Three silhouette of people meeting on zoom.
(Beacon illustration)

In October, Marcie Gragg addressed the Independence Board of Education wearing a Boy Scout uniform, ready to rush off to her next commitment. 

She asked the board to record its meetings and make them available online. 

“It would allow me, as a citizen, to observe the great things that are happening inside this district without having to march up here on Tuesday evening and scurry away to go to a meeting afterward,” she said. 

Instead, Gragg, a former local elected official and parent of four — including an eighth grader in the district — tries to attend the monthly meetings when there’s an agenda item that interests her or she wants to speak. 

But she told The Kansas City Beacon that when other obligations force her to leave early, there’s no way to review what she missed.

Gragg sees the school board’s refusal to livestream and record meetings as not just an oversight, but a symptom of a deeper problem with transparency and communication.

A July 2021 Beacon review of Kansas City-area policies on meeting participation in a dozen large school districts found Independence was the only one that didn’t livestream or record any meetings. These methods have become even more useful to promote social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As five candidates compete for two spots on the Independence school board in the April 5 election, transparency has become a key issue for two newcomers: Anthony Mondaine and Jason Vollmecke. 

While they aren’t coordinating their campaigns, both said they would like to make meetings more accessible, improve communication between the board and the public, and encourage the board to discuss issues more openly and hold administrators accountable. 

Meanwhile, candidates Greg Gilliam and incumbent Jill Esry told The Beacon they didn’t see problems with transparency in the district. 

Gilliam said the board has been very supportive of families and staff during the pandemic, though it could get even better at communicating, while Esry highlighted board members’ ability to cooperate with one another and the superintendent. 

(A fifth candidate, incumbent Matt Mallinson, did not respond to emails to his school district address requesting he respond to a questionnaire and schedule an interview with The Beacon.) 

“Our meetings are public; they’re open to everyone,” Esry said. “I don’t know how those could be very much more transparent.”

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How the Independence school board interacts with the public

The Independence school board typically meets on the second Tuesday of the month at 6 p.m.

As required by Missouri open meeting law, meetings are open to the public to attend except for executive sessions covering certain topics, such as litigation and employee discipline. 

People can sign up to make a “public comment” in front of the board if they make the request by 4 p.m. the Friday before the meeting, according to board policy available online, though elsewhere the website states the deadline is a week before the meeting

The board can refuse a request for comment, for example, if the person hasn’t tried to resolve the issue through other channels. 

In October, multiple Kansas City LGTBQ Commission members told The Beacon their requests to address the board were denied because they didn’t live or work in the district. 

Other local districts have a range of policies on signing up for public comment, with some allowing people to register immediately before the meeting while at least one requires 10 days notice. 

As is common in area districts, Independence school board members do not reply to public comments during meetings. 

Gragg said that when she spoke to the board, she also didn’t receive any follow-up later. She has gotten a response to emails, but only from the board president even if she asked all members to reply. 

Esry said this is intentional.

Unlike in other districts that have made the news for infighting, the ISD board speaks with “one voice,” she said. She told The Beacon that communicating in a unified way — such as when only the board president responds to questions from the public — helps avoid confusion since people see individual members as representing the board. 

Roles of school board, administration and superintendent

Esry, a community volunteer who is running for her third six-year term on the board, said there are good reasons for existing policies. 

She understands that it can be difficult for parents to attend board meetings that aren’t recorded or livestreamed, but said she has also watched videos and podcasts about “the legal reasons why maybe that wouldn’t be a great thing to do.” 

In a questionnaire response sent to The Beacon earlier this month, Esry said the board’s ability to avoid personal agendas and reach agreement is a “rare commodity” and one of its strengths.

The school board chooses the superintendent and makes high-level policy and financial decisions for the district, but it leaves some decisions to the district administration rather than publicly discussing and voting on them. 

That can mean that even if the board receives communication about how the administration is handling an issue, it won’t necessarily take action or hold a public discussion where the community can learn board members’ positions. 

