As the April 8 election approaches, the growth spurts of Blair Oaks School District have been a point of concern for the six candidates campaigning this spring for the district's board of education.
Three of the six are campaigning together as a team. Tim VanRonzelen and Matt Fifer are incumbents who want to be re-elected; Peggy Luebbert served on the board between 2009-11 and is running once more.
Challengers Dawn and Bret Brooks are a married couple who moved to the district in 2010. Although they are campaigning independently, they have a collegial relationship and share many - though not all - of the same views.
A sixth candidate, Alicia Luebbering, is political newcomer from St. Thomas. However, she could not be reached for an interview for this story.
The six candidates are running for three open seats on the board.
The five candidates interviewed agreed the district is growing, and Blair Oaks' facilities must keep pace.
All five said they support a plan - envisioned by Superintendent Jim Jones - to build a new high school, move the district's middle-school students into the existing high school and use the middle school and primary buildings to house the lower grades.
Where the candidates differ is in how to approach that vision.
VanRonzelen, 43, said he supports the concept. But to make a final choice, he's waiting for the time when the district has enough bonding capacity available to build a new school. Currently, the district could borrow $6.9 million without a tax increase.
"It's only a concept. By the time we have enough bonding capacity, we'll have to see what our needs are then. My guess is that we'll build some variation of (Jones' vision). What if we need a new elementary school?" VanRonzelen asked.
VanRonzelen thinks the school board took the correct approach when it used a lease-purchase agreement - instead of issuing general obligation bonds - to raise money to add classrooms at the primary building and build a weight room.
Bret Brooks said the idea for a new high school is a "good overall plan, but it needs to be done correctly." He wants to see a proposal that accommodates the needs for now and the future.
Dawn Brooks raised concerns that a lack of foresight is leading to overcrowding at the middle school by next fall. She's interested in exploring the idea of a "closed" campus that isn't bisected by Falcon Lane. She wants to see school leaders spend more time planning for the future.
"We can't be building schools that need trailers in five to six years," she said, noting $200,000 would have paid for a middle school expansion.
"We knew the fifth graders were coming," she added. "Why wasn't it addressed? I think it was a complete oversight."
The couples believe there are options - other than issuing general obligation bonds - the school could use to raise money to build facilities.
"We need to take all the options and put them on the table," Bret said.
Luebbert believes the current board of education is forward-looking and called the proposal for a new high school "sensible." From her front windows, she can see a new subdivision being added to the neighborhood.
"The school district is growing a lot. I know from being on the board we always look ahead to the future," she said.
Fifer supports a plan to build a new school and estimated it may take five to seven years - depending on the Missouri General Assembly - for the district to be ready.
"As soon as funding will allow, that's what we'll do," he said.
"I'd like to be able to meet the needs of our students, in terms of school facilities, in the next three years," VanRonzelen said.
The five candidates harbor differences of opinion regarding how the board operates.
VanRonzelen, Fifer and Luebbert believe the board is transparent in its operations; Dawn Brooks wants to see more openness.
"I do not believe the board works in a transparent manner at all," Dawn Brooks said.
She said she'd like to see an open session at every meeting to give parents a forum to talk. She also said she'd like to see more specific agendas, agendas that are posted online one week in advance and the posting of detailed minutes following those meetings. She'd also like the board members' contact information be made more accessible to patrons and parents.
Bret Brooks added: "It's very difficult for parents and patrons to contact and interact with the board members."
Brooks said his father served on the local school board when he was a youth. "We used to get calls all the time when Dad was a community leader," he said. "If elected, I'd be more than happy to take those calls and e-mails."
VanRonzelen disagrees with the Brooks' assessment. He said the board is "very vigilant" in keeping board matters open to public inspection.
"We only discuss in closed session matters protected under the Sunshine Law ... ones that pertain to individual children and personnel," he said.
Luebbert said in her years both working for Jones and serving on the board, she found him open to all comers. "I know Dr. Jones invites anybody to come and sit, and he will explain things," she said.
Strengths and weaknesses
All five of the candidates agree one of Blair Oaks' exceptional strengths is the dedication and involvement of parents. And they praise the school's academic rigor.
