In the race for the two open seats on the Blair Oaks Board of Education, incumbent school board members Greg Russell and John Weber are facing challenges from a pair of political newcomers in Tuesday's election.
Both Dawn Brooks and Brian Rackers said they were galvanized to get more involved in the district's affairs after Lorie Winslow, a former Blair Oaks Elementary principal, was not offered another employment contract in early 2012.
In February 2012, the board voted 6-1 not to renew Winslow's contract, saying she had not conducted all of the teacher evaluations required in her contract, as well as required by statute or board policy.
After she appealed, the board unanimously reaffirmed the decision after a daylong hearing in March 2012. In early April, the seven-member school board released a 20-page report saying it would not offer her a contract.
The decision generated quite a bit of controversy in the school district. Although Brooks and Rackers said that decision is water under the bridge, both challengers said it piqued their interest in how their children's schools are managed.
"That's what got me started," Rackers said. "I realized, "I can't do anything sitting on the couch.' That's in the past. Now I want to make a difference in the community and do what is best for the kids."
Brooks said the situation caused her to decide, as a parent, she needed to be better informed. "Some things have opened my eyes," Brooks said.
Brooks is interested in improving the quality of communication between the board and parents, and would like to see the board's decision-making processes become more transparent. She raised concerns that board members can be hard to reach because their personal contact information is not disseminated. And she lamented the board lacks an "open forum" at its meetings for community members to share their thoughts and concerns.
Russell said he feels concerns about the board's transparency are "unwarranted."
"Blair Oaks has always tried to do things the right, legal way. What many people don't understand is that there are state and federal laws that regulate how the board does its business, and we are in full compliance with those laws," Russell said.
Although some people in the district have questioned the two candidates' motives for filing for office, both Brooks and Rackers said they are not seeking to replace the district's current administrative team, led by Superintendent Jim Jones.
Rackers said that is "the biggest misconception" about his candidacy.
"Dawn and I are not after Jones' job. That's not even the case. And we're not dissatisfied with the job the Board of Education has done," Rackers said. "They've done some great things for the district. I want to make sure we're not rubber-stamping everything."
Brooks and Rackers face Russell, who has served on the board for 12 years and is its current president, and Weber, who is campaigning for his second term.
Both Russell and Weber affirmed their own support for Jones' leadership.
"I believe he does an excellent job," Russell said.
"Dr. Jones is the CEO of the district," Weber said. "It's his job to run the district and the board members' job is to oversee his processes as CEO."
Weber hopes, if re-elected, to bring a calm demeanor to deliberations. He said: "I'm a moderator who tries to listen to both sides and come up with solutions that everyone can be comfortable with."
Russell agreed this election is shaping up to be more controversial than previous ones. He said the decision not to renew Winslow's contract was "difficult."
"There's no doubt in my mind that the board took the right steps. However, it is not always easy to do the right or unpopular thing," he said.
Brooks said raising challenging questions about the operation and management of the school district hasn't been easy, either, but feels she is voicing valid points.
Brooks has questioned the board's March 12 decision to ask Cary Gampher, with Architect's Alliance, to move to the next planning phase for a new weight/wrestling room (estimated to cost $800,000), elementary addition ($300,000-400,000), air-conditioning for the high school gymnasium ($120,000) and improvements to the high school track-and-field facility ($20,000).
Both Rackers and Brooks said those choices might make sense if a firmer timeline for the new high school was in hand.
"I can't see building a brand new wrestling room if we're getting a new high school," she said. "My concern is we're bursting at the seams. Nobody from the public had the opportunity to weigh in."
Russell said the final projects have not been approved.
"We approved an expenditure, not to exceed $25,000, for an architect to do the prep work ... a feasibility study ... so we could evaluate whether it would be a sound decision to move forward. It is not a done deal," he said.
Depending on what financing is needed, another hearing will be needed.
Weber said he feels the board has spent time pondering those choices.
"It's been on the long-term agenda the full three years I've been on the board," he said. "My problem is, it's being portrayed that we made this decision and it's a done deal. No, we're doing our due diligence."
Weber feels, even if a new high school is built, the weight room/wrestling room could be used as a multi-purpose space to alleviate overcrowding for other student groups. When the wrestling program was launched, only five teens participated; now about 30 do so, he said.
He favors the elementary addition, which would create two new classrooms, an ADA-accessible bathroom and a teacher workroom.
Rackers sees the need for air conditioning in the gymnasium because the school can't properly be secured without it.
Russell said his long-term strategy is "really quite simple."
He noted debt plays a necessary role in school finance, but it must be managed.
In an e-mail, Russell wrote: "We strive to maintain a financial position for the district that enables us to respond to the future needs of our students, whatever they may be. They may not be the same next year, or in 10 years. I think flexibility is more important than formality."
He added the district purchased 25 acres to maintain that flexibility.
"There was not an immediate use called for, but it would be there when we needed it," he wrote.
In his e-mail, Russell reiterated that he believes the board is planning for the future.
"The school board spends a significant amount of time planning to ensure that any board decision has been carefully thought through from all points of view," he wrote.
He also noted the district once was only provisionally accredited by the Missouri Department of Education, but now it has been recognized for Distinction in Performance multiple years in a row.
Russell noted the district has saved more than $1 million by refinancing its debt load. "There are a lot better things we can spend that money on," he said.
Weber, 52, has lived in the Blair Oaks School District for the past eight years. He is the owner of John M. Weber Consulting LLC, a firm that helps other businesses find retirement-planning solutions for their employees.
Weber graduated from the University of Missouri in 1984 with a bachelor's degree in education; he originally wanted to be a coach and a school counselor. His first job after college was at Capital Savings and Loan in Jefferson City.
He has been married for 17 years to his wife, Kris Weber, a fifth- and sixth-grade math teacher at Blair Oaks. Together, they have three children: Katelyn, 13; Jack, 7; and Sam, 4.
Rackers, 47, grew up in Jefferson City and attended Helias High School. For the past year and a half, he has worked as a supervisor at Diamond Pet Food. He spent the bulk of his career managing stores for Walmart in several communities.
Rackers earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Central Missouri in 1989.
His wife, Kara Rackers, works at Hair Expressions in Jefferson City. They have two children, Sydney, 12, and Karson, 19.
Russell, 57, was born and raised in Franklin County, but he has lived in central Missouri for 16 years. He is an insurance agent.
He is a graduate of St. Clair High School. In 2005, he earned a bachelor's of science degree in business administration from William Wood University.
Prior to serving on the Blair Oaks Board of Education, he served on the Lonedell R-14 School District's Board of Education in Franklin County.
Although his children are grown - they range in age from 25 to 35 - he has three grandchildren in the district and many nieces and nephews.
Brooks, 33, is the owner of a small business that trains law enforcement and focuses on school safety. She also is a real estate agent.
She earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Central Missouri and a master's in business administration from American Public University. She is working on a law degree from the University of Missouri.
She has been married for 11 years and is the mother of three children.