In August, we asked our readers about the issues you wanted to hear the candidates running for USD 232 board of education address. Based on your feedback, we developed a five-item questionnaire touching on the most important issues to patrons of the district.
Each day this week, we have published the candidates’ responses to one of five questions. Today, we are publishing candidates’ responses to the final question:
What’s the biggest challenge facing USD 232 schools today, and what should the board of education be doing to address it?
Below are the answers the Post received from the candidates on this issue:
School District Member 5
It’s easy to look at the adversity the pandemic has brought and think this is the biggest issue facing USD 232. Certainly life looks different, but we as Americans have a history of unifying during hard times. Today I think our greatest challenge is the divide that exists between neighbors. I believe there is a way to get past the divisiveness and find common ground.
In my career as a hospice worker we encounter patients from all walks of life; different race, ethnicity and religion. Despite this at the end of life we have one common goal, that the patient feels loved and that their life mattered. I think we can take this same ideology and put love into action in our own community to begin to heal this divide. I am committed to healing our divide when elected to position 5 on the USD 232 School Board.
The biggest challenge facing USD 232 is student achievement. The Kansas Department of Education’s 2019 state assessment revealed that 38% of the 10 th grade math students were on track for college and career in our district. Only 17% of the students were below grade level and 44% of the students were considered to be at grade level but they still needed remedial training. Our school district is second in Johnson County (behind Blue Valley), but the numbers before the pandemic are troublesome. The 2021 state assessment results will be released this fall.
The board of education members are responsible for developing and adopting policies that will guide the superintendent and staff as they provide for the education needs of the students, parents and patrons of the district. Another duty of the board is to hire and evaluate the superintendent. In a recent article in The Sentinel, eleven Kansas superintendents (including USD 232’s superintendent) were recently asked how long it would take to get students to grade level. Our superintendent was one of the eight who did not respond. The board needs to address student achievement and the patrons need to ask questions and hold all of them accountable.
Gaignat’s name will appear on the ballot, but he has bowed out of the race.
School District Member 6
I think the biggest challenge our district is facing is the learning loss of students. Our shortage of substitute teachers and paraprofessionals is also a challenge our district is currently facing. I would like to see the board help create and encourage a better learning environment for our students by prioritizing funding allowing for more individualized instruction and adequate planning time for teachers.
Class size does play a huge role in education. I know that class size is largely controlled by state funding levels, which the board of education has no authority to change once the local option budget is utilized to its maximum capacity. Our district just used a portion of our ESSER II funds to hire 2 new teaching positions for the specific purpose to reduce classroom sizes. Our district also expects to receive an additional $4.2 million in ESSER III funds. The funding is there, figuring how to use the funding in the most efficient way to address our district’s learning loss is going to be very important.
It is key to identify where our students are now and where they need to be, and then with that data, develop plans to support our students and improve their learning. I want to ensure that every dollar is spent wisely, prioritizing classrooms, teachers, and students’ education.
The biggest challenge facing our schools is recruiting and retaining outstanding teachers and staff. We are currently short staffed on paraprofessional positions. This is a vital role to fill for some of our most vulnerable students. We need teachers and staff who are leaders and who inspire critical thinking and discovery in our students and we need to be able to retain these individuals.
The administration has been working on increasing paraprofessional pay since June and the board approved this at their October meeting. While this gets us more competitive with other school districts, it is not enough. Our paras, teachers and staff also need access to resources to do their jobs. We need to provide them with the tools to teach our students. We also need to be in direct communication with teachers and staff asking what their needs are and what can be done to help.
I think we also need to encourage teachers to bring new ideas for teaching into their classrooms and then give them the ability to do this. I think we are making strides. Recently we were ranked online by Niche as the number two public school district in Kansas. I want to ensure that we reach that standard and even go beyond that year after year.
School District Member 4
Danielle Heikes (incumbent)
One of my top priorities is to attract talented, dedicated, and passionate teachers and staff, and to retain the incredible teachers and staff on our team currently. I also see this as one of the biggest challenges facing our district today given the nationwide staffing shortages many industries, including education, are facing.
USD 232 is rated #2 in the state because of our incredible record of excellence and we owe much of that excellence to our teachers and staff. The past 19 months have taken a toll on all of us, particularly our teachers. The transition from in-person to remote learning was grueling, and resulted in many new challenges for teachers, including adjusting to using technology all day, creating new lesson plans, innovating in a very short timeframe, and receiving criticism and blame, all while facing the uncertainty of COVID and how best to care for their own families. Teachers and staff are physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted.
In order for our kids to continue receiving a quality and individualized education, it is critical we find ways to rekindle the passion for education and teaching that inspired our teachers and staff to choose the teaching profession, and USD 232, in the first place. We do this through paths such as:
- The retention bonus the school board recently approved for all employees in the district;
- Increased tuition reimbursement for teachers, and the possibility of tuition reimbursement for all staff members, to enable the financial opportunity for staff members to expand education and advance careers, if desired;
- Ongoing analysis of the district’s compensation plans, including pay for our substitute teachers, to ensure we remain competitive and demonstrate appreciation to our teachers and staff;
- Prioritization of mental and emotional wellness support;
- “Pulse” surveys to gauge employee satisfaction and create action plans based on feedback
received from these surveys;
- And, continuation of our incredible partnership with the De Soto Teachers’ Association (DTA).
Attraction and retention of staff is a continuous process and it’s my priority to ensure we continue to focus on this area even once the staffing shortages have subsided. I am extremely committed to our teachers and staff. They are the backbone of this amazing district.
I believe the biggest challenge is two fold, yet one in the same. Appeasing the war between two camps of people is one challenge, and having good boundaries as a school board is the second. What we need to be doing is cleaning up boundaries that have been violated and this will calm the constant warring between the two parties, and then we can facilitate open discussions with complete transparency to help heal the ever widening gap between the people. Doing this is absolutely necessary because: the school board needs to get back to the non political basics of focusing on education in our communities. The children need us to focus on them and their education.
Read these candidates’ responses to questions about COVID-19 and masks, the district’s approach to diversity and critical race theory, first school board meeting experiences, and technology in the classroom.