Five candidates battle for seat on Olathe school board in August primary

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OLATHE, Kan. — Ahead of the August 3 primary, FOX4 is working to help voters understand where candidates stand on issues impacting residents in the metro. 

FOX4 sent out a questionnaire to all primary candidates in Johnson County. Five candidates are hoping to fill a seat on the Olathe School Board of Education to represent District 3.

J. Ryan Campbell, Jennifer Gilmore, Tiffany Seaman, Julie Steele and Stephen Todd are competing for votes to replace current board member Brent McCune. 

FOX4 didn’t receive a response from Todd or Gilmore. Here’s what the other candidates had to say: 

Q: In June, the board voted to approve new COVID protocols for students, faculty and staff. As the pandemic continues, how do you feel the district should handle health and safety protocols going forward? What metric would you use in deciding district COVID precautions in the future?

Campbell: I support the board’s decision to have masks be optional come fall. Public Health Policy should be set by JCDHE not by the Olathe School Board. The School Board should focus on Education Policy. Based on the CDC data, it is clear that the 0 to 17 age group is seeing very minimal impact from the SARS-COV-2 virus especially when compared to other illness like pneumonia.

There are well respected physicians in our community that have differing opinions on masks and vaccines.  As such, my stance is that individual families should be able to make their decisions based on the advice they receive from their primary healthcare providers not the Olathe School Board.

Seaman: I would advocate that we rely on health experts, including Johnson County and the CDC. On July 16, a letter was sent to Superintendents and School Boards with the following guidance shared:

“To accomplish our shared goal, this guidance includes a multi-layered approach with four primary evidence-based mitigation strategies: (1) promote vaccination; (2) require indoor mask wearing among those who are not fully vaccinated; (3) exclude persons with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infection; and (4) exclude close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases. These strategies are consistent with the recently updated K-12 school guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).” These are our health experts, and they should guide our COVID protocols and precautions. 

If we truly value our role of putting our students and their education first, we are going to need to work together as a community to focus on keeping our students healthy and safe. This will allow us to offer optimal learning opportunities for all of our students. Within the new COVID protocols for the district, it states that “Olathe Public Schools will continue to monitor trends and will adjust protocols accordingly should the need arise.

 Julie Steele USD 233 School Board Candidate, District 3

And furthermore, “Because there is the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak within our school community, we must all be prepared to adapt to any number of actions to increase preventative measures in response to changing circumstances throughout the school year.” Our local health experts should guide our protocols and precautions moving forward.

Steele: It is the responsibility of the local Board of Education to listen to and heed the advice of local public health officials to keep our children safely in school. Parents trust us with the safety and well-being of their kids. It is important to stay current on the latest data regarding transmission rates, but also on vaccination rates and mitigation strategies. 

Nothing about this situation is straightforward or easy, but we can do hard things. Together we will make the best data driven decisions we can with the latest information available. We all share a common goal that our children should be in school, full-time, unmasked. However, we may just have to be deliberate in how we get there. 

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. 

Campbell: The first step would be to not create additional learning loss. Kids need to be back in school where they can focus on their course work. I believe most students learn best when they are learning together with their peers in a hands-on environment. Especially at a young age where a majority of the learning is through the teacher and not self study. From there we can identify where the achievement gap is and develop a plan to get students caught up.  It doesn’t need to be a one-size fits all approach. Some students may not have experienced “learning loss” and they need to keep moving ahead while we spend a little extra time with those that need it. We need to spend time on the necessary subjects and teach the approved curriculum only.

Seaman: We have to meet students where they are, as we should in any case. We have an opportunity to reimagine what we really want our learning to look like. We have the opportunity to ensure that our instruction is more meaningful and focused. 

Tiffany Seaman USD 233 School Board Candidate, District 3

As a district, we have all experienced somewhat similar interruptions in our learning environments. One positive from this experience (if we really put our focus and energy into improving learning) is that the pandemic has given us a greater perspective and emphasis on the building of critical foundations skills for all of our learners. 

Through our state literacy and dyslexia initiatives, our teachers have been provided initial training in extensive evidence (The Science of Reading) about how we learn to read, why some students struggle, and how to implement evidence-based instruction. We need to continue to build this knowledge, and focus on providing educators with the tools that they need to provide evidence-based literacy instruction so that all students are provided the opportunity to grow essential literacy skills.

