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When Independence school board member Anthony Mondaine voted in June against removing a challenged book from the district’s elementary schools, he disrupted a long-standing tradition.
Meeting minutes show no Independence board member had voted “no” during a public meeting for at least a decade.
Some say there’s good reason for that. Others regard it as a concern.
In emailed responses to interview requests, board President Eric Knipp and member Denise Fears said trust in district leadership and staff, reliance on district committees and extensive information backing up the administration’s recommendations helped lead to unanimous votes.
“I have found answers to be complete and thorough during my terms of service,” Fears wrote. “This kind of background lends itself to unanimous decisions as it is factual and consistently compelling.”
But community members pushing for increased transparency and other experts on best practices for boards say uniform agreement isn’t ideal.
“I think the school board for a lot of years has just seen itself as kind of the corporate cheerleader for the district,” said Christopher Eager, an Independence resident and former teachers union president.
Coupled with unusually short public school board meetings, the near-constant consensus raises concerns that members green-light proposals without critical thought or hold substantive discussions behind the scenes.
The board’s approach can lead to uneventful and uninformative meetings that don’t address the public’s concerns, Eager said.
“Why would anyone want to take time to attend a meeting where nothing happens? You don’t learn anything.”
‘What they don’t see’
Surrounding the most recent school board election in April, two challengers made transparency a central issue to their campaigns, while current members praised the way the board operates.
During a farewell speech in April, departing member Matt Mallinson touted the board’s behind-the-scenes work.
“What the public sees is the result of our meetings: new schools, better transportation, innovative programs, veteran leadership and bills paid,” he said. “What they don’t see is how we get there.”
Mallinson described board members’ concern for the district, long periods staring at computer screens or on the phone, and the “obstacle course” of state funding and rules.
He criticized “negativity” from some members of the public who “throw rocks at us” and also complained of unflattering media reports.
The speech came after an election cycle in which candidates Mondaine and Jason Vollmecke argued that “what they don’t see” is the problem. Mondaine won a spot on the board while Vollmecke and Mallinson were not elected.
Some residents have particularly objected to the board’s policies on public comments and its refusal to livestream meetings. But other transparency issues arise through less formal practices related to voting and public conversation.
When boards have brief discussions, vote in concert and communicate a unified message, it can create mistrust among members of the public who don’t get a window into board members’ reasoning as they make decisions.
Brian Jordan, executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said school board transparency can foster community understanding around hot-button issues like books and curriculum.
Jordan said pitfalls and advice for boards are similar across state lines.
Boards should talk through decisions in public, including what they read in committee reports, pros and cons, and connection to district goals, Jordan said. If the board simply votes unanimously and moves on, the community doesn’t realize the depth of work behind a decision.
“The community thinks that it’s just the superintendent’s district, and the board is just a paper board that’s just there to look like they’re governing the district,” he said.
Opaque book removal process
Fears told The Beacon that the board often relies on committees “to get broad perspectives and community input.”
That’s what the board did when it received a challenge to a library book last school year.
But when the Independence school board voted to remove “Cats vs. Robots Volume 1: This Is War,” parent Wendy Baird said she left the meeting with no understanding of why the book was being removed or who was on the review committee that made the recommendation.
“Regardless of my personal opinions, I felt that it was important to listen to parents and teachers in this decision,” Fears, who served on the committee alongside staff and parents, told The Beacon. She said the board is exploring ways to improve its process when books are challenged.
But the board has not revisited the decision or the process in public, despite being criticized for the book removal and the lack of transparency during in-person public comment sessions and on social media.
Emails The Beacon obtained through a records request show the board received a detailed report from the ad hoc book committee that wasn’t initially shared with the public.
In an email, Fears asked Superintendent Dale Herl if he would like her to speak about the decision.
Herl told Fears he would leave that up to her but would prefer not to reveal who was on the committee because “there have been instances in other districts that those individuals received ugly communication regarding their decision.”
How the Independence school board compares to other districts
In some respects, the Independence school board’s recent meetings present a striking contrast to some nearby districts.
