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COLUMBIA BOARD OF EDUCATION: Blake Willoughby

Blake Willoughby is seeking his second three-year term on the board of education.

His first term saw Willoughby thrust into the middle of the debates of how schools should handle the coronavirus pandemic. Willoughby told ABC 17 News that hindsight shows him some of the board's decisions should have been different but that the board did a good job navigating the unknown.

Should Columbia Public Schools bring back masks if we get hit with another coronavirus case surge?

I think that's a really great question and something that we're continuing to really talk about. And from an administrative (viewpoint), I know they're watching it. And when it comes to masking, you know, we have the new CDC guidelines that have come out to give us new ways of thinking about it and looking at it, it's really going to depend on the context.

So we see a new variant, or we see rising cases that's really causing a detriment to our sustainability of in-person education, that's something that's going to be a key factor. We're seeing that we don't have the subs to fill in because we have teachers that are having to be absent because they're sick. And we're not able to provide the education that we're supposed to, or for having kids that are getting sick, and they're not coming to school, well, then, obviously, they're not getting the education they're needing, because of the fact that we just have this uptick or we have this variant.

And if we don't have masking, potentially, this might be a tool to help mitigate any detriment it has that sustainability. I do think the other thing that it's will always look at is continuing to talk to our local health professionals and the researchers that are doing a lot of work around COVID, as well as the wastewater shed to see where case numbers are at.

I do think one thing I've been talking with constituents about as well as talking to staff within the district, is that we now have two years of COVID that we've had to deal with it. And we see that there's kind of this natural kind of rise and fall starting in like late October all the way to like mid-February, to where cases begin to rise, and it has various spikes in between and then it falls down. And so potentially this might be that period that could be similar to what we look at for being cold or flu season like it becomes what we know is like COVID season and it at least for this third year going into it, depending on where you know, CDC guidance, is that what we're getting told by our local and state health professionals, we might need to have a conversation with our community about could we preemptively look at masking as being a tool as we go into November and December in January as a way to sustain education and keeping it in person and not having to have many disruptions.

But obviously, you know, like I said, it's all going to be contextual. And you know ... we're in March. So we have a few months, there might be some more new research that comes out that really gives us better guidance on what we need to be doing to ensure that the sustainability of in-person can occur.

How do you think the Columbia Board of Education handled navigating the previous pandemic surges?

You know, I got asked this question two days ago, and it's hard to answer at times, because I'm a little biased, right? I was serving during this time and making responses. What I will say is one thing I think we did really well was we were reassessing every month we were meeting and that was difficult -- wasn't an easy thing to do. Because then it wasn't easy for the community because it kept us on edge on "OK, what's the next response going to be? Are we going to be making a shift?"

Why I think that was so good was that it, at least for our community, they knew we weren't just making a decision and just sticking with that decision. We were constantly re-evaluating and looking at it. I know, for me, it meant burning the candle at both ends. And sometimes in the middle of the night, staying up until 2, 3 a.m. constantly digging into research papers that were in pre-publication, that were still needing to be peer-reviewed. But not just about COVID, looking at old publications in the early 2000s, that were around how masking was used when there were flu outbreaks in schools, and how that was a way to help mitigate the spread. And so really just making sure that how I was making decisions, and when I ... made a vote that I knew I was as well informed as I could be. And that I felt confident in the reasons why I was doing the work that I was doing.

I think looking back over the last two years, there's a lot of things that I could say that like, yeah, we could have done that a little bit better. One of those being in October of 2020. It was like mid-October, when we made a decision -- you know what? Let's try and bring back elementary and fully in person. And you know, I think we could have potentially made that call sooner. But that's also looking back at that, right. Like in the moment it felt like that was we were doing the right thing by waiting until we were a little bit lower in case numbers and then going, but ... I look at that now as ... late October is when that kind of started spiking up. That's what we saw in October 2020. And that's what really made elementary only be two weeks of in-person, full in-person because late October hit and then we had to switch back because of that.

And so it's all kind of I think at this point for those that are on the board after April 5 ... they have a lot of good data to make some really good decisions comparatively. And they're not having to be reactive. They can be more proactive in that response. And so I'm hopeful that our community and the board will ... have good dialogue on how we prepare for what this coming academic year will look like during the winter season in response to COVID. And instead of it being that, alright, we're making this decision, boom, it's, we all know that this is potentially going to be the decision that's made, depending on what the context ends up looking like.

Do you support the $80 million bond issue on the April ballot?

Yeah, I do. And part of why I support the bond is that we're having a lot of growth here in Columbia, that growth has not stopped, it just keeps on happening, which is great. It means people are coming here for a variety of reasons. And they're staying there wanting to raise their families. And so that means that we're, as a whole, we as a community are in an urban, inviting place, and people are wanting to stay.

At the same time, that means their kids are growing up here and their kids are going to school here. And so to address any overcrowding that we're having in our buildings means that we need to build more buildings. And a lot of that happens more at the K-5 level. And really, the bond is looking at a four-year time period for this two issuances, the first issuance being 40 million, and then in 2020, for another issuance of another 40 million. And all of that is to help build an elementary school on the John Warner site. (When the district purchased John Warner Middle School), we also purchased a little bit more land than what we needed for the middle school for that purpose of potentially building another elementary school.

