The five Hickman Mills School Board (Kansas City, Missouri) candidates spoke at an online forum on Thursday, March 11. The event was hosted by the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization that encourages voting participation and advocacy around various social issues. The forum asked candidates their opinions on accreditation, school closures, summer school and helping the district navigate the effects of COVID-19.
The candidates also discussed concerns about the sufficiency of Cerner’s level of support for the district, Missouri Senate Bill 55 and state support of the school.
Their responses are summarized below, and there will be another forum from the NAACP Kansas City, Missouri Branch on Monday, March 22.
Ann Coleman, a longtime resident of the district, holds degrees in both education and special education and said she hoped to bring that expertise and experience to the board. She has both a grandson and a nephew who are students in the district.
“I have a vested interest in this area,” she said. “I think that I have a lot to offer by being on the board.”
She said full accreditation is a priority for her, but that competitive salaries for teachers and additional programs to catch students up after a year of virtual learning will be crucial to that effort.
“A lot of our students have fallen behind because of the virtual education that they’ve had to get because of COVID…so I think we need to have some fierce tutoring offered to the students. We need to get the parents on board with that,” she said.
She also suggested programs that would help parents better support their students, citing an evening program she used to work with that met once a week for parents of district students. “Before we knew it, we had a whole cafeteria full of parents and students,” she said of the program.
She said she felt in-person summer school would also be beneficial, both for academic purposes and to allow students to be with their friends.
“I think the children would welcome it; I know the parents would welcome it,” she said.
Coleman opposed both school closures and efforts to expand school choice/voucher programs and charter schools, such as SB 55. She encouraged residents to reach out to their representatives to oppose state legislation that would threaten school funding.
She also said businesses in the district—especially large corporations like Cerner—needed to support both the community and the district. “When the community thrives, the school district thrives,” she said.
She said more support from Cerner could take many forms, including partnering with the district to provide mentoring and tutoring to students. “I have several friends that work over there, and I ask them, ‘Would you support being mentors to our students? Would you support being tutors to our students?’ And most of them said yes.”
“I think there’s a little bit more that they can do, but I do think they have helped,” she said of Cerner.
Incumbent Carol Graves has 20 years of classroom teaching experience and has served on the board for the last six years.
“My model has been putting kids first, and I have not wavered,” she said. “I want to see Hickman Mills move up. I want to see the culture change.”
For Graves, a key focus of her next term would be changing school culture. “We have got to change the culture of our school,” she said. Doing so would help teachers feel more supported. “We’ve all had jobs that didn’t pay a lot of money, but we enjoyed them…Our teachers need to know that we appreciate them and that we are working behind the scenes to make sure that we give them the money that they deserve.”
She said she hopes to avoid further school closures in the district, especially after having been part of a school closure as a teacher. “It’s not an experience that we want to have or continue to have…but that’s what happens in education and in life,” she said.
She said she hopes increasing parental involvement will help student performance, especially as students try to catch up after the challenges COVID-19 created for many students. “Parent involvement would help, but how many of our parents really want to get involved with our kids?” she said. She also noted that things like an expanded summer school that also incorporated fun activities could help engage students and help them catch up.
Graves also pushed back against efforts to expand school choice, including Missouri Senate Bill 55 and other measures that may decrease school funding and pull students from the district.
“The best and the brightest would leave Hickman Mills (under school choice)…and so what you would have would be those that are just there,” she said. “We have to have students on all levels.”
She also questioned Cerner’s support of the district and said the district would need to consider future tax increment financing (TIF) arrangements carefully.
“If a business wants to get a TIF in our area, the Hickman Mills School District is going to make sure that we have a seat at the table,” she said. “They do support us in a way, and of course we would like more support from them, but we’re going to take what they’re giving us.”
Ebony Osby has experience working in the district and specific experience working with those with special needs. She is also a parent of three Hickman Mills students. “I’m a mom first, and that’s not just to my children. It’s to all children in this district,” she said.
Osby said some of her top issues as a candidate are accreditation, parent involvement and teacher salary. “This school district…has the culture in it, we just need to bring it out. It has the heart of the community in it; we just need to bring it out,” she said.
She sees better support of teachers—including financially—as important in helping the school move toward full accreditation. Accreditation, in turn, would help parents take the district more seriously and increase involvement.
“We do need to look at the data to figure out what areas we lag in,” she said. “But I also think this needs to be done in a fashion that doesn’t overwhelm the students or the teachers.”
