The idea has been floated by both concerned citizens and hopeful School Board candidates hoping to mend the strained relationship between the Shawnee Mission School District and parents who want a new direction:
Create advisory boards or committees that would allow patrons to guide the School Board on issues important to them.
It’s a concept many don’t realize was required by law here for decades until an effort to remove the requirement, written into state statute, succeeded in 2004.
In the 13 years since, Shawnee Mission advisory boards have remained defunct.
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But there are signs they may see new life.
On Monday night, board member Brad Stratton informed the public that he has reintroduced the idea of board advisory committees to other board members.
“We have 140,000 patrons in this district,” Stratton said at a board meeting. “I think we are missing the opportunity to engage them.”
Several candidates looking to fill three open seats in the November election have also promised new avenues for parent, teachers and staff to influence board decisions.
And newly formed education groups have supported the idea of advisory boards as a means to promote transparency.
Some in these groups are unaware that advisory groups once existed. So, why did they disappear?
For more than 30 years, Kansas statute ensured that Shawnee Mission school areas elected citizens to an advisory board. Advisory board members would represent community concerns and share information about school decisions to smaller groups of constituents.
Former advisory board members include Stratton and Shawnee Mission East school board candidate and retired teacher James Lockard.
The Shawnee Mission School District advisory boards’ formation traces back to the 1960s, when rural communities participated in a statewide movement to unify thousands of school districts. Northeast Johnson County schools, proud and dedicated to their individual traditions, held out.
The school districts were so uninterested in consolidating that lawmakers actually had to create a law forcing them here to get on board, a legislative historian told The Star.
Language written into statute held the new district to standards that others had adopted, including the formation of parent advisory boards meant to ease fears that local communities would lose autonomy.
“They felt that by Shawnee Mission being consolidated that they might lose their voice and might not be able to convey their feelings adequately to a single board,” said current board president Craig Denny on the history of the boards.
The new advisory board structure worked like this: Four elected members from each Shawnee Mission high school area and the School Board representative from that area made up the advisory board.
The groups didn’t have authority to control the School Board, but could pass resolutions or information up to them.
On good months, Lockard said, up to 30 people, including the public, PTA representatives, school officials and board advisory members, attended advisory board meetings.
“It was an awesome means of a communication to get the word out about what was going on at the district,” said Lockard, who served on advisory boards from 1988-92 and 2000-2004.
But over time, Denny said, interest in the advisory boards seemed to dwindle. By the time he first joined the School Board in 1997, often the only people in attendance were the people who were required to be there.
“We reached a point in time where we sort of thought, ‘OK, we are requiring another night of time for our administrators,’” Denny said. “‘If nobody is coming to this does that mean that we don’t need this?’”
Denny says he doesn’t remember exactly who made lawmakers aware of the predicament.
But in 2004, lawmakers considered a large education bill, sponsored by then-Sen. John Vratil of Leawood, that was created in part to repeal statutes that were now considered obsolete.
Tucked into the final bill was language relieving the last school district to consolidate — Shawnee Mission, No. 512 — from mandatory advisory boards.
Reached by phone, Vratil said he didn’t remember sponsoring legislation that had to do with Shawnee Mission parent advisory boards.
Regardless, by March of that year, the School Board unanimously voted to abolish the advisory boards and honored members in a ceremony a few months later.
“We wouldn’t have been able to change while the statute was in existence,” Denny said. “But after that we kind of just quit cold turkey.”
While there was not overwhelming vocal support to keep the boards, some felt the district was losing a valuable way to communicate with parents.
“I fear that the message that will be conveyed to the public with the dissolving of the advisory board structure will be that the Shawnee Mission District really only needs seven elected patrons in the district governance,” Stratton, then an East Advisory Board member, wrote to board members, according to an article from The Star published in 2004.
On Monday, Stratton referenced the former boards, and said a new committee structure would serve as a “checks and balances” as the district seeks new leadership.
“As we bring a new superintendent on I believe it would be really helpful to have this form of additional governance and input in place,” he said.
Denny said last week that he expected the success of any future advisory board would depend on the structure. While the advisory boards were originally formed to protect the interests of smaller communities, he points out, parents don’t hesitate to come to regular board meetings to vocalize their concerns.
“I don’t think our community is bashful about coming,” Denny said.
Lockard said he sees value in bringing them back, especially as a way to improve the dissemination of information to parents hungry for news about the district.
He doesn’t see recruitment being a problem any time soon.
“There is no question. There are plenty of people, especially now, the way things have gone kind of rockily the last few years,” Lockard said. “There are plenty of people who would love to serve.”