Candidates running for the Columbia School Board talked Tuesday about whether there is censorship in Missouri schools and how to protect transgender students.
All seven candidates attended the evening forum, which was co-hosted by the Columbia Public Library and the League of Women Voters of Columbia-Boone County.
April Ferrao, James Gordon, John Potter, John Lyman, Chuck Basye, Paul Harper and incumbent Chris Horn took turns sitting at a table in the front of the room for an “inquisition,” as David Lile, moderator and former KFRU radio host, called it.
Each candidate was asked four questions by the league, which they received ahead of time, and a new question from a Columbia Public Schools high school student.
Lile said there was “almost a full room” in attendance at the library, and about 60 people attended the forum on Zoom.
The biggest variety of responses came from the league questions “What do you think is the most pressing issue facing public schools and how do you propose to address it?” and from the student questions.
The league contextualized this question by saying, “There are efforts in Missouri to ban history topics, teachers’ speech and certain books. At the same time, students are being killed by guns in the classroom.”
Basye said he was happy to see this question because he “disagrees with it 100%.”
“There is no effort to ban history by the state legislature or anybody else that I’m aware of,” Basye said. “They’re not curtailing teacher speech. They’re not banning books. Some of these things have no place in the environment that they’re in right now.”
On gun violence, Basye said it is a problem. However, he said it’s not just happening in schools, and the acts of violence are not being committed by “law-abiding gun owners.”
“It’s being done by thugs, gangs and mentally impaired individuals that do these horrible shootings,” Basye said.
When he was done speaking, audience members voiced both agreement and discontent with Basye’s remarks. One audience member yelled, “Shush!” before Lile stepped in.
Ferrao said it sometimes feels like the state legislature is attacking public education because lawmakers don’t fully understand the issues that students, teachers and parents face.
“We need to be having open conversations and dialogues with people that are sponsoring the bills, so that we can gather a better understanding of what their proposal is ... and how to work together for the best interest of our students,” Ferrao said.
Gordon said he sees attempts by the state legislature to prevent students from learning about different historical perspectives as unacceptable and as an effort to preserve its own power.
“We need to be willing to defy a little bit more what is not just an anti-public education agenda … but an anti-literacy agenda that says there are particular books telling particular stories that students should be denied access to,” Gordon said.
Harper said all the talk about banning certain things is a distraction.
“If the Missouri legislators were serious, they would be talking about things like fixing foundation formula, ensuring transportation for all students in Missouri ... and prioritizing pre-K education,” Harper said.
He said he plans to address these issues by creating policies that make sure all students feel welcome.
Horn said the board is concerned about everything that happens in the district but is responsible for a limited amount of things.
“The more that we spend time chasing down and focusing on things that we’re concerned about, rather than things that we’re responsible for, it opens up the door for these distractions,” Horn said.
Horn said the board should focus on supporting and holding Superintendent Brian Yearwood accountable and making sure its policies are strong and the district is financially solid.
Lyman said safety is public education’s most pressing issue. He then focused on the history part of the question, reaffirming his commitment to teaching uncensored history.
“Things happen that we’re not going to be proud of,” Lyman said. “We have to learn those things in school. We have to learn those things to not do them again.”
Potter said the most pressing issues are teacher shortages, academic performance and student behavior.
“I will support policies that institute behavior policies that maintain an educational environment,” Potter said.
He said he will support policies that get Standards Referenced Grading, commonly called SRG, out of the district, because “it doesn’t hold children accountable for behavior issues.”
According to the district website, SRG is different from traditional grading methods that involve “teaching through a single textbook, grading everything from homework to quizzes and tests to coming prepared to class to participate. It involved giving points to all these disparate items and then creating a percent from those points. Students were graded compared to other students.”
“SRG practices involve assessing students against state or national standards of learning. Student learning is measured using 4-level scales, where Level 3 is the level of meeting the grade-level standard(s) through aligned learning targets. Only academic achievement is ultimately assessed, as behaviors blended in can distort this,” the website states.
Dakota Francis, a junior at Douglass High School, asked what Basye would do to make sure transgender students and students of color feel “safe and welcomed.”
“I, myself, had another student threaten me because of the gender I assign myself with, and it was never dealt with,” Francis said.
Basye said the incident is “unfortunate” and indicates the administration, board and principals in the building are not doing their jobs.
“Everybody deserves to be wanted,” Basye said. “Everybody deserves to be able to attend public schools without being picked on or bullied.”
Jackie Ozanich, a senior at Battle High School, asked Ferrao what steps the district should take to help manage student and staff mental health. Ferrao said improved accessibility to mental health resources would be the best way to benefit everyone.
“I think all of our buildings need mental health professionals,” Ferrao said. “At Hickman, we have one mental health professional for 2,100 students. That is not enough to deal with everything.”
Rahmat Adekunle, a senior at Hickman High School, asked Gordon how the School Board could be more accessible to the community.
Gordon discussed being more transparent about information important to the public. He used an analogy involving web development to explain how accommodations for certain groups should still trickle down to everyone.
“This is the wisdom of accessibility design,” Gordon said. “When we prioritize the needs of those who have the greatest barriers to access it, we all benefit from that.”
Jay Castilow, a junior at Rock Bridge High School, asked Harper how the district can support and protect transgender students in the classroom.
Harper said it needs to be ensured that all students are supported in every way.
“I certainly support the LGBT community,” Harper said. “I believe the district did the right thing with the clothes closet.”
He said everyone knows children don’t learn unless they feel safe in school, and “we should not be doing what the legislature is doing to our LGBT community.”
Avery Johnson, a sophomore at Hickman High School, asked Horn how he plans to distribute funding evenly, mentioning inequity in school funding.
Horn said as someone who has served on the district’s Finance Committee for the past couple years, the committee isn’t transparent enough about what goes into distributing funds.
“The district does a good job trying to distribute funds everywhere,” Horn said. “... When we receive requests from our buildings, we’re looking at those through an equitable lens and making sure the resources that we have are going to the places where they are most needed.”
Adekunle also asked Lyman how the School Board can stay focused on student achievement.
Lyman said the board tends to deal with a lot of distractions that prevent it from supporting district staff. Eliminating those distractions requires focusing on issues and working together, he said.
“We’ve got to remember what we’re here for,” Lyman said. “That’s making sure that when our students graduate ... whatever direction they decide to go, they’re ready for it.”
Gabriel Cabais, a junior at Douglass High School, asked Potter what he meant at the Columbia Missouri National Education Association forum when he said he wants to bring a new voice and perspective to the board.
Potter said there’s an ideology supported by the district and the teachers union that is “social justice stuff,” which he said is “not the focus of the district.”
Potter said when parents start complaining about these types of things, they aren’t being heard. He said it’s mainly the voices of people who wanted to “open up the schools” that aren’t listened to.