In the Independence School District, three new candidates are challenging two incumbents for six-year terms on the school board.
Ahead of the April 5 election, The Kansas City Beacon sent five questions to each candidate about the district and school board’s strengths and weaknesses, and why they’re the right person to help them improve.
In the coming weeks, we’ll have similar candidate questionnaires for other major Kansas City-area school districts with upcoming elections.
Jill Esry, who has already served two terms with the Independence district, says the current board members work well with one another and with the superintendent.
In the future, she wants school board members to spend more time in school buildings as they seek to address the impact of the pandemic, including on behavioral and mental health issues.
Greg Gilliam says he worked in the district for more than 30 years in human resources and now wants to use that knowledge to be an effective board member. He wants to improve communication, support students and burned-out staff members, strengthen connections with higher education and advocate for increased funding.
Anthony Mondaine, a district graduate and current Jackson County Children’s Services Fund treasurer, says Independence needs to improve diversity among staff and leadership to better reflect the student population. He also wants the board to make meetings more accessible to the public and says communication between the board and public is “shamefully scarce.”
Jason Vollmecke, a chiropractor, also criticizes board communication and says it has allowed “hostility” into the workplace for district employees. Vollmecke is also worried about students’ mental health.
Incumbent Matt Mallinson has not responded to multiple emails from The Kansas City Beacon.
Responses have been edited for length, clarity and Associated Press style. Follow the links to read full responses for Esry and for Gilliam. Neither Mondaine’s nor Vollmecke’s response was abbreviated.
Click a question to jump ahead:
- What parts of your experience and background make you the best candidate to serve on the school board?
- What are some of your school district’s primary strengths and what challenges does it face?
- What is the school board doing well and how would you like to see it change or improve?
- If you are elected, what are the top two or three things you think you can realistically accomplish to improve the school district?
- Who would you like the school district to partner with to better serve families and students?
What parts of your experience and background make you the best candidate to serve on the school board?
Jill Esry: I am a third-generation Independence resident. My husband and I, our two daughters and three of our four parents are products of the Independence School District. I have served on numerous nonprofit boards in our community including Englewood Arts, CAPA, Truman Heritage Habitat for Humanity and Independence Meals on Wheels. I am running for this third term to do my small part to ensure that the ISD continues to provide an excellent education for every student for years to come. I believe the knowledge I have gained through my previous time on the school board enables me to help lead this district through turbulent times.
Greg Gilliam: I understand the vital role our school district holds in our Independence community. I have worked in the ISD for more than 30 years. From coordinating the 21st Century program for the district’s youngest learners in early education, to my role as an administrator in human resources, I championed efforts to build consensus and ensure equity for diverse groups. I look forward to the opportunity to represent all voices in Independence by utilizing my vast district knowledge to be a strong advocate for students, teachers, staff, families and community members.
Anthony Mondaine: I am a graduate of ISD (Van Horn High School C/O 2009). I am experienced in child care, mental health and substance abuse intervention, and I am presently serving as treasurer of the Jackson County Children’s Services Fund.
Jason Vollmecke: As a health care professional, I can provide insight and guidance to policy, which is currently lacking. I also served as a social worker in mental health and substance abuse for 10 years and I am very concerned for the mental health of our students and faculty.
What are some of your school district’s primary strengths and what challenges does it face?
Esry: The Academies are a primary strength of the district as we provide real world learning opportunities and prepare students for life after high school. (Note: Independence high schools offer specialized focus in five career areas through career academies.)
Another strength of the ISD is how we support our students and their families. The ISD has a social worker (family school liaison) in each school building. These staff members provide invaluable services such as food, clothing, utility assistance and social services resources to our families.
One of the greatest challenges continues to be the recovery from the pandemic. Although mask mandates and COVID-19 protocols have lessened, our staff continues to experience heightened behavior and mental health issues with students.
Another challenge our district faces is the current attack on public education throughout the state and nation. A school board member must have an unwavering faith in the system of public education.
- Community support of district.
- Quality personnel.
- Maintaining proper fund balances to keep us fiscally sound.
- Clean, attractive facilities. Support on bond issues from the community.
- Development of and community partners associated with Academies.
- College and career ready graduates.
- Dual credit offerings.
- Strong relationships with area colleges. Competitive salary and benefits.
- COVID – district has worked hard to assist the community by providing meals for students, jobs for employees, keeping abreast of current conditions, pivoting when needed, etc.
- Student success: Over the past two years students have been faced with many interruptions to learning. COVID-19, masks, vaccines and war. These interruptions have caused students to struggle socially, emotionally and academically.
- Staff – Burnout, retention, recruitment.
- School funding.
Mondaine: I believe that we have a district that cares about education and safety. One of the challenges I see is the severe lack of diversity in employment and leadership. With a district composed of a nearly 50/50 split (white students and students of color) there needs to be balanced representation. I mean, seriously.
Vollmecke: The Academies program is a great strength, but isn’t currently being executed like other successful programs. The weaknesses are the board’s failure to communicate effectively with parents/community and the hostile workplace that has become prevalent.
What is the school board doing well and how would you like to see it change or improve?
