Grounded, back-to-basics leaders

COLUMBIA, Mo 3/28/18 (Op Ed) -- I can count on one hand the times I've endorsed candidates in a local election, one or two fingers in a Columbia School Board race. 

But Teresa Maledy (left) and Susan Blackburn (right) are the most impressive School Board candidates to come along in years.

Blackburn has the keenest grasp of local educational issues I've seen. 

Maledy -- aka Columbia's CEO -- showed a patient, gentle side that captivated me a while back. She may be Columbia's most famous business person. But at a neighborhood gathering, I was privileged to witness a role I knew nothing about that she relishes even more: mom to three small children. 

Strength and clarity

A Columbia Public Schools employee who retired after 29 years, Blackburn recalls at forums how her work as a speech pathologist and reading specialist -- among the most intimate and patience-inspiring ways an adult can interact with a child -- shaped her perspectives.
In a world of political wafflers, she presents a back-to-basics platform with strength and clarity, as in her closing remarks at the League of Women Voters (LWV) forum. 

"I want every student to read, write, and think critically.  That's all students:  students at risk, students in the average range, students who are academically talented," Blackburn said.  "I want to be able to reach every one of those kids.  I want to be able to recruit and retain qualified teachers. I want a safe and welcoming environment for students and employees. And I want to be available to, and engaged with, the community."   

Differently powerful

Maledy's opening remarks at the same forum presented a differently powerful case: a self-made success story (she worked her way up to bank president from teller) whose life is one of patient commitment. 

"I moved back to Columba because of Columbia Public Schools, and that's why I chose to run for this office," Maledy said.  Her school district experience reflects citizen helming: the Coordinating Board for Early Childhood Education; the Alliance for Children's Education; the Cradle to Career Alliance, and countless other volunteer steering positions. 

"I'm retiring at the end of June, after spending 37 years at a well-run company," Maledy explained. "I'm very familiar with human resources, budgets, regulations, construction and facility management.  I've developed a reputation for being a pragmatic, collaborative problem solver."   

Hedge vs. charge

The positions Blackburn and Maledy share have been on display at the three forums I've attended. So, too, their different approaches.  Maledy hedges thoughtfully; Blackburn charges decisively. 
About guns in classrooms to prevent school mayhem, Blackburn was unequivocal.  "No, I'm not for arming teachers," she said at the LWV forum. 

Maledy was more restrained.  "I have strong reservations about teachers being armed," she said, wondering, for instance, how first responders would know who was the target, and noting research that suggests teachers oppose arming themselves.

Blackburn suggested the district establish a "school safety and security task force" at several forums.  The task force would draw members from city, county, and CPS officials, the Boone County Mental Health Coalition, and teachers. 
"Teachers and employees in the buildings who are closest to the students...have great insight into how we can be as safe as we can," Blackburn said. "Part of school culture is being a family. Knowing the kids, knowing who interacts with whom each day, keeping an eye on each other."

How did the candidates feel about charter schools and choice vouchers? 

"Any time funds are taken away from our Columbia Public Schools needs to be considered carefully," Maledy said at the LWV forum. "Are you getting the results with a charter school that you would be getting with a public school? I think we need to make educated choices."   

"I do not support for-profit charter schools because they lack oversight and accountability," Blackburn said. "I love the idea of innovation; I love the idea of doing new things, promising things that really reach kids. But I do not support for-profit charter schools."
Welcome groundedness

As an observer, voter, critic, parent, and even candidate, I have worried that the School Board is as much a bastion of social elitism as policy-making body. 
Is it too removed from the community to adequately address what ails its students, including a drug problem that has harmed if not destroyed countless families; and that persistent "achievement gap" I've been hearing about for two decades?

I've seen plenty to suggest as much, including its growing divide with teachers, whose concerns over pay and working conditions seem lost, like many other tough issues, in the rush to cheerlead, mostly for tax levies and bond issues. 

I find my worries much reduced when candidates such as Teresa Maledy and Susan Blackburn step up.  They promise a groundedness and commitment we don't often get with elected officials. I was a fan of Ines Segert, Michelle Gadbois, and Michelle Pruitt, past School Board members who brought these same strengths to their Board work. 

And then there are the surprises. 

With her sharp presentations, Blackburn surprised me at the three election forums I've attended. I barely knew her name, let alone her command of the issues. Maledy -- whom I know mostly from the media attention she receives -- surprised me at a backyard gathering, with glimpses of the real person behind the accolades.   

I don't usually like surprises. But with this April election, I'm making two thankful exceptions. 

-- Mike Martin