School board candidates for Liberty Public Schools agree that there are people in the district who should have a greater voice in its decisions.
The four non-incumbent candidates have different ideas on strategies for listening to, prioritizing and elevating the community’s concerns.
In school board races around the metro — including in Independence — some candidates are calling for boards to more directly address issues that parents raise.
Missouri lawmakers, mostly Republicans, have also filed legislation aimed at giving parents more control over their children’s education.
Kyle Bryant, a parent of three Liberty students and a project manager in the print industry, said he feels parents in the district “have lost their voice.” He wants them to have more of an impact, such as by making decisions about what content children can access.
Daniel Currence, a parent who works as a director of engineering for the Plastics Pipe Institute, said the board should be more responsive to parents who comment at meetings if an issue is repeatedly raised. He also wants to bring a more conservative perspective to a board he sees as unbalanced.
Other candidates emphasized that the board shouldn’t only listen to the “loudest” voices, such as people who show up to comment at board meetings, but should work on grasping the entire range of perspectives in the district.
Matthew Sameck, a parent and former educator who moved to Liberty for its schools, wants to learn the needs of people who don’t actively participate.
Karen Rogers, a parent and education attorney who founded Liberty Parents for Public Schools, said she wants to listen to all voices in the community, across the political spectrum, then make a final decision using her best judgment.
“I think there’s a difference between listening and doing whatever everybody says,” she said.
The candidates are competing for two open slots in the April 5 election. Voters are asked to vote for two candidates, and the winners will each serve three-year terms.
Elevating parent voices in board meetings
Bryant initially got more involved in public education when he organized the local #LetThemPlay movement to encourage Northland districts not to cancel school sports during the pandemic.
The movement gained traction with parents, coaches and student athletes nationwide as the 2020-21 school year began.
Bryant wants to continue helping elevate parents’ voices as a board member. He believes there’s been a drop-off in participation because of policies that shorten the public comment period and don’t allow board members to talk to commenters during meetings.
“At the Board of Ed. meeting that I was at Tuesday night this month, there was actually zero public comment,” he said. “That’s new; I’ve never seen that happen in the last couple years that I’ve been really ingrained into seeing these board meetings.”
Bryant said he’d like to allow the board to respond with “feedback” after people comment and to address issues that are repeatedly mentioned in public comments.
Currence said he has watched multiple parents make public comments about mask mandates without the board taking up the issue for public discussion.
While it might be appropriate for board members to refrain from responding right after a public comment, eventually having an on-the-record discussion can help parents understand who makes decisions and where individual board members stand, he said.
“I think it starts with the parents,” Currence said, “and then the board is to then convey, as best they can, the values of the community to the administration rather than the administration dictating the values to the board and the board trying to explain that to parents.”
Promoting conservative values
Currence recently moved back to Liberty after living for four years in mid-Missouri, where he served on the Eldon School Board.
What he saw when he returned surprised him. School board members are nonpartisan, but Currence thought the seven board members’ positions on issues — like voting to retain controversial books on library shelves — showed all but one leaned toward the “progressive side.” He doesn’t think that reflects the balance of views within the district.
To stay in touch with Liberty’s values, Currence said board members can use district surveys but should also be “encircled by members of the community that they can use as a sounding board” and should be clear about their views so the community can decide whether to reelect them.
“I would like to see it (the board) change back to something more conservative. I’m sure there are others who want to see it move beyond what it currently is. I hope my side wins,” he said.
Currence also thinks the board should take a stand on issues of “community values.” He thinks it’s sometimes necessary for the board to make moral judgment calls on things like reading materials, adding that there “has to be a line somewhere” in terms of content that is too vulgar.
Bryant said the district already makes those judgments in many areas that aren’t related to books. Parents have to give consent for their children to watch R-rated movies, he said, and the district’s IT system once flagged when his son, then in first grade, typed the word “butt” into a school-issued tablet.
Bryant said he doesn’t want to entirely remove controversial books from schools, but wants guardians to be able to set parental controls over subject matters or ratings of books their kids can access, much like they’re used to doing on services such as Netflix.
“Those books are needed by somebody,” he said. “I’ll go on record saying that because the last thing I want to happen (is) if somebody is having an issue with who they are, and let’s say for instance they commit suicide…. If a book like that would have helped them, I don’t want that on my conscience.”
Reaching less-active community members
Sameck initially got involved in Liberty Public Schools when he saw parents pushing against COVID-19 mitigation plans. He started speaking up — including during public comment at school board meetings — to defend what he considered important safety measures.
He decided to run for school board to focus on solutions rather than specific frustrations that arose during the pandemic, he said.
But it takes effort to determine whether the district is representing communities well, he said.
Being active in a group like Liberty Parents for Public Schools, which endorses Sameck and Rogers, can help him stay in touch with parents’ priorities, Sameck said.
But there are also community members who aren’t active. Sameck said considering those people’s needs requires empathy, openness to others’ views and willingness to think about the impact a decision could have on less vocal groups.
He suggested that if elected, he could knock on doors in areas he hasn’t heard from to ask about people’s needs.
“I’m not going to pretend like I have a full idea of what the entirety of the voice of the community is,” he said. “I think I can have a philosophy that asks, when we’re making decisions, how can we be sure that we’re representing the people, even the people who we’re not necessarily hearing from right now?”
Rogers said the board should hear “not just the voices that are the loudest, but really think about who’s not in the room. Because sometimes we have parents who are working at night and maybe can’t attend the meetings, or maybe they’ve got a lot of life challenges and can’t be as engaged.”
The district can reach those people by holding meetings at different times and places, sending out surveys and using social media, she said.
She’d also like to see more proactive recruitment for district committees and hopes to hold office hours if she’s elected so she can answer questions and connect people with the district employees who can help them.
Hearing from all stakeholders
Rogers wants people to know that she will see herself as representing the whole community. She has already reached out for meetings with people she knows who don’t plan to vote for her.
“One of the things I hear is that people who don’t feel listened to want to have a specific voice on the board,” Rogers said. “We elect board members to represent the entire community, and I’m very proud of the fact that I have support from parents all across the political spectrum … we have to see ourselves as invested in the entire community.”
When it comes to specific issues, Rogers said some voices might weigh more heavily than others depending on the topic.
“If it’s an issue of medical expertise, then I think that we’re obviously going to weigh health professionals pretty seriously,” she said. “But that’s not the only thing; all of the stakeholders get to weigh in.”
Rogers also said that in some cases, board decisions will be driven by policies imposed from outside the district, such as local health orders and Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requirements.
Sameck said the district functions as a partnership between parents and educators and that parents should be able to advocate for their kids, or receive accommodations based on their individual values, without influencing policy for the entire district.
He said the school district should do a better job of communicating decisions — such as a new proficiency-based grading system that has drawn some questions and criticism — but administrators should also be able to use their expertise if it brings results for students.
“That’s the benchmark at the end of the day,” he said. “Not necessarily who feels like they were listened to the most, but what’s the result for kids?”
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