The Lee’s Summit R-7 School District, not unlike any other public-school district on the planet, benefits most when a few things happen: consistent and open communications; teacher, parent and student collaborations; and community buy-in on decisions that use taxpayer dollars.
We’re fortunate to live within a school district’s boundaries where the above matrix happens on a pretty consistent basis.
In fact, since the dust up started more than 18 months ago between R-7 board members and then-Superintendent Dr. David McGehee, I would argue we’ve come even further in promoting and practicing transparency, learning lessons on communications (i.e. Don’t let board members hold press conferences), and understanding best practices when it comes to monitoring board activity (i.e. Don’t give in to yearly renegotiations on three-year contracts).
The byproduct of much of this was the election of three new board members last April. Another byproduct, thankfully, is a much more engaged audience of parents and taxpayers around Lee’s Summit.
This is an audience that watched closely as the board maneuvered its way through the hiring of a new superintendent, and an audience that wants to feel like it is part of the discussion when it comes to district policy, growth, outreach and engagement.
We’re a better community when all of the above takes place. More importantly, we’re a better school district when all of the above is encouraged to take place.
Those basic creeds of communication, one could argue, were not exactly followed recently during the school board’s passage of the Innovation Track.
The Innovation Track is a partnership between R-7, MCC-Longview and the University of Central Missouri that gives high school juniors and seniors a chance to earn up to 30 hours of college credit at a greatly reduced rate. Part of the nearly $400,000 cost includes money for R-7 students who are on free or reduced lunch programs, salary for a full-time instructor, and for other dual-credit courses and the International Baccalaureate courses/exams.
This $400,000 comes from the R-7 budget, of course.
Part of the brief discussions — very brief, as calendar-wise the first public mention of this program came in late November at a work session — centered on this program bringing equity to student access to college courses by adding another layer of opportunity that isn’t part of the already-established the A+, International Baccalaureate or trade programs.
During the R-7 School Board meeting Dec. 14, Innovation Track was approved with a 5-2 vote, even has two board members warned that not nearly enough time and attention had gone into getting the community and, most importantly, our teachers and staff, on board and engaged with the conversation.
Board member Julie Doane said the vote weighed heavily on her mind, noting she just learned about this program less than a month ago.
“I don’t think there was enough collaboration between the teachers that know our kids,” Doane said. “There’s still questions that aren’t answered about costs.”
Fellow board member Kim Fritchie also said this topic was weighing heavily on her since the board was only introduced to Innovation Track on Nov. 29 — for 30 minutes — and had one work session to digest all the information.
“The fact that many details are yet to be worked through, I find it very difficult to vote on this issue,” Fritchie said.
As soon as the Innovation Track article went out in R-7 messenger, Fritchie said she sought public input and met with two groups of retired R-7 teachers, 50 in total.
“What have I gleaned from all of this input? Number one, that this process is moving much too quickly and has not been well communicated — first, to our teaching staff and, second, to our community,” Fritchie said. “Two, that there are serious concerns about spending tax dollars for post-high school education. Three, that there are numerous details that have not been decided upon or worked through.”
Those details include credit-hour costs with MCC-Longview and grade-point average minimums, with additional lingering questions about the impact on other programs like International Baccalaureate and A+.
Five other board members — Bob White, Adam Rutherford, Dennis Smith, Phyllis Balagna and Jackie Clark — didn’t share nearly the same heartburn. Balagna conceded the new program also had weighed heavily on her mind, noting teachers’ concerns that this might interfere with the IB program.
“No, this is another choice for the kids,” she said. “Any taxpayer money spent for kids is money well spent.”
And despite his “sleepless” nights regarding the Innovation Track, Dennis Smith was on board.
“Taxpayer money buys all kinds of things, not just textbooks and to pay teacher’s salaries,” he said.
That’s an interesting comment of note. Coming out of severe cost-containment, what our taxpayer money funds should be of the utmost interest to all of us, every day, in this district.
Perhaps as important, though, is collaboration.
Our teachers, residents and parents deserve thoughtful, deliberate communication and a sense of partnership. This could have been done much better on the Innovation Track.
It’s up to our elected board members and Superintendent Dr. Dennis Carpenter to make sure they do so in the future.
Lee’s Summit resident John Beaudoin writes about city and civic issues, people and personalities around town. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.