Four people are running for two open seats on the Fort Osage School District Board of Education in Tuesday’s election, including both incumbents.
Tim Brown and Sharon Dankenbring, who has been on the board since 1992, seek to return to the board, while Chris Gross and recent district graduate Grant Watkins Davis are the challengers. Fort Osage board members are elected to three-year terms.
The Examiner asked candidates to respond to a pair of questions, and here are their responses:
Tell people a little about yourself and why you are running for (re)election to the school board?
Tim Brown: I have been a lifelong member of this community. My wife of 48 years and I graduated from Fort Osage in 1969. We have four children who attended Fort Osage. I retired from Fort Osage Fire Protection District after 28 years of service. I also ran a small construction business for 46 years. My current interest is working with an organization involved with Mesoamerican archeology and humanitarian trips to southern Mexico.
As a current member of the school board, I would like to continue to be a part of the decision-making process for the future of our district. The school district is the heartbeat of our community. It is a huge financial, social and educational investment. It is important to have seasoned individuals making important decisions regarding the direction of the district moving forward. We have a great group of educators and staff.
Sharon Dankenbring: I have always felt it is important to be involved and give back through service to the community in which we live. I have been a patron of the district for many years and started my volunteering through the PTA, Fort Osage Athletic Booster Club and Project Graduation.
I’m also a member of the Leadership Committee of the Missouri School Board Association Region IV, which includes all of the Kansas City area. In addition, I serve on the Fort Osage Education Foundation Board. With my experience I have a good understanding of school finance, revenues, fund balances and the working operation of the district. I would like to continue serving, and to have a positive impact on the education of all children in the Fort Osage School District.
Grant Watkins Davis: I was born and raised in this community, graduating as the valedictorian of the Fort Osage Class of 2013. I graduated from UMKC after studying economics and currently work in contracting for the Department of Defense. I am running for a seat on the Board of Education because the challenges our students are facing in the 21st century require people who have experience tackling those same challenges. In addition to being a recent graduate of the district, I substitute taught for three semesters in 2017 and 2018. I had the opportunity to teach almost every grade, and I served as a long-term sub for just over three months, teaching high school mathematics. Our students and staff deserve decision makers that understand the challenges they experience in the classroom every day.
Chris Gross: I was born, and grew up, in the Fort Osage district. My wife, Cathy, and I have been married for 22 years, and we have been graced with two children, Kayla and Kyle. Fort Osage is home to my family, from my mother (1957) to my son (2022). I am an engineer by trade, self-employed. Much of my time is spent working with school and other volunteer organizations – band, soccer, Project Graduation, Scouts.
I am running for school board because I believe in the power, and importance, of public education. My background and community interaction would make me a valuable member of this team.
What are three of the biggest challenges or priorities the district faces going forward, and how do you hope the district can address them?
Brown: One of the biggest challenges in the district (and most schools across the country) is school safety. Fort Osage is fortunate to have not had any major violent attacks. However, the district has taken steps to help ensure the safety of all staff and students. We provided active shooter response training in the buildings throughout the district. As part of the bond issue passed two years ago, the district closed in the breezeway that connects the commons area with the south building. This provides a secured area for students to pass from one building to the other. School safety is fluid and something we are continually monitoring.
Another challenge I see is the mental health among our youth today. No district is immune to dealing with teenagers with mental health concerns. This year the high school implemented SOS (Signs of Suicide), a school-based depression awareness and suicide prevention program designed for high school students. The goal is to decrease suicide and suicide attempts by increasing student knowledge and attitudes about depression. This program is expected to be expanded next year. We have also partnered with Comprehensive Mental Health to provide therapy sessions for those at risk. It's not a pleasant subject to talk about but important to address nonetheless.
Last but not least, the financial stability of the school district is always at the forefront of concerns. With the gracious support of our patrons, we passed a levy increase to help us balance our budget for the first time in 10 years. Because our district is mostly residential and rural, our tax base is extremely low. More than 50 percent of our budget is funded by state and federal resources; the highest percentage of any district in the area. We depend on the state formula to fill the void, and that amount is subject to change from year to year depending on the state budget. The administration has done an outstanding job pinching pennies to keep our heads above water.
One of the frustrating things for me is the local school board's hands are tied when it comes to our budget. The majority of our expenditures are either state of federally mandated. When you factor in the HR portion of our budget, there is very little left to allocate for discretionary spending. I will continue do my best to make wise decisions in this area.
Dankenbring: Finances continue to be a challenge for the district. A large portion of the district’s funding is from the state through the Missouri Foundation Formula. The school district’s financial status is solid. And, with my experience working with the school district’s budget, I have the knowledge to continue making sound fiscal decisions.
It is imperative to be current on state and federal legislation. We are fortunate our superintendent, Jason Snodgrass, has a good working relationship with legislators. I know he will continue to keep them abreast of how legislation could affect the Fort Osage District.
The Missouri School Improvement Plan (MSIP sets the standards for accreditation) continues to be a driving force for Fort Osage and all school districts. It is important that we keep quality staff and administrators to insure the district strives for higher goals and achievements. The current administrative team does an outstanding job. I know with Snodgrass' expertise he will continue to hire and retain the best staff.
The protection of our children and staff is a critical priority. The district has an excellent safety plan and reviews it regularly. In addition, my board responsibilities include addressing district-wide safety. I am alert to those issues when attending district events or volunteering in the classroom. If I see areas that may impact safety, I report them to the appropriate administrator. We must always be vigilant when it comes to safety issues.
Watkins Davis: My No. 1 concern is district finances. Fortunately, the district already has a sizable reserve to better weather the changing budget winds from Jefferson City. But there is always more that can be done. The district needs to be more proactive about seeking alternate sources of funds, from grants to program sponsorships, to ensure our students and staff receive all the resources needed for success.
Second, I believe the district needs to make a big push away from the traditional division of subjects and begin weaving the subjects together to better reinforce some of the more abstract topics we ask students to comprehend. We need to teach students how to use a tool in math class, then have them go apply it in their science class; they should learn about events in history class and at the same time, read literature from those periods in their English classes.
The last challenge I believe the district needs to take a hard look at is the continuing increase of technology in the classroom. There are many ways that technology can complement a quality teacher and provide additional support to struggling students. However, these tools also provide limitless opportunities for students to get distracted and cause mischief in the classroom. Our leaders should never be so distracted pursuing the hottest new tool that they forget to evaluate the pros and cons in an honest, objective manner.
Gross: Security. The safety of the children in the district is paramount. Maintaining a secure school building and campus should always be our district’s top priority. Teachers and staff should continue to receive education about how to respond to security situations.
Finances. There are no easy decisions when dealing with a tight budget. While the successful passing of the 2017 levy increase helped short-term, our district must keep the budget balanced and begin to replenish the fund reserves.
Properties. As the buildings of our district age, we are seeing the inevitable need for repairs, particularly the roofs. Energy consumption of our facilities needs to be addressed alongside these repairs. Some facilities of the district are no longer able to accommodate the student population (varsity gym and the band room are two that come to mind). We need to make responsible decisions about how to address the immediate and future needs of our student population.