I attended the January 24, 2022 School of the Osage Board of Education Meeting at 6:00 p.m.
This meeting was again held in the Osage High School auditorium. The first three rows of seats were taped off to ensure there was an adequate DMZ between the Board and the attendees. They reorganized the Board seating differently from the last meeting. At this meeting, the Board was seated in a U-formation so they were facing each other.
Board President BJ Page was not present for this meeting so Vice President Alison Schneider led the meeting. Board Members Mary Whitman and Kathy Vance were present, but they barely said more than a few words. The other Board Members who were present and spoke during the meeting were Darrick Steen, Dale Law, and Todd Miller.
It needs to be said that for a public meeting, it was extremely difficult to hear what was being said. I understand the Board is adjusting to the challenges of holding meetings that are truly public with a live audience, but the Board really has a lot of room for improvement in this area. Board Members would occasionally mumble things to each other across the table or forget to turn their microphones on. There were also probably too many microphones on the tables and there was a recurring feedback whine that kept whipping through the sound system when two microphones would get too close to each other. So if you live in Kaiser and your dogs were going bananas around 6:30 p.m., you now know who to blame.
There were maybe twenty people in attendance and no one from the school district decided to deploy police officers for crowd control at the meeting to keep all of the parents under control. Phew.
We all stood and said the Pledge of Allegiance. They then had a group of about six female students get up on stage and lead the crowd in the District Mission Statement. The Board and some of the audience stood and recited it along with them.
They skipped some of the early agenda items including the Committee Times and Locations Item. It was hard to tell if this was intentional or accidental because VP Schneider kept missing agenda items and skipping ahead as she led the meeting. It seemed like she was just thrown off a bit by the issues with the sound system.
During the Open Forum, a parent came forward and spoke about his opposition to the 4-day school week. He had previously just given his input through the school surveys, but now he felt obligated to voice his opinion openly to the Board. He was skeptical that the district had used the input from the parent surveys to make the decision to change the duration of the school week. He explained that most of the parents he knows have faced additional challenges with the new school week because it is much more difficult to arrange transportation for the students to extra-curricular activities on Mondays if both parents work.
He didn’t see the advantage of having a 4-day schedule since we weren’t a predominantly rural district where students might be needed to work on the family farm. He also pointed out that the issues the district is having with the proposed calendar are partly due to the fact that school isn’t being scheduled on Mondays. Finally, he mentioned that teacher retention is one of the biggest advantages of a 4-day school week, but the district is not benefiting from that because they’re making the teachers work a 5-day week. Having said his piece, he sat back down and the agenda rolled on.
The next agenda item was the 2022-2023 Student Academic Calendar Discussion. The Board only discussed this briefly and VP Schneider mentioned that the most popular option so far seems to be just keeping the current calendar.
The next agenda item was for Contracts/MOUs/Agreements and so on.
Superintendent Nelson mentioned that she was bringing some of these items before the Board in an effort to be as transparent as possible.
The first grant was a MO DESE Grant called Grow Your Own Teacher Pathway Program. This looks like a $10,000 grant to develop a program to encourage and develop Osage students who are interested in becoming teachers with the idea that they would return to the district once they earn their degrees and teach there. The Board approved the application for this grant.
The next portion was FCC Form 479. This is a certification that the district is complying with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and it is required because School of the Osage has to complete it if they want to get discounts from the Universal Service Support Mechanism. (I read this from the attached documents. The actual explanation from Dr. Nelson was not as detailed but the Board members had the form in front of them to review.) The Board authorized the signing of this form.
The third portion was a MO DESE grant called the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Grant. Dr. Nelson stated the amount of money provided by this grant is established by district size, demographics (Nelson said this was based on free lunch numbers. It seems like it’s racial demographics if you look at the form. Maybe that’s what she meant.), and priority set by MO DESE.
Dr. St. John then described the strategies the district will use to improve retention with the grant money:
They will change teacher summer pay from a stipend to the actual daily rate.
They will provide money for study materials and scholarships for para certification and education.
They will spend $18,500 to create a Wellness Room for employees.