But they have slightly different views of the district's challenges and weaknesses.
Fifer and VanRonzelen lamented the district faces a trend of steady growth in student numbers, but limited revenues "to do what we think is best for students."
Brooks faulted ineffective long-term planning, citing the recent discussion about a proposed parking lot across Falcon Lane as one example as a "knee-jerk reaction" to a problem.
He wondered how the proposed parking lot will fit into long-term plans for a new school at that location.
Who is the best fit for the job?
Fifer said he brings "common sense" to the table.
Luebbert said her background as teacher makes her a valuable asset. She's running because she likes the direction the district is headed. If elected, she hopes to expand the variety of courses, maintain a team of quality educators and keep pace with students' and teachers' needs for technology.
She said: "I can look at the decisions the board has made and think: Is this going to work for the students? Is it going to work for the teachers? I can think back and recall: How would this decision have impacted me?"
VanRonzelen said he feels well-positioned to do a good job.
"A good school board member is a good decision-maker ... one who is able to weigh the facts and look at the policy goals and make an informed decision," he said. "I do not come into meetings with an agenda or preconceptions of how I'll vote."
VanRonzelen said the goal isn't to micromanage decisions, but to supervise the superintendent so that person can implement policy.
Bret Brooks said he has a "proven track record of leadership."
Dawn Brooks said her background in public service makes her a good fit. She served as PTO treasurer in 2012 when the organization built a new playground. She also serves as a board member for the Center for Education Safety. If elected, Brooks is interested in the arts and would like to see an auditorium and stage built.
"I have a business background, and I'm constantly looking for efficient ways to get the best solution for the best price," Dawn Brooks said.
Although the two agree it's a bit quirky to run simultaneously, both say their choices are independent decisions borne from a desire to serve.
"It's not a strategy," Dawn said.
"It was a personal decision," Bret Brooks added. "I just felt the board needed a fresh perspective. We discussed it. We're not always in agreement with one another. But if she wins, I'm happy for her."
"We'll both be happy for each other," Dawn Brooks added. "If we both win, we'll just have to secure that babysitter on board night."
Luebbert wants to "keep the school going in the direction it's going right now."
• Tim VanRonzelen, 43, is a law partner at Cook, Vetter, Doerhoff and Landwehr. He graduated from the University of Missouri - St. Louis in 1992 and the University of Missouri Law School in 1995. He is married to Sandy, and they have two children, ages 17 and 14. Both children attend Blair Oaks High School.
• Matt Fifer, 43, grew up in Osage Bend and is the president of Weathercraft Inc., a roofing company located on U.S. Highway 63. He is married to Amy Fifer, and they have four children, three of whom attend Blair Oaks schools. Their oldest graduated in 2011.
• Peggy Luebbert, 60, has a long history with the Blair Oaks School District. In 1971, she graduated from the high school. During college, she did her student teaching there. She also spent 30 years of her career as an English teacher at the high school until she retired in 2007. Her three children - now age 30, 35 and 36 - attended school in the district. Today, both of her grandchildren - ages 8 and 13 - attend school there, too. She continues to substitute teach. In 2009, she ran and won a seat on the board. Although she lost her bid for a second term in 2012, she hopes voters will return her to the board this spring.
• Dawn Brooks, 34, works for her own consulting and training company, Gray Ram Tactical LLC. The firm trains police officers and school personnel how to respond to violence situations; Gray Ram also trains bus drivers, teachers and other school personnel to recognize the verbal, and non verbal, indicators of violent behavior. She has a master's degree in business administration from American Public University. She is working on her law degree from MU. Brooks, who grew up in Florissant, is married to Bret Brooks, who also is running for the Blair Oaks Board of Education. They have three children, ages 10, 7 and 3. All are enrolled in the school district.
• Bret Brooks, 34, is a corporal in the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Raised in Lexington, he works as an adjunct professor at Wentworth Military Academy and College. He has a master's degree in National Security and International Relations from American Military University. Brooks also has served as a captain in the Missouri National Guard.