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Four vie for pair of seats on SPS board

One incumbent and three challengers answer questions from SBJ

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The April 4 election features four candidates vying for two seats on the Springfield Public Schools Board of Education.

All of the candidates completed a questionnaire provided by Springfield Business Journal. Their full responses are available at SBJ.net/Election2023, and a selection of questions and responses are included here. Candidates were asked to limit themselves to 100 words per response.

After the 2021-22 year, SPS experienced a teacher turnover rate of nearly 14%, with 257 of 1,859 teachers opting not to return, according to the district. Only 30% of these were retirements. What should the board of education do to retain teachers?

Judy Brunner: The issue of salaries and benefits will impact retention; consequently, they should remain at the top of the list in terms of expenditures. The teacher shortage is a national issue. As a former supervisor of student teachers at Missouri State University, I know the value of pre-service teachers having a positive experience while student teaching. We have many master teachers in SPS, and they should be encouraged to host a student teacher. Once student teachers have seen SPS firsthand, they will be more willing to remain in Springfield as part of our district.

Landon McCarter: [Editor’s note: Answer edited for length.] This particular topic is one of the main issues facing our school system that I plan on addressing if elected. I believe that we are asking too much of our teachers in the classroom. We are asking teachers to not only teach a curriculum, but also become social workers, or even police officers. The classroom has become filled with behavioral distractions that are causing our teachers to not be able to focus on teaching, but rather manage the emotions of individual students at the cost of the entire classroom learning the curriculum.
Teachers have communicated to me that they have their hands tied in certain situations due to policies and procedures.

Chad Rollins: After speaking with teachers, the No. 1 reason for the turnover rate was due to the environment in the classroom and more specifically bad behavior and distractions in the classroom. This issue needs to be addressed and solutions be put in place to help bring order and stability back to the classroom, thus providing a positive learning environment.

Shurita Thomas-Tate: The board should work within the scope of their role to retain teachers: 
• Setting the vision and mission of district. The newly adopted strategic plan includes several objectives and goals that address issues of importance to teacher retention (see strategic plan for full scope). 
• Adopting and reviewing local policies in compliance with state and federal laws/regulations (and ensure that they serve the needs and best interest of teachers).
• Hiring and evaluating the superintendent and providing input to the superintendent from the community, including teachers.
• Providing oversight and approving the budget to ensure teachers have adequate resources for educating students, and competitive wages and benefits.

Missouri ranks at the bottom of states when it comes to teacher starting pay at $32,970, according to the NEA, which notes average Missouri’s average teacher pay also lags behind most neighboring states. What should the SPS Board of Education do about teacher pay?

McCarter: [Editor’s note: Answer edited for length.] I was proud of the SPS school board when they voted in favor of the largest SPS teacher raise in the history of Springfield last year. I think we need to constantly be looking for ways to attract and recruit talented teachers. Recently, a decision was made to change (teacher) pay from a level 12-month schedule to a nine-month “as earned” schedule. I have heard that 87% of the people affected were not in favor of that decision. I would like to see at least the option of employees to choose whether they are on a nine-month schedule or a 12-month schedule.

Rollins: I feel a long-term solution needs to be made to help increase the starting pay for teachers to be more in line with other states so we can maintain and attract high-quality teachers in Missouri. I would encourage the SPS Board of Education to continue to encourage the Missouri legislature to increase teacher pay raises as they have in recent years. Missouri cannot afford to have our standards of excellence lower when it comes to the teachers, and pay is one way to assure we are attracting such teachers to our state.

Thomas-Tate: The board approves the budget and provides the superintendent with input regarding the budget. The board should advocate for competitive salaries for teachers and regular cost-of-living increases to the superintendent. Benefits and wage increases are negotiated for teachers through collective bargaining. The final negotiations between the teachers’ union and HR are then approved by the board. While teachers in Missouri are clearly underpaid in comparison to other states, we are competitive within the state. Board members can and should advocate for increased funding for education at the state level for public education.

Brunner: The issue of teacher pay has long been an issue in Missouri. We must do our best in SPS to be No. 1 compared to area schools, and we must also encourage our legislators to make this a priority. There is a Blue Ribbon Commission in place taking a serious look at salaries, and they are offering suggestions. We need to follow the commission’s findings carefully and push for implementation. Many individuals are not aware of Missouri’s standing in terms of salaries for educators. The board should help highlight this information in order to support public awareness.

