Park Hill school board candidates. Top row from left: Jason Keck, Shereka Barnes and Diona "Kelli" Johnson. Bottom row from left: Tammy Thompson and Daryl Terwillegar.
Top row from left: Jason Keck, Shereka Barnes and Diona "Kelli" Johnson. Bottom row from left: Tammy Thompson and Daryl Terwillegar. (Provided photos)

In the race to serve on the school board for the Park Hill School District, eight candidates are competing for two slots, each serving a three-year term. 

Ahead of the April 5 election, The Kansas City Beacon sent five questions to each candidate about the district’s and school board’s strengths and weaknesses, and why they’re the right person to help their district improve. 

We have been publishing similar candidate questionnaires for other major Kansas City-area school districts with upcoming elections, including from Independence, Lee’s Summit and Liberty. Next week, we’ll publish responses from North Kansas City, Raytown and Blue Springs candidates.

Responses have been edited for length, clarity and Associated Press style. Follow the links to see full responses from:

  • Tammy Thompson, a pharmacist who raised two children in the district. 
  • Daryl Terwilleger, a stay-at-home dad with corporate experience who volunteers in the district and community. 
  • Jason Keck, a longtime wrestling coach and attorney who owns his own law firm. 
  • Shereka Barnes, an urgent-care supervisor who raised two daughters in the district.
  • Diona “Kelli” Johnson, a case manager and education advocate focusing on high-risk populations. 

Cory Terrell and Christopher LaCour replied to communication from The Beacon but did not provide responses to the questions before publication. The Beacon attempted to reach Jeff Runyan through an email listed on a Park Hill candidate information page but did not receive a response. 

Click a question to jump ahead:

What parts of your experience and background make you the best candidate to serve on the school board? 

Tammy Thompson: As a pharmacist, I have spent over 20 years as a pharmacist in charge. I was responsible for making sure all laws were followed, maintaining an inventory budget and a salary budget for my department. I was responsible for hiring and training new employees. I also make clinical judgments about patients’ health daily. This skill can correlate into using facts and reasoning to make decisions that may affect students, teachers and taxpayers. I developed a deep connection to the community by serving as a pharmacist and by living in the district. 

My husband and I raised two children K-12 in the district. This gives me the experience of what raising two children in the district entails and what strengths and weaknesses it may have. 

Daryl Terwilleger: I am a well-rounded candidate with diverse experience in my K-12 education. I spent 14 years in the corporate environment as a project manager and team leader and completed my MBA in finance and entrepreneurship. 

My community involvement and leadership affirm my passion for making the Park Hill community the best it can be. In 2016, I left the workforce to be a stay-at-home dad; this has allowed me to become more active in the community and district. I have volunteered at Southeast Elementary School and have served the past four years as the Southeast PTA VP of membership. 

I have a thoughtful and purposeful approach to decision-making, using data and facts to support my thought process. I will always value input from district stakeholders and experts.

Jason Keck: As a wrestling coach and mentor for over 25 years and being a lifelong member of the Park Hill School District, I have spent a significant portion of my life dedicated to our youth. I interact with students on a daily basis building relationships and providing guidance in not only sport but in being high-character, quality human beings. I am ingrained in our Park Hill District community listening to students, parents, teachers and coaches. 

In my professional life as an attorney, litigator and business owner, I understand the importance of active listening, keeping an open mind when communicating with others, generating fruitful discussions, analyzing all sides of an issue and making well-informed decisions. Through owning my own firm, I also have experience setting, monitoring and reconfiguring fiscally responsible budgets and expenditures. 

Shereka Barnes: I understand what it’s like to make the best of challenging situations. Like many parents, I’ve worked hard to provide the best life for my kids. 

In 2020, I saw dysfunction in how racially sensitive issues were managed and decreased transparency from our leadership. In 2021, I began attending school board meetings regularly. 

Thirty years ago, I was attending Park Hill myself. I made the callbacks for the school play. The drama teacher stated, “The school could not deal with the controversy of a black girl kissing a white boy.” Therefore, she could not give me a part. I was devastated. My parents contacted the principal and the school board. There were no consequences for the teacher. This stuck with me. 

I have raised two daughters through Park Hill School District, and they both experienced a situation that stuck with them. Park Hill is a great school district, but we must make sure every student has a sense of belonging. 

Diona “Kelli” Johnson: I have a bachelor of arts in psychology from William Jewell College and the equivalent of a minor in elementary education. My 20-year career has been spent advocating for children and youth who are high-risk populations. Most recently, as a case manager and education advocate, I have been in schools all over the KC metro area (and nationwide) helping educational teams think strategically to meet the needs of all students.

My passion for teachers and administration working together in addition to having a working knowledge of special-education law and best practices is supported by research and benefits all students. Balancing the needs of students with the resources can be challenging but can be accomplished by using resources in creative ways.