Before Mondaine’s vote, it’s not clear when someone last voted “no” in Independence, although members occasionally abstain. The earliest meeting minutes available online are from 2009.
In Kansas City Public Schools and Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools — the other two districts whose meetings The Beacon routinely attends — members hold longer meetings, frequently offer detailed questions and critiques, and are more inclined to vote “no.”
In KCPS, approved meeting minutes show at least three measures received “no” votes in either 2021 or 2022.
In Kansas City, Kansas, at least one board member voted “no” on an average of two or more items in every 2022 meeting.
Some experts on school board best practices say boards should avoid the pitfalls of both micromanagement and not digging deeply enough into issues.
Disputing topics that don’t directly impact student success, like paint colors and lawnmower specs, typically indicates a board has lost its focus, Jordan said. Regularly having four- to six-hour meetings is a red flag for that as well.
But short meetings are a potential sign that open discussion isn’t happening.
“You get under an hour as a regular, it’s pretty hard to actually have honest, open conversation (about) what the work of the district should be as it relates to student success,” Jordan said.
So far this year, public sessions of Independence school board regular meetings have averaged just below an hour. In 2021, they were less than 45 minutes on average.
Meanwhile, monthly regular business meetings for the KCPS school board have averaged closer to an hour and 40 minutes this year, and more than two hours in 2021. The board also holds public workshops most months.
The Kansas City, Kansas, school board holds two regular meetings most months. Meetings averaged more than two and a half hours in 2022.
How a unanimous voting streak happens
There are several possible explanations for the Independence school board’s 10-year streak without a public “no” vote.
Board members could genuinely agree with every proposal put before them. They could be uncomfortable with dissent, or philosophically opposed to it. Or they could be resolving any doubts outside of the public view.
The first option wouldn’t necessarily signal a lack of critical thought, said Phyllis Barks, associate executive director of leadership development at the Missouri School Boards’ Association.
The association provides required training for new school board members and additional training for boards upon request. Barks has not worked with the Independence School District.
If the board frequently votes 7-0, the public’s perception might be “that they’re rubber stamping, or that they’re not doing due diligence, or that they’re becoming complacent, when that may not be the case at all,” Barks said. “It may be that they have good information in their board packet that has all the details that they need to make effective decisions.”
That’s the situation Fears described in an email to The Beacon.
First appointed to the school board more than a decade ago, Fears wrote that she has only witnessed a “handful” of nonunanimous votes, including both closed and public sessions.
That’s partly because Herl and his predecessor Jim Hinson provided “excellent documentation” for their proposals, she said.
Fears said she typically researches agenda items on her own as well, and asks follow-up questions as needed.
Board emails from the two weeks before the June board meeting show Fears asked Herl 13 questions. No other board members asked questions via email during that time period, but Knipp and Herl scheduled a meeting to discuss the agenda.
“It is not uncommon for school boards to have a significant number of unanimous votes related to school business,” Knipp wrote in an emailed statement to The Beacon. “Board meetings are used to perform the essential functions of running a school district. … A significant amount of work is done through district committees. Board of Education members are provided information related to each item to be voted on.”
The Beacon attempted to ask other board members about the conformity in votes.
Mondaine, the board’s newest member and the only one who spoke with The Beacon by phone, said he’s not sure unanimity is a problem because many of the decisions since he joined in April seem uncontroversial.
Blake Roberson, the board’s longest-serving member, told The Beacon he does not do interviews and referred the reporter to the district’s public affairs office.
Members Jill Esry, Carrie Dixon and Greg Finke did not respond to repeated emails.
Is agreement the goal for school boards?
Barks and Jordan said they don’t advise boards that they should aim to reach a unanimous vote on every decision.
Individual board members “have a voice” that is partly carried out through their votes, Barks said.
“Each member has to vote based on what they think the evidence is saying and what’s best for the district,” Barks said. “And sometimes they don’t always all agree.”
Some boards, however, might put more value on unanimity.
Barks said she’s known of some who voice their opinions and disagreement during earlier discussions — such as during designated work sessions — but accept the prevailing view when it comes time for a vote.
