New SMSD board candidates hoping for change with August primary

Posted at 9:34 PM, Jul 26, 2017

Most of the new candidates challenging longtime incumbents for a seat in the Shawnee Mission School District Board of Education are parents demanding change. 

Two out of three seats up for election have primaries, something rare in a school board election. The two hot topics: transparency and picking a new superintendent amid a growing rift between the board and parents. 

"There wasn't a lot of transparency on what was happening on the board, how decisions were being made, and then when things were being questioned, there were no real responses to those questions," Megan Peters said. She's a representative with Education First Shawnee Mission, a PAC that formed in response to the outcry. 

There are eleven people running for three seats representing Position 6 At-Large, the Shawnee Mission West area and the Shawnee Mission East area. The two incumbents are Cindy Neighbor for At-Large and Craig Denny for West. The third seat's incumbent, Donna Bysfield for East, withdrew after facing contention for the first time in 24 years. 

Critics say the board makes important decisions without public input in a consent agenda, such as steep superintendent pay raises and adding a second deputy superintendent.  

"They make decisions based on the consent agenda behind closed doors and they don't have to come out personally and say, this is how I voted and this is why," Peters criticized. 

At-Large Incumbent Cindy Neighbor says the board's way of doing business has always been the same over her 20 years in the position. She says decisions made in the consent agenda are on non-debatable issues. 

"There's always been a consent agenda," Neighbor said. 

But Heather Ousley, one of the four candidates challenging Neighbor, says it's time to offer parents some new options. 

"When you have this many people upset and tuning in, something is not right," Ousley said. 

Education First says they're not anti-incumbent, but "the truth of the matter is that there's nobody on the school board who has children in school. That's an important part of the school board." 

Mandi Hunter, another candidate for the At-Large position, says her history within the district makes her perspective unique. She's a Shawnee Mission West graduate, her kids are enrolled in the district, her mother is a special education teacher, and her mother-in-law is a retired district teacher. 

"I think it's time for a change. People have gotten complacent and the board has gotten complacent over the 20-plus years that the incumbents have been in the position," Hunter said. 

Neighbor said 99.9 percent of the new candidates weren't coming to board meetings until they ran for the election. 

"I think some of the people running haven't had quite the experience, but can they learn? We all can learn. I'm sure I started there, too," Neighbor said. 

Parents want to be a part of the lengthy process of picking a new superintendent. Former Superintendent Jim Hinson abruptly left the position in April after scrutiny from parents over several controversial events. The board still hasn't explained why.  Kenny Southwick is now the interim superintendent.

"There will be lots of opportunity for input from our community, as it always has been. So it was surprising to me how many people said, 'Oh, how are we going to have a voice?' They've always had a voice," Neighbor said. 

"It's more than just a fresh voice. It's looking to make sure that there's someone who's willing to explore conversations about the issues with people and invite them to the table," Ousley said.

Peters said the board has made some improvements with transparency by bringing in experts to talk about issues before the board came out with a decision. However, she says there is more work to be done. 

The primary election is August 1, with the general election following November 7. 

Here are the candidates: 

  • Shawnee Mission East area: James Lockard and Mary Sinclair (this one won't have a primary) 
  • Shawnee Mission West area: Lee Biard, Laura Guy, Chris White, and Craig Denny (incumbent)
  • At Large: Mandi Hunter, Heather Ousley, Robert Roberge, Fabian Shepard, and Cindy Neighbor (incumbent)