Three candidates are vying for two seats to be filled on the Independence Board of Education in the April 8 election. One candidate is an incumbent, another is a former board director who previously served for 12 years and the third is a running for the first time.
Incumbent Denise Fears was elected to fill previous director Bob Clothier’s seat from 2012 to 2014. The CPA and founding partner of Fears Case-Harmon & Assoc, LLC says she is seeking re-election to continue Clothier’s involvement and to share her financial experience with the board. She and her husband have raised three children in Independence, where two of them graduated from Truman High School and one will be starting their senior year at the school. Fears says she wants to continue serving the board because her mentor, Clothier, encouraged her to be involved in the community.
Blake Roberson served on the Independence Board of Education from 2000 to 2012. Despite reaching the 12 year term limit, Roberson is allowed to serve on the board once again, if elected, after a two-year hiatus per district policy. He is a graduate of Truman High School, has three children who have attended ISD schools, and is an insurance agent in Independence. Roberson says he is running for the school board because he wants to continue seeing the district go in the right direction.
Challenger Ron Thornbury has been an Independence resident for 35 years and has owned an auto body repair and collision shop in Independence for the past 27 years. He has been an adviser at Hilltop School in Lee’s Summit and the Career & Technology Center in the Fort Osage School District. Thornbury says he was urged by friends to run for the school board and believes his knack for solving problems and persevering in business through a down economy would serve as great qualities for the board. He also had three children who attended Truman High School.
Q: Do you believe current accreditation requirements, such as the state’s recent implementation of the MSIP 5 standards, are fair and realistic for school districts?
FEARS: I have had some concerns about MSIP 5. I was concerned about the amount of state testing. MSIP 5 called for a sharp increase in student testing. In January, DESE approved a significant reduction in these requirements. I believe this shows a willingness to listen to local boards and administrators. While I feel the acuity testing that ISD is doing is helping us to provide data driven instruction, I feel the state tests are more like an autopsy. I believe testing needs to be focused on making education more effective. If a test does not do that, it needs to be questioned. Secondly, I do not like that districts are evaluated on criteria that (might) not be within their control, such as (student) attendance. Again, if local boards and administrators are vocal in discussing concerns with DESE, I believe we can accomplish what is best for kids.
ROBERSON: I think its very unrealistic to achieve, but we have to play by the rules. I, of course, am for Independence, but also want the best possible way of maintaining our accreditation. We have demographics in our schools that move out constantly – and a lot of bleed over from Kansas City. We (ISD) have a transient population. It’s very difficult for districts and teachers to teach for that, and all of a sudden they have to take the state test. It’s hard to teach to that when your demographics change.
THORNBURY: I haven’t given much thought on this. Sounds good from the outside.
Q: What’s your personal take on the state adopting and incorporating Common Core learning objectives into the Missouri Learning Standards?
FEARS: While Common Core is not perfect, I am in agreement with the idea of making benchmark standards more consistent between states. States came together to develop a set of standards that individual states could voluntarily adopt. Missouri is one of these states. A common misconception is that the federal government is dictating what we teach, but curriculum development has and still is at the local level. I believe if schools are to be held accountable and compared based on standards, then CC will assist in ensuring student evaluation is apples to apples, rather than apples to oranges between states.
ROBERSON: Since I had not been on the board when our district adopted the standards, I have not studied CC yet. I do not have a firm opinion of it due to not having been brought up to speed.
Because of my 12 years of experience, though, I know how to do to proceedings and know what is expected of our district.
THORNBURY: I am having trouble finding anything that sway me away from implementing CC. I think I would probably support it.
Q: Do you believe the Independence School District’s policy of requiring school principals to reside with district boundaries is still practical and/or reasonable?
FEARS: This was one of the most difficult decisions the board made during my term. There were pros and cons, and both sides had very valid points. The turning point for me was believing that an administrator who lives in the district is making a long-term commitment to the community, which I felt would be positive for the students.
ROBERSON: I would want to review it. This district used to do that years ago with those who worked at Central Office. This new policy happened to pass when I was off the board. This was not a policy I voted to implement. But at this time, I do not know my stance. I would certainly review it.
THORNBURY: I think we need the best person for the job, regardless of where they live. I would vote to amend the policy.
Q: What are some of the challenge the district faces and how will you help resolve them?
FEARS: I believe state funding is a critical issue. I was recently at an MNEA legislative brunch where one of our state representatives posed the question, “Do we want better education for Missouri children or jobs in Missouri when they graduate?” I firmly believe we need both. Consequently, I believe balancing state funding with tax cuts is crucial. We must find a balance between these, without excluding either one.
Another key issue for our community is the possible transfer of students from Kansas City. I think the western Independence annexation is a prime example of how creating ownership and pride in a community is best served in neighborhood schools. I believe the heart of the transfer issue needs to be what is best for kids.
ROBERSON: I was a board member and president during 2008 when Dr. Hinson (former superintendent) annexed the Kansas City schools in western Independence. The biggest priority in Missouri is education and the ramifications by changes in that sector. One of my objectives is to get the state to fully fund the Education Formula, which would greatly affect us in a positive way.
THORNBURY: The biggest challenge this district faces are the recent test scores at all three high schools. I believe the composite test scores, such as end-of-course assessments, ACT exams and acuity tests, are below 69 percent. With those low scores, we are on the verge of losing accreditation, I believe.
There’s got to be a way to improve these scores, and there is no reason to be where they are. We need to find out why. The surrounding districts, such as Lee’s Summit and Blue Springs, are performing better than us. I would like to sit in with some classes at different high schools and visit surrounding districts for a day. I will wait and see if something jumps right out that we (ISD) haven’t implemented. There is nothing wrong with plagiarism when it comes to education. I would gather information in order to see what we can do to improve test scores.
And about the transfer issue with unaccredited Kansas City schools, I don’t think there’s much a school board can do regarding an influx of incoming students. However, I see problems on the horizon with the possible influx of students from unaccredited schools.
Q: What attributes or qualities should a board member exhibit?
FEARS: I believe a board member should work well with a team and support group decisions. He/she would understand that a board sets the climate for the district and have a strong desire to build relationships. An effective board member believes in serving the needs of all students and has respect for diverse viewpoints. I believe I have the commitment, dedication and unique qualifications to be of service to the district.
ROBERSON: I value integrity, honesty and wanting to do the best things for students, as well as look out for staff in ensuring they are being treated fairly and have the best salaries. Plus lookout for the taxpayer who foots the bill. I want to make sure he or she get the most bank for the buck. I am fiscally conservative.
I believe I have the time and energy to commit to the board. I lived here my entire life and my business is located within the confines of the Independence School District. I graduated in the district and all of my children have as well. I pay property taxes on both my business and home.
THORNBURY: I am diligent, hardworking, level-headed and think clearly. I have a vested interest in the community. Although I never served on the board before, I think my record speaks for itself. I lived a very blessed life. There’s room for improvement in this district.