With focus on special education, incumbent seeks re-election to Shawnee Mission School Board

Education

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Ahead of the general election on Nov. 2, FOX4 is working 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. 

Brian Neilson is challenging incumbent Heather Ousley for a chance to fill the At-Large seat on the Shawnee Mission School Board.

FOX4 did not receive a response from Neilson; here’s a look at what Ousley 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?   

Ousley: We have continually worked to follow the guidelines and recommendations from JCDHE and the CDC, to do what we are able to lower transmission and keep kids participating in person. 

Currently, the guidance from leading health agencies is to continue risk mitigation, including mask wearing, spacing of three feet, sanitizing, and encouraging vaccination, through vaccination clinics for students and staff in partnership with JCDHE and Children’s Mercy. In addition, last year we updated HVAC filtering with federal ESSER dollars and purchased high quality masks for students and staff.  

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? 

Ousley: The district is currently allocating federal ESSER dollars to lower class sizes at the elementary level, and to lower math class sizes at the secondary level with additional math teachers in our secondary buildings. We have also hired additional counselors to meet these needs. 

As these funds will run out, we are working to find areas in our budget that could be adjusted to keep the positions that benefit students the most, as well as joining in the National School Board Association’s push for fully funding IDEA, and the State Board of Education’s push for the state to meet its statutory obligation to fund Special Education well. 

Due to the shortfalls in spending at both the federal and state level, shortfalls in special education expenses are made up with dollars from the district’s operational budget. Recapturing those dollars would help the district in maintaining the lower class sizes at the elementary level, and keep the additional counselors and math educators at the secondary level. 

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

Ousley: The district recently passed a bond initiative in addition to providing building renovations, allowing the district to cover the expense of custodial salaries; freeing up operational dollars to lower secondary educator workloads from teaching 6 out of 7 sections, to 5 out of 7 sections.

This allows time for professional learning and coordination between educators, as well as creating a more manageable workload. Additionally, SMSD still has one of the highest salary schedules in Kansas, if not the highest, making it[s] pay competitive both within the state, and nationally.  

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

Ousley: As noted in answer 2, it is vital that federal and state authorities meet their legal and moral obligations to fund special education, so that the needs of all students can be met equitably.

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