In 2022, SPS invested $2.1 million in the Galileo screening system. Baseline scores showed only 38% of students were proficient or better in math and 45% were proficient or better in English language arts. What is the most important step the district can take to raise student performance levels?

Rollins: I feel the most important step to raising student performance lies in solving the behavior problems and distractions in the classroom, continuation of moving toward a higher ratio of learning via pencil, paper and textbooks versus Chromebooks, and using the information given by Galileo that targets the students who are not proficient and directing more attention to these students with regards to helping them overcome past failures when it comes to learning.

Thomas-Tate: This is a complex and loaded question that requires a response beyond the scope of this questionnaire. While test scores are an important indicator of student success, they are not the only nor even the most efficacious ones. Nonetheless, Galileo is an important tool for assisting teachers with data that can be used to guide individualized learning targets for students. However, the district needs to work with the community to better understand standardized tests, what they measure and what they tell us about student success. Additionally, the district should work with students, parents, teachers and community stakeholders to develop a comprehensive approach to defining and measuring student success. 

Brunner: It is the board’s responsibility to make academic achievement a top priority for the superintendent. It is then the superintendent’s responsibility to put plans in place to address academic achievement. The district’s newly adopted strategic plan has six specific objectives under Success Ready Students. The board should carefully follow the implementation of the plan.

McCarter: We have seen declining academic performance for the last 12 years. This has got to change. The most important step is to remove distractions from the classroom and empower teachers to teach the curriculum. This will allow teachers to stay in our district instead of going to districts that do have these things under control. I also believe that we are over-relying on technology to teach our students. I would like to limit the use of technology in the classroom and get back to the basics.

Classrooms have become a target of political debate, with concerns about “wokeness” and critical race theory on one side of the divide and about authoritarianism and censorship on the other. If your candidacy aligns with or responds to a political ideology, please be specific and describe it.

Thomas-Tate: School boards should be nonpartisan. That said, I believe that the culture wars being waged in our community are a deflection and a distraction from the work of educating each and every child in our community and from providing all children with the opportunity to reach their highest potential. I believe that public education is a public good that should support the needs of all students. I believe that public schools have the power to transform lives and strengthen communities. I believe that public funds belong in public schools; this is an investment in our community. I believe that healthy schools lead to healthy communities.

Brunner: I do not believe critical race theory has a place in K-12 education. Additionally, when I listen carefully to what parents want related to available books, most want books in the schools to be age appropriate, and I agree. The current discourse on these topics is important to all of us, and it has certainly raised awareness among our families and educators. All voices should be heard. The school board is nonpartisan, and I believe it should remain that way.

McCarter: Classrooms are not the place for political or social agendas. This is a part of the distractions I keep referring to. We need to limit political and social agendas and get back to the basics of the curriculum.

Rollins: I am a huge advocate for removing political and social agendas from the classroom and from SPS completely. They only cause divisiveness and controversy when we all need to be focusing on academics and student achievement. Parents and stakeholders I talk to all agree it should be a priority to remove these distractions from our district. Parents also want transparency when it comes to curriculum and what is actually being taught in the classroom.

How well is SPS preparing students for future work life, and what more, if anything, should the district do?

Brunner: Our graduation rate has continued to increase over the past few years. This is something to be proud of and something to celebrate. That said, I support a career counselor to be placed in each high school. These individuals would have the sole purpose of helping students prepare for a career of choice. They would assist and help students become aware of options including a realistic understanding of what it will take to be successful in a chosen career. Career readiness must be a priority in our schools. Parents want it, students need it and the district must meet the demand.

McCarter: There needs to be more programs like the ones we have just approved for students to earn their pilot’s license before graduation. I would love to see more programs like this to create more opportunities for students.

Rollins: I think SPS does a decent job of this and needs to continue to focus on and expand upon work-based learning, internship-type programs based on hands-on learning and community service projects. I do feel that thoughts of removing A-plus and A-minus, etc., and/or honors classes, would lead to a decrease in students aspiring to want to set high goals, standards and personal excellence for themselves, and this could cause a negative effect when moving into the realm of work life in the future.