What are some of your school district’s primary strengths and what challenges does it face? 

Thompson: One of Park Hill’s strengths is that the district has some great teachers, 82% of them have a master’s degree. The district also has a solid reputation of scoring high on tests. There is always room for improvement. I would like to see the graduation rate increase and the proficiency in reading and math increase. Challenges are the issues that have been happening lately due to racial issues and the delays in learning due to COVID-19.

Terwilleger: Park Hill School District has a great reputation of providing top-quality education and producing students that are college, career and life ready. Attracting and retaining great teachers is something the district has done well. 

Teacher burnout is one of the biggest issues the district is facing. Park Hill must do everything possible to ensure teachers feel valued, supported and trusted. 

Park Hill has also been faced with challenges on racially charged issues, and the push for curriculum and book censorship. All students should feel safe and have a sense of belonging at school. I am encouraged to see Park Hill has taken some positive steps to address this.

Park Hill is also challenged by initiatives related to school choice and voucher programs, which could divert money out of our district. 

Keck: The Park Hill School District has a strong curriculum for the majority of its students and those students are meeting or exceeding expectations. In addition, our district has done an excellent job in hiring exceptional teachers who have or are in the process of obtaining advanced degrees. 

Challenges center around returning Park Hill to greatness in all aspects of education, facilities and resources including the arts and music. Another challenge is making sure our students have access and inclusion, diversity and equity in their learning opportunities and environment. As a district we need to make sure that all students have the necessary resources to succeed. Lastly, I feel that our students with special needs require a set curriculum that can be implemented, followed, reviewed and adjusted to ensure success. 

Barnes: Park Hill School District’s primary strengths are our students’ academic achievements. Challenges — beyond COVID and our current mental health crisis — include:

  1. Equitable infrastructure: I have watched our district expand and develop much-needed new schools. But I have also seen our older buildings and facilities get left behind. We need a more disciplined and fiscally responsible approach for tackling significant renovations that are long overdue. 
  2. Building a diverse curriculum and staff: If we are really going to implement diversity and inclusion efforts, we need to have tangible goals to put budget dollars behind, such as hiring 25% more diverse staff (for example) or increasing the diversity of our curriculum and books by a certain percentage. Besides all the forums and listening sessions, we have to have goals and hold ourselves accountable.

Johnson: Park Hill School District has done a fantastic job at meeting the needs that have come from the rapid growth of our community. They have worked hard to make additional learning spaces for the ever-growing student population in creative and responsible ways.

While we have met those needs effectively, we have fallen behind on keeping up with our established facilities. We have worked hard to address the inequity in our district by making a huge step by hiring Dr. Terri Deayon as director of access, inclusion and family engagement. But additional steps are needed to address the needs of all of our students and community.

What is the school board doing well and how would you like to see it change or improve?

Thompson: I would like to see the school board improve transparency and be more receptive to public suggestions.

Terwilleger: The school board has done an admirable job over the past couple of years navigating unprecedented challenges and extremely divisive issues. They made informed decisions on COVID-19 safety. They have stood strong in the face of adversity and handled threats with professionalism. I do think the board could bring more transparency to some of the decisions that were made without a board vote or public discussion.

Park Hill has also done a good job of maintaining financial sustainability. The district is very strong financially with consistent growth and brand new buildings, but has also let some of the existing facilities fall behind those of benchmark districts. We as a district need to make sure all stakeholders are at the table and heard while discussing our long range facility plans.

Keck: The Park Hill School Board has done an excellent job working with our teachers and administration in developing a strong curriculum and strategic plan for its general student body. Effectively preparing students for their chosen path in life is part of the district’s Comprehensive School Improvement Plan — whether that includes college, military service or direct entry into the workforce. 

I would like to see the school board change or improve by communicating more with students and parents about what student resources are being offered, what their plan of action is and being transparent about struggles the district is undergoing. I believe if our school board was connected more with its students, parents and teachers it could operate more productively.  

Barnes: The school board is being upfront on the bond issue. We have several areas where we need to fix infrastructure in our district. I am happy Park Hill livestreams the board meetings because 6:30 on Thursday evenings is not the most convenient time for parents with children in multiple activities. However, I also want Park Hill School Board to livestream the work sessions where many decisions are made. The school board should be transparent with the community, parents and families, and communication should come directly from the school board. The community, parents and families may not always like the answer, but the school board should give it immediately and without hesitation if it can. 

Johnson: The current school board has had an enormous challenge the last couple of years having to handle issues related to COVID and increasing diversity challenges. They have worked hard to keep all students, staff and community safe as well as ensure that students’ needs are being met.

I would like to see the board increase their capacity to plan strategically and adjust the emphasis onto facilities updates, diverse staffing issues and effective relevant curriculum. This will allow us to ensure that our focus remains on the students, district staff and families without becoming derailed.