Osby also said that while she opposes closing school buildings, she is also concerned about what happens to buildings that do close. “If a school does become closed, what are we doing with that building that can actually benefit the district?” she asked.
She also emphasized strategies for helping students catch up, like offering tutoring or other supplemental programs, but said programs like longer summer school would just burn out students and teachers. “If we take that (normal length summer break) away from them, then we have created an inconsistent schedule that these kids are not used to,” she said.
She also opposed SB 55 and school choice/voucher program expansion that would pull funding and students away from the district. “It doesn’t add any value to the school district,” she said.
The question of adding value to the district was one she posed for Cerner as well. “How has Cerner given back to the school district?” she asked. “I don’t feel like that has done a lot to help our kids. I feel like there is so much more that they can do.”
She said while support doesn’t have to be financial and could be through other programs, ranging from volunteering to mentorship or tutoring programs to internships for district students, businesses in the district—including Cerner—needed to meaningfully support the district.
Ron Pearson holds a degree in organizational leadership, served 21 years in the United States Army, has written and enforced policy for the Department of Defense and is seeking his first term on the school board.
“I have a heart for people,” he said, and noted both his children and his grandchildren have or are attending school in the district. “It would give me an opportunity to give something back.”
Pearson said he would bring his policy and organizational background to a board position, working for performance improvement plans, strategic partnerships with community members and focused progress toward accreditation.
“Competence is my watchword, and you can hold me accountable for that,” he said. “I do not plan to divide, but I plan to stand on my principles.”
He opposed both the expansion of school choice/voucher programs and closing schools. However, he also said that in the event of necessary closures, the board should ensure the buildings are repurposed to “we rebuild our blighted community.”
Pearson also proposed increasing community involvement to help support students. “I believe we can use community involvement and create programs,” he said. “We focus on parents; however, the parents are working…I do believe that if we look at the community…and we use them as force multipliers, we take some of the load off of those teachers.”
“These are some creative and innovative ways that we may use to catch up in some of the areas that we lost,” he said, noting successful community programs elsewhere, such as teacher pods. He also supported expanded summer school in a hybrid format and with “emotional supports” and trips for students.
While he emphasized community involvement, Pearson was critical of the current agreement with Cerner, both because of lack of benefit to the district and because of what he called a lack of transparency.
“As a member of the board of education, I would think that it would be critically important to re-establish our commitment (to transparency),” he said. “I do believe that we should go back and renegotiate (with Cerner)—in a nice way…so that we can both have some measure of amicability.”
He emphasized accountability as a key board member focus as well. “Accountability looks like being your word and understanding your position,” he said. “We have one employee. That employee is the superintendent. It is our job to support that superintendent.”
Clifford Ragan III
Clifford Ragan III has served as the vice president of the school board and a board member and is a father of four past and current students of the district. He cited involvement in a variety of community programs ranging from Harvesters to the PTA to the Booster Club. He said he hopes to help the district pursue accreditation and a stronger sense of school spirit.
“For a long length of time, the Hickman Mills School District has had no identity (and) spirit,” he said. He said the path to accreditation would require, “all hands on deck. That’s from the teacher to the parent to the counselors.”
Ragan said he was against school closures and would prefer to make cuts “at the top” instead. He criticized district decisions to hire during the pandemic when students were not physically in school. “That to me is looking at money you could have saved,” he said.
In addition to pushing parent involvement, Ragan also proposed tutoring and possible testing for students catching up after a year of virtual learning.
“I believe you’re going to have to tutor these kids,” he said. “We might have to bring in parents to also get a grip on everything also, but also we might need to test the student to see how much the student has lacked.”
Ragan is also against legislation like SB 55 and said the state should instead provide better resources to the district to be able to pursue accreditation and avoid state takeover. “Give us the tools and resources to get us up to standard. Then nobody goes anywhere,” he said.
Ragan was also opposed to a longer in-person summer school, citing the need for students to have a break. “Everybody needs a break. That’s why we all work: so we can have a vacation,” he said.
Ragan also stressed the need for more accountability and a stronger district negotiation stance when discussing TIF agreements, such as with Cerner. “They’ve given us some spare change,” he said.
He said the district should consider its other resources—such as district-owned land—and how to best leverage those assets and work with the community.
“We need to tighten up,” he said.
Ragan said his knowledge of the district makes him a strong candidate. “I was a parent first,” he said of his last term on the board. “I’m very knowledgeable. I’m here for not only the teachers (and) the students, but I’m here for the parents also.”