multiple, layered steps are used to minimize spread, keeping students and staff safe and engaged in learning. The district works closely with the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment to follow public health recommendations and to monitor community prevalence.  

Maintaining safe learning environments is critical to keeping schools open to full in-person learning mode. I supported the Board’s recent update to the Fall 2021 Mitigation Plan in August 2021 which requires all children and adults in grades PreK-12 to wear masks in all district facilities – given the Delta variant along with current vaccination rates and no vaccines yet for elementary-aged youth. I will continue to support evidenced-based recommendations of public health officials to inform district COVID mitigation protocols. 

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? 

Roberts: The first step is to acknowledge that 2020 definitely was hard on students.  Many struggled academically as well as emotionally and socially, as our community first shut down and then reopened in a radically different context. The virtual experience in our home was neither efficient nor effective. I suspect for many, the classes of 2021-2022 will require remediation in some areas.

A full complement of educators, who have sufficient resources to spend the necessary time with the students in question, is a starting point. Counseling to help assess and plot a recovery course for education deficiencies should be available, as well as emotional support for those who may have trouble coping with those situational difficulties that accompanied the 2020 school year. Remediation coursework, after school, or summer school may be required in some cases. The district should consider providing these resources in the interest of keeping students on track.

Sinclair: Two years of incremental federal funding have been allotted to districts across Kansas, with a third year likely, to address student needs impacted by disruptions associated with the global pandemic. Shawnee Mission established multi-disciplinary learning teams to make data-informed recommendations about how best to meet student needs. 

Details on the planned response for learning disruptions were presented to the Board April 2021 and associated costs May 2021. I support this plan, including the addition of high school counselors focused on helping students gain college credit and real world learning experiences, 7 elementary social workers to ensure every building has full-time social-emotional support for students, reduced elementary class size maximums by two students, a dedicated substitute in every building, 10 additional secondary math teachers and 6.5 additional elementary instructional coaches to foster evidence-based instruction. 

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

Zach Roberts, Shawnee Mission School Board Candidate

Roberts: The school board should endeavor to serve the teachers in the district by providing competitive pay, adequate support and classroom resources, appropriate class sizes, and sufficient planning time. I would like to collect and use data about job satisfaction, turnover, and barriers to performance, which could then be used to identify, prioritize, and rectify problems that contribute to staff turnover.  

Sinclair: Recruitment and retention of highly qualified educators is essential to quality public education. State legislative decisions to restore funding for K-12 public education to constitutional levels of adequacy has moved Kansas out of the bottom in state rankings for competitive teacher compensation (at 40 in 2016).

Shawnee Mission School District has taken meaningful steps to maximize the resources over which we have control, in alignment with district priorities. These priorities include creating a climate to cultivate quality educators (Strategy 3). Towards that end, the district solidified a path to restore secondary teachers’ course loads to pre-Recession levels (5 of 7 courses), while at the same time maintaining the highest teacher salary schedule in the state.

Restoration of instructional support positions (high school counselors, middle school assistant principals, elementary social workers) had to be deferred to accomplish this task, until federal relief funds made filling these positions critical and possible in the short-term, along with several other positions. 

Additional steps to strengthen instructional supports include incremental increases to classified staff compensation for paraprofessionals and aides, increasing availability and reliability of substitutes, and approving a one-time $600 retention bonus. Recent efforts have also been taken to recruit and retain staff that better reflect the student population. These include initiating Deep Equity Training, hiring a Diversity Coordinator, passing Board Policy AC – Non Discrimination and Policy ACA – School Mascots, establishing the SMSD Recruit team, revising the district’s discipline code, joining the Kauffman Equity Cohort, adopting the Panorama SEL survey, posting open leadership positions, building interactive dashboards and more. District progress on this goal will take persistent intentional effort and time. 

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

Roberts: I am concerned that a considerable amount of the SMSD budget is being earmarked for projects that do not positively contribute to student education in the core subjects. Examples include Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training for all educators and staff, a heavy focus on social-emotional learning metrics,  and a push toward individualized educational plans for every student. 

While these efforts may be well intended, I suspect they are expensive and may have unintended consequences. Over the last four years, the district operational budget has grown by approximately $50million. Over that same time frame, academic performance has declined according to state assessment scores and ACT scores. As of 2019 data, approximately 1/3 of high school students in the district were functioning below grade level in math or English Language Arts. Some believe these metrics are no longer relevant. I believe the district needs to refocus on core educational subjects and reevaluate spending with an emphasis on educator salary and classroom resources.  

Sinclair:  Since the community driven Strategic Plan passed in June 2019, district leadership has been steadily re-aligning the budget with the priorities and objectives of the plan, for which I support. One example of a significant budget adjustment can be found in relation to Strategies 3 (Quality Educators) and 5 (Facilities), changing the use of capital budgets in conjunction with the adoption of formal fiscal guardrails, passage of a tax increase bond, and the phased-in addition of about 78 full-time secondary teachers (see October 26 Bond). It is also important to note that Shawnee Mission allocates 88% of its operational budget to direct support for students and teachers, or 72% of the district’s total budget including capital improvements and debt service. Examples of direct support for learning include general and special education teachers, aids, principals, nurses, social workers, counselors, psychologists, librarians, bus drivers and staff to prepare and serve meals. Only 1% of the district’s total budget is allocated to general administration (superintendent and district leadership team).