How do I vote?

Check your registration on the Missouri Secretary of State website.

Research and/or contact the candidates:

Find your polling place by putting in your address. Check with your local election authority for the most updated information about your polling place.

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, you can 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?

Thompson: I would like to see the board become more accessible with the community. Maybe having some town halls separate from school board meetings for the public to have more access for questions and answers. I think with more communication the board would establish a better relationship. I would also like to see more long-term plans for maintenance of the facilities so we are not having to ask for approval for bond issues. I would also like to see more done for students who aren’t college bound. For example, we used to have shop class to expose students to trades. I would like to bring back shop class to middle and high school levels. I am also committed to not raising the operating levy to its maximum level. 

Terwilleger: Again, teacher well-being is one of the most pressing issues Park Hill is facing and must be addressed with urgency. I would like district administration to work directly with teachers to get continued feedback. 

Additionally, the board members elected in April will help craft and implement the next five-year Comprehensive School Improvement Plan for the years 2024-2029. This is the foundation of the district that gives goals with measurable metrics.

Finally, there are two key bond issues on the ballot in April, covering a $137 million investment in the district. These measures will fund a 12th elementary school to accommodate growth, much-needed improvements to existing facilities and will allow the district to offer competitive salaries. As a board, the long-range facility plan should be reevaluated with input from the community. 

Keck: One of the ways I can have an impact right away is building quality relationships with the existing school board members and understanding the impediments that they have encountered. 

I feel there is a need to review and adjust the budget in order to make necessary changes to meet the instantaneous needs of our students. I also know how to bring about a change in our district’s branding, identity and culture. I feel this is one of the areas that has dissipated significantly through the years and there is a direct correlation to how the district has let facilities and student resources fall to the wayside. I can also facilitate ensuring that all students are welcomed and on a level playing field to succeed including students with special needs.

Barnes: If I am elected, the top things I realistically can accomplish are to push the school district to hire more diverse staff and livestream the work sessions. All students — not just students of color — benefit from having access to diverse teachers, staff and leadership, resulting in better test scores, improved graduation rates and better academic performances. Similarly, our students are better prepared when they have access to voices across many cultures and life experiences in our curriculum.

I would also push to have a student adviser or advisers on the board — to give a voice to our students, who currently aren’t adequately represented in our decisions. 

I want Park Hill School Board to livestream the work sessions. The school board should be transparent with the community, parents and families. 

Johnson: With my experience and strengths, I am able to effectively communicate with a diverse group of people, hearing the needs and working creatively to come up with a solution.

As a professional education advocate and a parent of a child with a disability, I have firsthand experience and extensive training on special education-related issues and special education law. I believe my experience and perspective is unique and much needed on the Park Hill School Board.

I wholeheartedly believe that we MUST return to filtering all decisions as a district through the lens of what is best for ALL students first, supporting teachers and staff to do the essential work they are highly qualified to do in safe communities and facilities.

Who would you like the school district to partner with to better serve families and students? 

Thompson: I would like to see the school district partner with local businesses to help offset costs of athletic and musical programs within the district. 

I would also like to see committees created to oversee infrastructure projects made up of parents and taxpayers in the district who are able to use their skills to advise the board on bids and work done within the district. The board currently has used committees to create the calendar and redistricting. Why not use the talents of the people we have in our community to help make more sound and economical decisions?

Terwilleger: The most important partners that our school district has are its community stakeholders. Although the district has many opportunities for the community to participate in committees, there remains a perception that the district is not working as closely with the community as it should be when making key decisions. I would like to focus on bringing transparency and visibility to this process and evaluate the need for improvements in our public engagement opportunities. The district has started a new partnership for our community survey, and leveraging that is a great place to start to make sure we’re using all the latest data-gathering techniques to get a holistic view of the needs of our district. 

Keck: I believe fostering corporate relationships and private funding to provide additional financial resources for the district is key. We need to explore all revenue streams that can bring about better facilities and opportunities. Our students have been put on the back burner when it comes to their learning environments (many having classrooms in trailers) and the necessary infrastructures for athletics, arts, music and sciences.

Another vital partnership is among the school board, students and parents. The district can do a better job building and fostering relationships so that there is a closer understanding of student and parent concerns. In addition, there needs to be more transparency from the district as to its current state of affairs and how it plans on taking on challenges. There need to be available forums for more interaction. 

Barnes: I want the school district to partner with Synergy Services and offer our students and staff more mental health services. The last two years have been challenging. If we partner with Synergy Services in our district, it would be a win for everyone.

Johnson: Mental health professionals and organizations to meet the ever-growing mental health needs of our students and families.

The district also needs to partner with community organizations to continue to deepen the roots of collaboration and positive relationships within the community. 

The need for partnerships with social service organizations is also essential as there are many in our community who need additional supports to strengthen the family unit as well as meet basic needs. 

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.