For example, in the case of the administration’s policy on when educators can refer to their students by their preferred pronouns and names, Esry confirmed the board hasn’t discussed changing the policy — or formalizing it — after hearing from people on both sides of the issue. 

Esry said it makes sense to delegate certain responsibilities to administrators. 

“We do let our administrators make some decisions,” she said. “They’re the ones in the trenches, day to day. They’re also the ones who went to school for years and years to learn how to run a district. None of us on this current board of education have that expertise.”

Ann Franklin, a former Independence school board member who served alongside Esry and publicly supports her candidacy, said one of Esry’s strengths is her ability to look at the “overall picture” rather than trying to personally solve each individual’s problems. 

“People somehow — I guess I understand — when they have a problem they think it’s the most important thing and that a board member can fix it,” Franklin said. “And that’s not true. She (Esry) understands that she’s a member of a board and has absolutely no authority on her own.” 

Franklin said school board members should often respond to communication from the community not by expressing their opinion or trying to investigate the issue. Instead, she said they should simply listen — which she said is one of Esry’s strengths — and refer the problem to someone equipped to respond, usually the superintendent.  

Gilliam, who recently retired from his job as a human resources supervisor after working for 31 years in the district, said he appreciated the work environment the board and administration have created. He considers the school district a family and wants to continue to support it through the difficult situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“I felt like I had that autonomy to do the work that I have been called upon to do by the district, and even though I think that the school board kind of sets parameters and the administration sets parameters around an individual employee, there’s still a lot of freedom in that,” he said. 

Candidates share visions for future work on Independence School Board

Yet some candidates and community members think the school board isn’t doing enough to make meetings transparent and to respond with real solutions. 

Gragg, the parent and former public official, said she’s been a part of televised public meetings since the late 1990s. She suggested the district could record meetings with simple equipment like a smartphone and tripod, or make the recordings a project of high school broadcasting classes. She supports Vollmecke and Mondaine for the board. 

Vollmecke, a chiropractic physician and former social worker, said that in addition to livestreaming or recording meetings, he would like to see policies from the board that make it easier for people to express their opinions. 

For example, he said anyone should be able to speak at a board meeting if the agenda wasn’t published before the public comment sign-up deadline the week before. 

Vollmecke and Mondaine said the school board’s unity and support of the superintendent, Dale Herl, can become a problem if community members have an issue with how the administration handles something and the board is unwilling to take up the subject at a public meeting. 

Vollmecke said he started asking educators about their thoughts on the district after ISD didn’t follow the recommendations of the Biomedical Science Advisory Committee, which he chaired. He became concerned when many told him they were afraid of getting in trouble if they spoke to him. 

Vollmecke said it’s difficult to address those issues if the board forms a “protective fortress” around the superintendent. 

Mondaine, a banker and pastor whose daughter will enter the district in August, said there’s a sense among many students, teachers and parents that the board doesn’t have any real power and that members are “yes men” for the superintendent. 

He asked how change happens when families have a problem “if everyone’s aligned and there’s no help.” 

Mondaine also sees his candidacy as a way to provide representation for students of color. 

The district is less than 52% white, according to the latest data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, but none of the seven board members is a person of color. 

“If you find yourself on a board or on a committee making decisions for a group of people, and those people are not a part of the decision-making process, I would be skeptical of any conclusions reached in that meeting,” Mondaine said. 

Gilliam, who said he’s seen public participation for 31 years even without recorded meetings, said he wants the district to communicate all the ways parents can get involved, including joining committees and processes for participating in board meetings. 

Esry also encouraged people to attend meetings and said the board is “very willing and happy to have people come.” 

“The people who have brought up the transparency issue, I commend them for getting involved in the school district,” Esry said. “Frequently, school board meetings in the past have been poorly attended. It’s good to have people more involved, more desirous of learning and being involved in the school district.”

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. 

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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.