Esry: Our school board does an excellent job of working well together. As you’ve no doubt seen on the news, this seems to be a rare commodity these days. While we certainly don’t always agree, we are able to come together as one voice. I don’t believe any of our board members is “in it” for him or herself or has any hidden agenda he/she is working towards. The ISD board has a good working relationship with our superintendent.
I am anxious for our board to be able to spend more time in the school buildings. That hasn’t been possible lately due to COVID-19, but I think it is important for boards to view activities and learn about challenges facing our buildings and staff.
Gilliam: The Independence School Board has been very supportive of students, parents and staff throughout the pandemic, providing meals to students and parents, preparing and implementing an online curriculum within a few days and providing opportunities for staff to continue their work during a very uncertain time in our history.
An area we can all grow in: parents, teachers, school administrators, school boards working together for the common good of children in the community.
- Building trust
- Explaining processes/opportunities that are in place to help us work together (PTA, district committees, parent volunteers, Robert’s Rules of Order, district policies)
- Create an environment of belonging. Programs and structures that allow us to feel we belong. Inviting people to belong by asking questions, listening, and showing their input is important.
Mondaine: Board meetings are on time and most members are always present. The community is firmly seeking transparency and accountability across the board regarding public officials. We need to consider our parents and neighbors who care for our young people by making meetings more reasonably accessible and retainable. The communication between board members and concerned citizens is shamefully scarce. We have to come together and make some revisions to this issue.
Vollmecke: I feel there is a basic failure by the board to effectively perform its duties in holding the superintendent accountable or responsible for the current working atmosphere.
How do I vote?
Check your registration on the Missouri Secretary of State website.
Research and/or contact the candidates:
- Jill Esry (incumbent): firstname.lastname@example.org
- Greg Gilliam: email@example.com
- Anthony Mondaine: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Jason Vollmecke: email@example.com
- Matt Mallinson (incumbent): firstname.lastname@example.org
View a sample ballot by clicking “View Candidates and Issues” after finding your polling place.
Vote between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m on April 5. If you’re in line at 7 p.m. you can vote.
Bring an acceptable form of voter ID — such as one issued by the state, the federal government or a Missouri college or university.
If you don’t have an ID or forget to bring one, you can cast a provisional ballot. It will be counted if you return with photo ID the same day or if your local election authority verifies your signature.
If you can’t vote on election day for one of several reasons Missouri accepts, request an absentee ballot by 5 p.m. March 23 or vote in person at the election authority office until 5 p.m. the day before the election. If not voting in person, most people need to have their absentee ballots notarized and you may need to attach a copy of your ID.
If you are elected, what are the top two or three things you think you can realistically accomplish to improve the school district?
Esry: Alone, I cannot accomplish anything. School boards typically have seven members who work together, with the superintendent, to accomplish goals and desires of the district. Yes, school boards have great power, but ultimately, its members are not the ones “in the trenches” working daily to improve and educate students. I don’t have any individual goals for the district, but, if elected, I pledge to work with all other board members and the superintendent to improve our district in any and all ways possible.
Gilliam: We need to see that the supports students need to succeed are in place and see that students have the stability in their life to succeed.
My human resources background, experience and connectivity with the community will enable me to serve the district as we look to support staff who are burned out and be creative in the areas of retention. My connections within the higher education community will be valuable as we continue to build pipelines for growing our own.
Having had experience with budgeting in excess of millions of dollars I understand the importance of every dollar, maintaining programs with a positive fund balance, and making hard decisions when shortfalls come. I will be a fierce advocate for public education funding, maintaining open communication with legislators, attending forums and pursuing opportunities for funding.
Mondaine: Within six years my hope is to help create a culture of transparency and accountability. I am focused on steering board meetings to a more accommodating frame so that our concerned citizens and parents can actively participate. Also, making board meetings reasonably retainable and accessible. I am focused on advancing our efforts of bringing about change, diversity, equity and inclusion. “Every Student, Every Moment; Forward Together.”
- Ensuring a safe workplace for students and employees, free of hostility and retaliation.
- Reaffirming the board’s executive responsibility over the superintendent.
- Improving transparency and communication with the community.
Who would you like the school district to partner with to better serve families and students?
Esry: I believe the district does an excellent job of partnering with community groups to serve our families. We are blessed to have these community partners that participate in our Academies as well as provide services to our students. The Independence community has always been very supportive of the district. We are constantly looking for additional partners. Mental health is an area where it would be nice to have greater involvement.
- Community partners who can help us address the social, emotional and academic well-being of students within the Independence School District.
- National Parent Teacher Association: PTA’s mission is to make every child’s potential a reality by engaging and empowering families and communities to advocate for all children.
- Legislators — to see that proper funding is in place for public education in our district and throughout the state and country.
- Higher education partners to create a pipeline for growing our own staff.
Mondaine: Although there may be some existing relationship, I think advancing our relationship would be great:
- Job One
- Northwest Community Development
Vollmecke: Comprehensive Mental Health Services
- A 15-year-old’s suicide while in Kansas foster care came amid a shortfall in mental health care November 27, 2023
- Kansas regulators give Evergy a smaller electrical rate hike than it asked for November 21, 2023
- Kansas City Public Schools face grievances from maintenance and cafeteria workers’ union November 21, 2023