A Wellness Room? Man, we’ve come a long way from the Teacher’s Lounge that had an old coffee machine, confiscated comic books, a fridge, and a microwave. Now it’s going to be a sauna, soft music, and acupuncture.
Board Member Steen asked how many paras the district currently employs? Dr. Yoder responded that the district employs between 30-40 paras.
Nobody mentioned that it would probably also help retention if you didn’t make the teachers work on Mondays. That would be free.
The next agenda item was the Second Reading and Approval of the Public Participation at Board Meetings Policy. I talked about this before, but the big change is that members of the public can now speak publicly to the Board about items that aren’t on the agenda. Each speaker gets 3 minutes, and the total time allowed for this portion is 30 minutes. So there can never be more than 10 people from the community who address the Board at a single meeting. It also restricts public speakers to district residents, district employees, parents/guardians of district students, and owners of district businesses. You’ll have to fill out a card at the beginning of the meeting, and speakers will be called in the order their cards were received.
There was a discussion among the Board members about the changes to the policy. There definitely seemed to be a consensus that there were problems with the old policy. Specifically, they liked the change that allowed people to speak to the Board about items that weren’t on the agenda. This sudden desire to change the policy is pretty amazing when you consider that some of these Board members have been on the Board for decades.
Up until now, this had been a pretty normal Board of Education meeting.
Board Member Steen said that he approved of the changes to the policy, but he encouraged members of the public to contact school board members privately if they have issues they would like to have addressed. Members of the public could get better interaction with the Board Members by emailing, calling, or even just talking to them on the street. He said that he felt this was the best way to communicate with the Board. He then clarified that he supported the idea of public participation at the meetings, but prefers private communication.
The next few paragraphs are going to be my opinion and then I’ll get back to the meeting and wrap up the agenda.
These comments by Darrick Steen are part of the problem we are having.
If parents communicate privately with Board Members about their issues, we never get a sense that the issues we personally have as a family might be the same issues that hundreds of other parents are also dealing with. When you read a post on the SOTO Facebook Group or hear someone speaking publicly to the Board about a complaint, you suddenly realize: “These parents are dealing with the same issues we’re dealing with! We’re not alone. We’re all sharing the same experience as parents in the district.” Realizing that we are all sharing the same challenges will encourage more of us to get involved, start attending meetings, and advocate for changes.
As I mentioned above, several of the Board members have been on the Board for decades. Others will proudly tell you that their families have been members of the School of the Osage Board of Education for generations. There is a lot of influence and power associated with elected officials who have been entrenched within the system for so long. They know everyone.
Don’t get me wrong, if you are best friends with one of these “shot callers”, you probably have an excellent chance of getting your problems solved with a phone call. If you’re some yahoo like me, I wouldn’t count on it.
So, we have two choices. You can struggle desperately to climb the mountain, become best friends with someone on the Board of Education, and then laugh at the rest of us down at the bottom of the hill.
Or we can push back against private conversations. We can support transparency, participate in public comment, and rebuild trust in our local institutions. Let’s put all parents on a level playing field. It’s probably the best choice for our social and emotional development as parents.
The next agenda item was for a MSBA policy change that Dr. Nelson said only affected School Board elections where a candidate ran unopposed. She said it wasn’t time sensitive so it was tabled.
The next agenda item was an increase in the fees charged with the My School Bucks system for meals and other school purchases. The vendor is raising the processing fee for purchases, but Board Member Law felt that it might be more expensive to switch to a completely different vendor. The Board agreed and they approved the fee increase.
The next agenda item was the COVID update. Dr. Yoder talked about this and he mentioned that the reduction in isolation time has allowed staff to get back to work faster. The district’s COVID tracker is online and it gets updated every Tuesday. COVID trends have been uniform throughout the schools. Previously, they would be high at one building and the peaks would move from building to building.
There were some facility usage requests for basketball tournaments. I’ll spare you the details.
And then a proposed Board Meeting date of February 28, but that conflicts with basketball and parent-teacher conferences, so we’ll see.
And that was that.