Ten candidates hope to lead Hickman Mills in era of transition

03/31/2014 3:26 PM

03/31/2014 3:26 PM

Tumultuous might be an understatement in describing the past two years in south Kansas City’s Hickman Mills School District.

In 2012, academic performance slipped enough that the state busted the district down from full to provisional accreditation status.

Last spring, the school board president, Breman Anderson Jr., was ousted from his leadership post by fellow board members in a raucous meeting in which he attempted to censure another member. Shortly afterward, a new superintendent — hired before the ouster — took over.

And just a few weeks ago, a state audit revealed a poorly managed administration with loose control over spending and inventory. The audit also questioned the extensive use of no-bid contracts.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the school board race has attracted a large field of candidates. Ten are running for three spots on the seven-member board. The incumbents are Anderson, Bonnaye Mims and Dan Osman.

The next board will face daunting challenges on two fronts: How to improve academics so the district of 6,000 students can return to full accreditation and how to prevent the kinds of management missteps mentioned in the audit that have the potential to cost the district money.

On the academic side, board members must decide how implement a new strategy proposed by Superintendent Dennis Carpenter.

Carpenter won unanimous approval from the current board for a major shakeup in the district, with pre-kindergarten classes made available to all 4-year-olds, and a reorganization of the grades.

Sixth graders would return to elementary schools, and Hickman Mills Junior High would become the new ninth grade center. His plan also called for a new alternative school.

Questions have also been raised about the involvement of Freedom Inc., a Kansas City political club, in the district’s affairs.

Freedom Inc., a club that has historically promoted African-American candidates, has been active in the Kansas City School District in the past. Critics of Freedom Inc. have said some hiring decisions and contracts made by former board president Anderson have been to benefit members of the club.

Following are a few brief words from the candidates about their views on the issues.

Anderson declined to participate, saying, “The Star has been very negative towards me and I prefer to just stay out of it."

Debbie Aiman

As a former teacher, Aiman said she is skeptical of constant testing, paperwork and formulaic teaching curriculums used to meet standards such as No Child Left Behind. She said board members can support strong teaching by being available to listen to teachers, and she’s impressed, so far, with Carpenter’s approach.

As for the audit, she liked the idea of work sessions where board members could closely examine administrative matters before being asked to vote on them.

Freedom Inc., Aiman said, “in its inception was for the right reason but I don’t know if today it stands for the same thing.”

Tanesha Forte

Forte supports Carpenter’s plan, and particularly likes the universal pre-K. In addition, she said she’d consider a longer school year or maybe longer school days and the hiring of more reading specialists. The district should focus on reading and math, she said.

While not against travel per se, Forte said the district should look for more economical and closer workshops for staff to attend.

Freedom Inc. has a right to voice its opinions, she said. “I feel I want to hear what the community and the organization has to say. But the only ones I owe anything to are the students and parents of the district,” she said.

Carol Graves

As a teacher, Graves said, she agrees with Carpenter’s assessment that community, parents and teachers need to be more involved in the district.

“If you have a strong community, you’re going to have a strong school,” said Graves, who would have to give up her job teaching special education in the district if she is elected to the board.

The board can improve its oversight by making spending guidelines clear and paying more attention to the details of bookkeeping and contracts, she said.

Graves is a member of Freedom Inc., but hopes people will judge her as an individual.

“I’m a member, not president. They have not endorsed me,” she said.

Shawn Hayes

Hayes likes the part of Carpenter’s plan that emphasizes giving kids skills for after graduation. He also likes the alternative school idea, “because every child does not learn the same way.”

He said his experience as a former special education teacher and disabilities rights advocate gives him perspective that will help him in decision making.

As a new board member, Hayes said, he would work to return better checks and balances to the administrative side of the board, so that too many decisions are not left up to the superintendent alone.

He said he is not a member of Freedom Inc., but does not have strong feelings about the group’s involvement in district affairs.

Bonnaye Mims

Mims, one of the incumbents, is also a Missouri state representative — which she said helps her be a voice for the good of the district at both levels. Mims called Carpenter’s plan “fabulous.”

“It’s so good to be back on track,” she said.

She said she was glad that the audit aired the truth about irregularities in the district’s spending policies, and she feels that it clears her of any suspicion. Mims was the board member Anderson tried to censure.

This race will be crucial to the balance of power between the district and Freedom Inc., she said. Mims said she is “so sick of the race card” in such issues as which attorney should represent the district.

“I’m not going to be dictated to,” she said of the club.

Dan Osman

Osman, another incumbent and currently the board vice president, said the early childhood education will help the district bounce back. In addition, he’d like to see expansion of programs in the sciences and in math, and in the Center of Differentiated Education, which is a gifted program.

In the future, he said, the district should not pay any contracts it does not have original copies of, and should be more approachable to members of the community who have concerns.

Osman said he is not a member of Freedom Inc. and declined to be screened for endorsement. But “I think any organization has the constitutional right to screen for candidates.”

Karry Palmer

The school district should be doing all it can to boost student attendance as a way to improve academics, Palmer said. That would mean consistently enforcing truancy laws, so parents could be reliably notified of absences. He also would like to see college prep beginning in sixth grade.

Palmer opposes no-bid contracts and other irregularities cited in the audit, saying they waste money and undermine the example the district should be setting to students. Big spending on contracts is especially hard to explain when teachers are not getting raises, he said.

He said he does not support Freedom Inc. “I think they’ve gotten away from what they used to be.”

Clifford O. Ragan III

Ragan supports Carpenter’s vision, but not without reservations.

“I feel like he’s moving too fast,” he said.

The district should look to its neighbors in Blue Springs and Independence rather than farther-flung cities for guidance on academic programs that work, Ragan said. And setting up universal pre-K may be spending money the district doesn’t have, he said.

Ragan said he would like to have textbooks available so students could bring them home to study.

Board members should talk to students and teachers and build a bond to keep them aware of what’s going on and avoid problems like those of the audit, he said.

He said he’s not a member of Freedom Inc. “Politics needs to stay out of education.”

Sandy Sexton

Sexton supports the grade configuration changes and pre-K plan put forward by Carpenter. That “outside-the-box” thinking will help get the district moving forward again, and Sexton said she’d work to make sure there are appropriate resources to make that happen.

As for the administrative problems, she said the board needs to make sure policies on transparency and accountability in spending are followed in the future. Some of the audit problems could have been avoided if policies already on the books had been followed, she said.

On Freedom Inc., she said: “No organization should have that much power or influence to dictate votes.”

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