The Independence school board doesn’t typically hold work sessions, and at recent meetings The Beacon has attended discussion has been brief.
Eager, the district resident and former teacher, said he can’t imagine a board member publicly asking a question that could come across as critical or put someone “on the spot.”
“That is just not seen as OK,” he said.
During her most recent campaign for reelection, Esry highlighted the Independence board’s ability to reach agreement in response to a question about strengths.
“Our school board does an excellent job of working well together,” she wrote in a questionnaire from The Beacon. “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.”
Mondaine told The Beacon that when he joined as a new board member, his colleagues didn’t instruct him to talk out disagreements ahead of votes. He didn’t warn his fellow board members that he planned to vote against the “Cats vs. Robots” removal.
Mondaine said he voted out of conviction. “I don’t find that to be against my colleagues, but what I felt was right.”
A call for open discussion on the school board
Another possible explanation for a tradition of unanimous votes is that board members handled discussions of controversial topics behind the scenes, ensuring that only policies with full support ever came up publicly.
“If every single vote is 7-0, that’s an indicator to me that there’s not really that transparency with communication and discussion. Because I find it very difficult to believe that every issue that comes up all seven people fully agree on,” Jordan said.
In Missouri, a quorum of board members can’t legally meet outside the public view — with a few exceptions such as discussions of legal issues, real estate and employee discipline.
Smaller numbers of board members can meet in private, unless they’re trying to use technicalities to evade public meeting requirements while making decisions behind the scenes, according to a Sunshine Law FAQ page on the Missouri attorney general’s website.
Jordan said examples of healthy behind-the-scenes communication would be a new board member calling a colleague to get historical background or members asking administrators questions ahead of a meeting — especially if they then share that information publicly.
“What we recommend against is saying, ‘How are you going to vote?’ because then it really does start to take that transparency away,” Jordan said.
School districts shouldn’t be afraid of public disagreement or open discussion as long as they’re conducted in a healthy way, experts and community members said.
Carrie Douglass, co-founder and co-CEO of School Board Partners, a nonprofit focused on supporting anti-racist school board members around the U.S., said school boards should have “discussion and healthy disagreement” about how to improve outcomes and reduce inequities.
“Our opinion is that if a board is approving almost everything brought forward by the superintendent without discussion, then they really become a rubber-stamp board, not really providing the oversight that their community has elected them to provide,” she said.
Douglass said research shows that “good conflict” based on policy discussions — not partisanship or personality clashes — improves student achievement.
Eager, the Independence resident and former district teacher, said he thinks Independence board members should be particularly well-equipped to have healthy conflict.
“Good people can have disagreements,” he said. “Particularly, I think, with the Independence school board, those are people I would want to have disagreements with — not because I want to be disagreeable, but they’re kind people. They wouldn’t be nasty about a disagreement.”
How we reported this story
The Beacon became interested in transparency in the Independence School District after the topic became a focus of the April 2022 school board election. When a district resident mentioned in May that it had been years since a board member had voted “no,” we started to investigate whether that was true and what implications it had for compliance with the Missouri Sunshine Law.
The Beacon contacted the Missouri Sunshine Coalition for advice and researched Missouri attorney general opinions. We also reached out to multiple experts in school board best practices to learn whether unanimous votes were a concern and how board members can promote transparency with the public.
We reviewed more than 10 years of Independence school board meeting minutes multiple times to verify that there had not been a “no” vote. The Beacon also calculated average meeting lengths in the district for 2021 and 2022, and for comparison reviewed recent meeting minutes for Kansas City Public Schools and Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools.
After new school board member Anthony Mondaine voted “no” on a proposal to remove a book from elementary school libraries, The Beacon submitted an open records request for two weeks of board emails to view an example of how the board used email to gather information and have discussion ahead of a controversial vote. We also drew on information from earlier stories about school board elections, transparency and the book removal. The Beacon has attended most recent school board meetings in person because they are not livestreamed or recorded.
Finally, we reached out to all seven school board members to ask about the board’s voting patterns and how they reached decisions. Mondaine responded by telephone and Eric Knipp and Denise Fears answered questions via email. Other members did not provide responses.
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