Thomas-Tate: Overall, SPS is doing a good job preparing students for a future of life beyond K-12. We have programs that prepare kids to enter the workforce with trades, skills and certificates, and a robust curriculum and excellent teachers that prepare students to go on to pursue additional education and training. SPS provides real-life learning opportunities through community partnerships and mentorship programs. The newly acquired Naviance platform should assist the district in helping students figure out a path for their future and a roadmap to get there. There is always the need to expand and improve programs and opportunities so that all students can access and benefit from these options.

The district is wrapping up work on facility upgrades approved by voters in 2019, and your candidacy shares a ballot with a new bond proposal that targets more capital improvements. What are your views of the new Proposition S and the need for infrastructure investments?

McCarter: I am very much in favor of Proposition S. I believe we need to invest in these projects, as they are a key part of our community.

Rollins: I feel there is a need for infrastructure investments. Having had kids at Pershing for several years, I can say the school is overdue for renovations as well as Pipkin and Reed. These along with the security upgrades at all schools will allow for our schools to be safer, have adequate space, and an environment more conducive to learning. Storm shelters will provide even more safety and space for activities and learning as well. Ultimately, it is up to the voters to decide, and if approved it will be the board’s duty to provide fiscal responsibility for the project.

Thomas-Tate: I support the SPS bond issue – Proposition S. This is a no-tax-increase proposal that if approved will allow the district to construct or renovate three middle schools – Reed, Pipkin and Pershing – and add safety and security upgrades to all SPS school buildings. Having visited these and other schools in our district as a board member and liaison on the community task force on facilities, I have seen the inequities in learning environments for students across the district. This bond will allow for more students to learn in high-quality, safe and accessible school buildings.

Brunner: I am a strong supporter of the 2023 bond proposal. There is an emphasis on school safety, and that is important to all of us. I was the principal at Reed Middle School for seven years, and I know firsthand the challenges facing both Pipkin and Reed in terms of handicapped accessibility, etc. Additionally, storm shelters at Pershing, Cowden, Holland, Mann, Pittman, Watkins and Wilder are needed in those school communities.

What are the district’s top challenges that you plan to address if elected to the school board?

Rollins: I feel the top challenges to be addressed are teacher retention and low test scores.

Thomas-Tate: My job as a board member is to collectively work with the six other elected board members to support the needs of the district through the work of the superintendent, strategic plan, policy and budget. During my time on the board, we have faced unexpected challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the hiring of a new superintendent. The primary focus for me will always be meeting the needs of each and every child in the district and making sure that the students, teachers, staff and administration have what they need to support student success. This needs to be done while balancing the needs of parents and community stakeholders.  

Brunner: The new board will face several challenges. There has recently been a one-time allotment of funds to cover two years of needs. When that money is no longer available, the board will have tough decisions to make. Teacher recruitment, retention and academic achievement will all remain front and center. School safety, engaging families and supporting educators – the three pillars of my campaign – are all necessary if we are to have the school district our families deserve.

McCarter: I want to limit the distractions in the classroom and get back to the basics.

Please tell us anything else you’d like us to know about your candidacy, such as the most important issues to you or why you are running for this position, while adhering to the 100-word guideline.

Thomas-Tate: The community needs to understand the roles and responsibility of the board of education. The community should elect individuals who also understand these roles and responsibilities. Good board of education candidates should have a demonstrated record of community service and leadership. While a background in education is not a requirement to school board service, it surely helps to have the voice of educators on the board. Board members should not be focused entirely on politics; they should be focused on issues that impact our district. I have the experience, expertise, knowledge and demonstrated record of community service to be a good board member.   

Brunner: I am proud of Springfield Public Schools, and I am a product of Springfield Public Schools. I know we must strategically plan and advance our common goal of student education each day. As a board member, I will roll up my sleeves and be visible in the community that I love while listening carefully to constituent concerns and recommendations. No one individual has all the answers to the issues facing our public schools, but collectively we can, and must, do our best to educate all students in a manner that prepares them for life after their K-12 experience.

McCarter: [No response.]

Rollins: Over the last five years, I have dedicated myself to helping others and especially our youth through fitness and being a good role model for others to follow. I wanted to expand my service to the community by running for the board of education and seeking personal excellence for our district. If elected I plan to work hard and be fair in all aspects as I represent the stakeholders and parents of our community, and to be an advocate for the students and teachers of SPS.

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