Shawnee Mission school board candidates
Top row from left: Shawnee school board Member 3 candidate Jessica Hembree and Member 1 candidate Mario Garcia III. Bottom row from left: Member 1 candidate Ronald Occhiogrosso, Member 7 at-large candidate David H. Westbrook and Member 5 candidate Jamie Borgman. (Provided photos)

Candidates for the Shawnee Mission School District ranked teacher and staff retention and open discussion as their top concerns.

In response to a Kansas City Beacon questionnaire, the candidates outlined their positions on improving student achievement, paying school board members and including LGBTQ students. 

The school board consists of one member from each of five subdistricts plus two at-large members. Four positions are up for a vote this year, three from subdistricts and one at large. 

In the north-central area of the district, Mario Garcia III is running against Ronald N. Occhiogrosso for the Member 1 position. Both candidates would be newcomers to the board. 

Mark Tallent is challenging incumbent Jessica Hembree for the Member 3 position representing the southern part of the district. Tallent did not respond to the questionnaire. 

Incumbent Jamie Borgman, who represents the northwest part of the district, faces challenger Lynn McLarty in a race for the Member 5 position. McLarty declined to respond to the questionnaire. 

Two at-large candidates, David H. Westbrook and Logan Austin, are vying for the Member 7 position. Austin did not respond to the questionnaire. 

Meet the candidates

Member 1

Mario Garcia III

Occupation: Philanthropic giving manager, Children’s Mercy Hospital

Background and qualifications: I am a proud product of USD 512. I’ve spent 20 years in my school community working to build bridges and connect the families and students who live there.

Favorite school-related event: Any time that the entire student body came together, mainly assemblies in high school and Friday night football games.

Favorite subject in school: English/literature

Ronald N. Occhiogrosso

Occupation: Middle school science teacher

Background and qualifications: I have a bachelor’s of science, master’s of science and doctorate in chemical engineering. I have (worked) in education for nearly 40 years from middle school to college. Fran and I have been married for 40 years and have six children and 12 grandkids. Walks with Fran and gardening are favorite pastimes.

Favorite school-related event: Teaching science! And in particular, doing exciting demonstrations with my students. Students learn by hands-on experiments, and so I have a wide range of them ready to share. Tying them into the curriculum is when it gets really exciting. 

A close second place favorite event is when the school musical (or play) is performed. It never ceases to amaze me how students can be quite the different person when they are portraying a character.

Favorite subject in school: Science

District 3

Jessica Hembree

Occupation: I run a small business focused on nonprofit advocacy, strategic planning and evaluation.

Background and qualifications: I ran in 2019 after completing an Education Policy Fellowship. With my track record advocating for children in my professional roles, I felt serving on the school board was a great fit.

Favorite school event: My favorite school event is back to school night. I love visiting my children’s classrooms, meeting their teachers and getting a preview of the year ahead. The excitement and optimism of a new school year is palpable.

Favorite subject in school: English/language arts

Mark Tallent

Mark Tallent did not respond to the questionnaire and does not appear to have a website or social media presence for his campaign. He is listed as the preferred candidate in a Johnson County Republican Party voter guide

Member 5

Jamie Borgman

Occupation: Regional business director

Background and qualifications: Currently serve on Shawnee Mission School District Board of Education, mom of three — two are at Shawnee Mission Northwest and one is in college. I’m active in the Parent Teacher Student Association and boys and girls soccer booster clubs.

Favorite school event: Picking one is like picking a favorite child!  As a school board member, it’s attending Scholarship Shawnee Mission where we just handed out $2.9 BILLION dollars in scholarship (offers) for graduating students. As a mom, I love attending any and all sports-related events.

Favorite subject in school: Creative writing. Writing is cathartic for me.

Lynn McLarty

Lynn McLarty, a retired U.S. Navy veteran with experience working for DST Systems and Sprint, declined to respond to the questionnaire. According to his campaign website, he has five children and four grandchildren who have attended schools in the district. He has volunteered for Junior Achievement and children’s church programs and served as a board member for the 3&2 Baseball Club of Johnson County.

“What distinguishes me most from my opponent may be my opposition to the status quo,” McLarty wrote. 

One of his top priorities is retaining teachers and students. He also distrusts district and state reports on student achievement and believes the district is “failing miserably” at teaching reading, math and science. He supports the district’s work-based programs but believes many students aren’t prepared to join the workforce. He would like to help advance computer science education in schools. 

A Johnson County Republican Party voter guide lists him as the suggested candidate and he is endorsed by the Kansans for Life Political Action Committee. 

Member 7 at-large

David H. Westbrook

Occupation: Semiretired. 35-year owner of 30-employee marketing communications consulting practice. Now serving as member of several corporate boards and part-time consultant to business and civic organizations.

Background and qualifications: My career includes holding executive positions with the Shawnee Mission School District and Children’s Mercy Hospital, which experiences contribute mightily to my qualifications for a post on the Shawnee Mission Board of Education.

Favorite school event: My favorite school-related events include numerous opportunities to speak with elementary school students about people with disabilities (I am blind and have been so most of my life) and serving as a mentor to high school and college students eager to pursue careers in entrepreneurship.

Favorite subject in school: My favorite school subjects were American history and English composition/literature.

Logan Austin

Logan Austin did not respond to the questionnaire. According to his campaign website, he is a graduate of the Shawnee Mission School District and graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. 

Austin’s campaign issues are promoting and strengthening Shawnee Mission schools to create a strong community and involving parents in their children’s education through transparency and open communication. A Johnson County Republican Party voter guide lists him as the suggested candidate. 

Multiple-choice questions

Candidates were given a choice between two options for each question and allowed space to explain their responses. Those who skipped a multiple-choice question or indicated in their written response that they did not agree with either choice are marked as “neither.” Those who skipped a question entirely or did not respond to the survey are marked “no response.” 