Steele: Learning loss is an area of concern for me, both as a parent and as a local Board of Education candidate.  With COVID funds coming from the federal government, we have a unique opportunity to hone in on identifying specific gaps in learning so that we can address the areas of need. It is vital that Board members learn from teachers and administrators about best practices to determine how taxpayer dollars are best spent. 

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

Campbell: Teachers are the backbone of education. They have the ultimate responsibility for providing the material to the students and for making sure that the students are engaged and are learning. As with any organization, culture is critical to the success of the organization. I will work with the administration to understand the current initiatives that are in place and see where there are opportunities to do better.  Accountability is key. We should recognize and reward people when they excel and we should hold them accountable when they aren’t performing to the defined expectations.  

J. Ryan Campbell USD 233 School Board Candidate, District 3

Seaman: As an educator in public schools for the past eighteen years within Turner, Shawnee Mission (student teacher), DeSoto (student teacher), Blue Valley and Olathe, I can speak directly from experience when I share that Olathe has and continues to be a highly sought-after district that attracts highly qualified educators.

Olathe is a great community. The Olathe School District offers some of the best health benefits and most competitive salary schedules for teachers. I appreciated the amount of support and training that I received as a new educator within the Olathe School District. There are wonderful opportunities for growth. I would like to see this shared more widely within the district.

Teachers should feel valued, and provided the opportunity to be involved in decision making within the district. We need to continuously work to find better solutions to providing extra support for our educators. It feels as though more and more responsibility continues to be  added to educators’ plates, and we need to strive to find ways to add additional supports to manage the many responsibilities of our educators. The better we support our teachers, the better they will be able to support our students. I am happy to have learned that we are able to provide smaller class sizes and caseloads with a portion of our stimulus funding. We need to continue to work to provide the best working conditions possible in order to attract and maintain qualified staff in the Olathe Public Schools. 

Steele: I’m excited to explore innovative incentives to attract and retain high quality staff.  Olathe Public Schools have several initiatives to “grow their own” teachers via mentoring, scholarships and other financial incentives. As a business owner, it has been necessary for me to think on my feet and look for creative retention and recruitment strategies for my own company.  

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

Campbell: I believe the district has a responsibility to the tax payers to spend the funds appropriately. We have an opportunity this year to reduce the mill levy slightly based on the increased valuations in real estate across the county. The district should not simply take more money and then find ways to spend it. The district should identify a need and then secure funding for that need. I look forward to working with the Deputy Superintendent for Business and Operations, John Hutchison, and listening to his advice and recommendations for the annual budget and to ensure we are providing the most value for our community.

Seaman: I would advocate for a greater focus on evidence-based curriculum and resources in all curricular areas, and especially literacy. There is an abundance of evidence that informs us that teacher knowledge is key to improved learning outcomes for students. I am happy to see our state of Kansas realizing the need for this knowledge so that our teachers can provide evidence-based literacy instruction with fidelity. Louisa Moats, author of Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS), shares that “teachers are the most important factor in student success,” and so providing funding for LETRS training is quite a celebration!  

Olathe was awarded $3,225,500 with the purpose “to advance literacy from birth through grade 12.” A portion of the LiNK Grant funds that the Olathe Public School District received over the past three years went to providing some educators (the Olathe Document shares all Special Education teachers, and select K-1 teachers) with training in LETRS, but I am happy to know that this funding will provide even more educators with this knowledge that is so key. 

I would also advocate for more transparency in how our budget is allocated in order to provide all stakeholders a greater understanding of how our funds are spent. I personally found myself digging through archived Board of Education Documents (which are located online) in order to have a better understanding of how our

LiNK Grant funds were spent. I was disappointed that some of the funds went to things such as Zoom, Mastery Connect, and an Assessment System that is not evidence-based (and as a result, the district has already decided not to use this resource any longer). I would like to ensure that we are making the most informed decisions in what we are using our funding for so that we are providing the most successful educational experiences and opportunities for our students, starting with foundational literacy skills grounded in evidence. We need transparency in what we are using to guide our decisions. Greater guidance from the state could help with this. Colorado, for instance, has state guidelines in adopting evidence-based literacy curriculum and resources.

Steele: Our Olathe School District Budget is a complex document and I look forward to attending workshops once elected that will delve into these details. A recent study by the Kansas Legislature revealed that Kansas Public Schools are extremely efficient, which was reassuring to me as a taxpayer. I would hate to speak off the cuff about changes I would want to make to the budget before attending some far more detailed training to better understand the intricacies of District revenue and spending.

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