Longtime Shawnee Mission school board member Craig Denny thought about whether it was time to step down and forgo re-election some time before his third term ended in 2009.
“I sort of think public service is something you do for a while and then you don’t, and you let someone else have a term,” said the engineering consultant.
But when a former superintendent announced she would retire, Denny said he felt called to continue — his expertise would help guide the district as it sought new leadership. And though he promised his wife that his fourth term would be a “last hurrah,” the next superintendent’s retirement prompted another run and another opportunity to offer his experience.
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Denny will finish his fifth term as a school board member this year, and has filed to run for his sixth. But he and Cindy Neighbor — two incumbents with a combined 40 years of experience on the board — face a slew of candidates in the August 1 primary.
The challengers are promising a new direction for a district that finds itself once again seeking new leadership in the wake of former superintendent Jim Hinson’s abrupt retirement this year.
The primary to narrow the field for two of three open seats is unusually crowded for school board races here: Many candidates are first-time contenders supported by parents, teachers and staff who have had mixed reactions to rapid changes implemented during Hinson’s tenure and harbor deep concerns about the lack of support the Kansas legislature has shown toward schools.
Voters’ choices next week, and their final decisions in November, will show the appetite for change among those characterizing the election as a battle between two camps: seasoned board members bolstered by institutional knowledge versus newcomers with fresh ideas and priorities that supporters say are more in tune with the needs of teachers, parents and students.
“I think I have the experience and the knowledge and can contribute more than either of my opponents in the initial few months and the first year of our operations of the board,” Denny said. “There’s a learning curve in almost anything … It’ll take some time for new members to understand all the functions of the school board.”
One of the primary opponents for Denny’s West Area seat, Laura Guy, Living Water Christian Church pastor and former Olathe Schools third-grade teacher, says a different perspective is crucial in a year in which a new superintendent will be chosen.
“I have this understanding of all the pressures that are on teachers and the needs that they have in the classroom,” said Guy, whose children went to Shawnee Mission Schools. “And I also have a perspective as a parent.”
Guy is one of three candidates challenging Denny, who said he was inspired to run for his sixth term earlier this year because of his own concerns about the “weak actions of the Kansas legislature to develop a new funding formula” and Hinson’s surprising retirement.
Four candidates have filed to challenge Neighbor, a Kansas representative who has also served 20 years on the school board, for an open at-large seat.
Neighbor’s challengers include Attorneys Heather Ousley and Mandi Serrone Hunter, who have received multiple endorsements from local education advocacy groups, as well as Robert Roberge and Fabian Shepard.
▪ Ousley is a trial attorney who has led walks to Topeka to advocate for public school funding.
▪ Hunter is the owner of The Hunter Law Group who has served on the Corinth Elementary Board of Directors.
▪ Roberge is a Rockhurt University graduate who has served on the City of Prairie Village Environmental and Recycling Committee and the Oak Park Homes Association Board of Directors.
▪ Shepard is an export representative for Zoetis, Inc. who is endorsed by Kansans for Life.
The primary will determine which two candidates will face off in the November general election.
The school district is guaranteed at least one new school board member when candidates Mary Sinclair and James Lockard face off in November for the East Area position held by longtime board member Donna Bysfield, who announced she would not seek re-election earlier this year.
Parents say concerns about transparency and school culture, as well as a surge in civic engagement inspired by the 2016 presidential election, have renewed community interest in local races that have not traditionally been competitive in this district.
Several parents had become frustrated when school board members either could not answer questions at public meetings or sent what were perceived as canned responses to requests for detailed information on board decisions. Some parent groups have discussed solutions such as bringing back parent advisory boards and improving district communications.
Guy said she’s heard concerns about teacher retention as educators reported a “culture of intimidation” under Hinson’s leadership. Concerns about stagnant teacher pay have also fueled participation.
“As far as parents are concerned, I’ve lived here 22 years, and I’ve never seen such awareness of the school board,” Guy said. “And I think the fact that there are two primaries is indicative of the engagement.”
It hasn’t always been that way.
When Denny faced off against three other candidates in the February 2001 primary — the last time two seats were contested in a Shawnee Mission School District primary — 68 percent of voters voiced their support for him.
Neighbor received similar margins of support in a 2005 spring primary. In 1997 — her first school board campaign — she received the second highest number of votes, but went on to win the general election.
“It is kind of unusual over the history of the school board to have contested elections,” said Denny, who ran unopposed his past two terms. “On the other hand, I think it’s an indication that parents are interested in the issues, as they should be.”