Sparks fly at Lee's Summit candidates forums
R-7 board challenger, incumbents clash
By Brett Dalton
The Journal Staff
Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2008 8:04 PM CDT
At this week's two candidate forums, Sherri Tucker wasted no time explaining why she's running for one of the three at-large R-7 Board of Education seats.
"I have no reason to run for the school board other than my commitment to children with disabilities," said Tucker, who has a 14-year-old son with autism.
As the only challenger to the three incumbents- Jon Plaas, Jeff Tindle and Jack Wiley - running for re-election Tucker spent much of her speaking time at two forums hosted by the Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday and Wednesday criticizing the R-7 School District for what she believes is a lack of services and support for students with special needs.
"I'm running for school board because I believe that there is a segment of children who are being left behind, and I will not let that happen," said Tucker, who helped found the Lee's Summit Autism Support Group.
The incumbents, however, dissented the audience that the role of the school board members is to make decisions based on the best interests of the entire school district, not one certain population of students.
"The job of the school board is not to micromanage," said Wiley, who joined the board in 2005. "We deal at the 30,000-foot level, not the 25-yard level. We serve as advocates of education - not for a single group, but for all students."
Tindle, seeking his fourth term on the board, said making decisions based on individual scenarios would cause the "district and its structure to collapse."
"We must make decisions on the school board in your best interest as a general public, and that is making decisions for the district as a whole," Tindle said. "That sometimes means we're not making decisions in one child's best interest or a certain group's best interest."
Plaas, a two-term member of the board, said school board members must represent all students, not a particular number. He referenced Tucker's statement that around 250 students in the R-7 School District are on the autism spectrum. To make his point, Plaas rounded that number up to 300.
"I have a great deal of empathy for Ms. Tucker and her situation," Plaas said. "(But) if we set aside a board seat for this special interest group with 300 students, then we have another six special interest groups (that want a board seat), pretty soon we have seven seats set aside and 2,100 kids covered. What about the other 15,000 students? And by the way, what about the other stakeholders - the parents, taxpayers, teachers, administrators?"
Tucker, who has called for the district to provide better programs and trained teachers for students with special needs, replied to Plaas by saying she's not asking for a seat to be set aside, but rather for the community to give her the votes needed to take the seat. She also said the board needs a member who fully understands what it's like to have a child with special needs.
"I don't think you can put somebody on the school board who doesn't understand special needs and expect them to understand our unique needs," she said. "The kids with special needs need special services, and I think that's something that needs to be addressed and something the school board is not addressing right now."
The candidates discussed specific issues such as No Child Left Behind and the district's proposed $54 million no-tax-increase bond issue and Prop C waiver continuance, which also is a no-tax-increase proposal.
Earlier in the current school year, the R-7 School District was placed on the "District Improvement Level 1" list after two sub-groups - students with special needs and those who speak English as a second language - failed to meet the adequate yearly progress standards set by the federally mandated NCLB. Because those sub-groups failed to make AYP, the district as a whole failed, as well, according to NCLB standards.
Shortly after the results of the 2007 Missouri Assessment Program tests were released, R-7 Superintendent David McGehee sent a letter to parents explaining why the district didn't make AYP and assuring parents that most students - aside from the two sub-groups - performed well on the MAP tests.
Tucker told the Journal earlier this year that she thought the district was blaming the failing sub-groups for "dragging them down," and said at Tuesday's forum that the school district would like to see NCLB "go away" and not have to face the accountability the law provides. The incumbents disagreed.
"I absolutely disagree with the comment that was previously offered that this school district would like (NCLB) to go away," Tindle said. "I've been on this board for nine years and I've never, ever heard that said."
The incumbents all agreed that NCLB is a positive law that, like most federal mandates, has its flaws, as well.
On the topic of the no-tax-increase bond issue appearing on the April 8 ballot, Tucker and the incumbents disagreed on certain aspects of the proposed projects. Tucker expressed particular concern with the district's plan to use $2 million from the bond to renovate the former administrative office building on Miller Street to use as a school for special needs kids. Tucker argued that if the building is in good enough shape to use as a school building, then perhaps it was still good enough to keep the administrative offices in.
She also argued that perhaps the money that will be used to renovate the building should go toward training teachers for special needs students.
The incumbents responded by citing figures that show Tucker and the audience that renovating the Miller building will allow the district to educate special needs students who are now being sent to other school districts who have special needs specialists and programs in place. That change also will save the district money, Plaas said, as the district currently pays a significant amount of money to send those students to other districts. He added that the money saved will go toward hiring more special needs specialists for the R-7 School District.
Wiley also countered Tucker's claim by saying that bond funds can only be used for physically building a facility and not for staff or administrators' needs, such as training.
Tindle somewhat advocated for re-election of the three incumbents, saying "the current board works well together" and stating that the board only has power as a group, not as individuals. To that, Tucker responded she "can play as a team, as long as the team wants to play."
During his closing comments on Wednesday, Plaas made a comment that seemed to sum up the message from the three incumbents during the campaign.
"I believe special-interest-group advocacy needs to be done from the podium in front of the board and not from a board seat," he said.
Voters will decide who will sit on the next school board during the April 8 election