School funding

Member 1

Garcia: Modern day teaching and learning need more support to ensure our teachers are receiving the professional development to address the challenges and differences they experience working with students in a diverse setting. Fully fund special education.

Occhiogrosso: The amount of money being spent on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging-related activities is out of hand. And why? It seems to me that these initiatives are focused on a very low percentage of students. Then those many thousands of dollars are not available for better educational uses.

Member 3 

Hembree: As an SMSD board member, I’ve advocated for full, equitable funding, particularly for special education. With focused investments guided by community input, we can make progress addressing disparities and helping every child thrive.

Member 5

Borgman: The state has not adequately funded special education since 2011. Districts need this funding to adequately support all children.

Member 7 at-large

Westbrook: New technology in teaching and learning requires more training and professional development. Teacher pay and compensation for fringe benefits are issues putting us at a competitive disadvantage. Schools need more resources.

School board member compensation

Member 1

Garcia: Blank.  

Occhiogrosso: I believe that a small compensation is needed because school board members expend a sizable amount of time performing their tasks. A figure of about $100 per week is about fair. To be clear, I do not anticipate compensation for the upcoming year.

Member 3

Hembree: Having a school board that is representative of our diverse community is important. If modest compensation would help attract qualified candidates from a wider range of backgrounds and enable more community members to serve, I would support it.

Member 5

Borgman: We need to ensure as much money gets to kids and the classroom as possible.

Member 7 at-large

Westbrook: School boards should set policies, not administer them. Policy setting requires civic service. Administration requires compensation. If board policy required me to receive compensation, I would donate it to the Shawnee Mission Education Foundation.

Book removals

Member 1

Garcia: There are policies currently in place for parents to address curriculum and material that they deem inappropriate for their child. Communicating how parents can take advantage of that is important.

Occhiogrosso: I know that there are books that contain sexually explicit material presently on the shelves of high schools in the Shawnee Mission School District. Why? This is outrageous. Schools should not be promoting filth, and buying them is more lost money.

Member 3

Hembree: I adamantly oppose banning books. In my first term, despite pressure from a vocal minority, the board upheld policies protecting library collections. Our libraries should represent the full range of students’ identities, cultures and experiences.

Member 5

Borgman: I would say neither. The SMSD has a policy that if a parent has concerns about a book, it is reviewed and decided upon in a timely manner. 

Member 7 at-large

Westbrook: School board policy should ensure parental participation in book selection and curriculum design. Policy should be clear on how objections to education materials can be raised and promptly as well as equitably processed.

Including LGBTQ students

Member 1

Garcia: School boards support the strategic plan that was crafted by community members. This strategic plan includes the importance of maintaining a welcoming and inclusive environment for all children to thrive academically and personally.

Occhiogrosso: I do not understand how anyone can think allowing a boy to use a girl’s bathroom makes sense. How is that fair to the girls? Using multiple pronouns to address a student will translate into confusion for many and WASTED CLASS TIME. Wake up America.

Member 3

Hembree: Policies that restrict transgender students’ rights put their safety and well-being at risk. I fully support LGBTQ-inclusive policies and will strive to be an ally for equity and inclusion.

Member 5

Borgman: The district should not be the judge and jury as to what names/pronouns a child goes by. That is up to the child and their family. 

Member 7 at-large

Westbrook: The school board should address this issue with clear policy that can be adopted and implemented so the school district neither promotes nor discriminates against matters related to this issue.

Open-ended questions

If elected to the Shawnee Mission school board, what would you do to improve outcomes for students in your district? 

Member 1

Garcia: Achievement should be measured by a multitude of factors. Addressing shortcomings with strategic plans to lift our students up is significant. We can provide more well-rounded opportunities for students so they better understand their options after their time in the district.

Occhiogrosso: Getting students’ cellphones off their person while in the classroom would help. We all know that they are distractions to learning. Better teacher pay to help retain the best and expansion of work-ready training for immediate hiring out of high school such as to be carpenters, electricians or plumbers.

Member 3

Hembree: If reelected, I will focus on accelerating growth for groups like students of color, English learners, those from lower-income households and students with disabilities. Targeted interventions and addressing systemic inequities will be key. Our district must pursue both excellence and equity.

Member 5

Borgman: The district needs to continue to hold space for educators to have enough plan time to prepare for students and their success.  Each child should have an individualized learning plan to meet his/her needs.

Member 7 at-large

Westbrook: Student achievement must be measured by reliable research. Performance shortfalls must be met with measurable plans to address them against precise goals and further measurement to assess progress. Resources to do this are vital and cannot be cut. Doing so would put us in the dark.

What is your biggest concern about the school board’s recent decisions or actions? 

Member 1

Garcia: Open discussion and dialogue amongst board members during public meetings should be the norm.

Occhiogrosso: Not putting greater focus on student scores: ACT average for 2022 of 21.3 is very poor, as are the percent below effective level in English language arts (56%), math (59%) and science (60%). It seems to me that the board is not concerned. Also, I do not agree with the recent hiring of Kaitlin Shulman as diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator. 

Member 3

Hembree: My biggest concern is retaining high-quality teachers long term. I aim to learn from educators what will inspire long careers serving SMSD students. Retaining talent requires competitive pay, robust professional development and an empowering culture. Investing in teachers must remain a priority.

Member 5

Borgman: My biggest concern about education in general is staffing. SMSD is not alone in its struggle to fill all of its classified staff positions.

Member 7 at-large

Westbrook: Leaders should be more thorough in public discussions about program and policy recommendations. A dialogue would enrich a deeper understanding of school board policies and give the public a greater sense of confidence as well as participation in that decision-making process.

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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.