And then building a second elementary school. Whether that's a remodelling of one, or it's a brand new one being built is more of a question mark. But that's really in response to "what does this growth look like?" The other piece of it is the Career Center. I'm really excited for what that means. The Career Center hasn't been updated, the physical structure of it, (since) 50 or 70 years ago. And so it's been some time and our programming has kept up to speed with everything we have, our students are doing really great work. The building just doesn't look like we'd see those type of courses with technology and cybersecurity and all these things that are going on in there that are so cool and up to date. But how do we get our community to see that? And so we've been working with our new architecture firm that we hired back in the fall, DLR Group. I went and visited a Career Center near Kansas City. And it's amazing, it's very, it's an open space, it gives a lot of space for the community to come in, see what students are doing ... without disturbing what's going on, right? Being able to see how students are working in the shops, have what are they doing on their computers that are creating this great work.

And then the other thing that we've been having is they've been having some stakeholder conversations, just preemptively understanding that like, the bond hasn't been approved. But if it does get approved, what are some things that people would like to see in a new career center, or a remodeling of the career center, really, and one of those things being what we kind of thought was some storefront kind of way of looking at it so that our students in the culinary classes could sell their stellar food, those that are growing plants and things can sell those flowers. And then those that are in our, like the marketing classes, they can create that marketing material and post on social media have it outside on those storefront buildings. And then members of our community can come and engage and see. And this being more of just not just a Career Center for students to be a part of, but really becoming this kind of communal space where a community can come to. I look at it is like almost like a smaller farmers market, right, like having a farmers market that the farmers market that was built on the west side of town, and just that being a communal space where so many community members go to and that the career center could become a second communal location space where folks can come to, and it being really deeply student-centered and giving our students and seeing how folks really are wanting ... the products that they create, they're wanting to. And I mean, it's a really exciting venture that the bond would allow us to do.

I do want to address some concerns are out with folks that are not supportive of bond. A lot of the things that are being said as around how FTE and positions have been allocated across the district and bond money can't be utilized for that. And I think a lot of those that are critiquing us know that, but I think for some that might not know it's good to point that out. And ... due to the bonding with not being able to utilize for that and go into the operating fund, how it's funded is through our tax local tax levy and through the state funding that we receive, and the district does an extensive kind of way of how we allocate new positions. Each building submits a proposal for what they're needing and everything like that. And then the district looks at where all these proposals are at what our financial situation and where do we see the most need and all of our buildings.

Yes, there are needs in that no way am I saying that those needs to not exist. It's more of we are a district with many buildings that have a lot of needs, some with massively different needs, and others that have some of the needs that we normally would think in a school building. And so it's just, it's really difficult to kind of talk about both because the tax levy is how we address that issue where bond money can't be done in that way. But it is a no-tax increase bond, so we're not going to see any increases there as a community. And what it will do is it really will allow us to address our continued growth and also offer this opportunity for students within career and technical education, which is really important.

Do you support a collective bargaining agreement that will increase starting teacher pay to at least $40k per year?

I'm really supportive of it.

This has been a long time coming for the district. The last three years, I've approved increases to our salary rates, and part of it has been trying to get to the school of the base being $40,000. And what we do really great as a district is that we're not just increasing the base, every time we increase salaries, we're increasing everyone's salary at that same rate. And so everyone still gets their step increase, while at the same time seeing if anytime we get an increase to the base, there's that increase to their pay as well.

The other thing that we do is we're not just increasing our salaried employees either. Every time we've done a pay increase over the last three years, we've also been increasing our hourly rate for positions. And it all varies depending on what the certifications are, or the different levels of expertise that are held in those specific hourly positions. But I mean, all of that has been done. And so we've been working really hard to ensure that we're not just giving new money or raises just to one group of folks. So it is being given to the majority of our staff, because it's not just our teachers who do wonderful work for their kids. But to make our mission possible, and to make education as successful as it is in Columbia Public Schools, that takes everybody else. That takes our bus drivers or nutrition services staff, that takes our janitorial staff, it takes our security, and everybody to make that possible. And so that's why it's so important that we're showing that value in the sense that this isn't just our salary, or hourly. So I'm very excited for it.

I also think what's great about this contract this go around, if it does get approved, is that it's a two-year contract. And so it does offer a little bit more stability for the district. And for teachers to know that this is what this contract will be. And it gives us as a district a little bit more continuity of not every year having to think, okay, is this contract going to be by largely different than what we've had in the past? And so it does give us a little, I think, some stronger space. And it does allow us to have, I think, more meaningful conversations with the union over a two-year period to prepare for when we have a more, larger bargaining session around the contract, because it gives us that ability to if there was an idea that we were like, you know, it's a great idea, but you can't implement it right now, we need to first kind of prepare for what that might look like ... that could take two years. And that would it gives us that space to really try that.

Is teaching about history, race and LGBTQ issues being done appropriately in CPS classrooms?

I think our teachers are the professional educators that our kids are needing to really talk about this and have these larger conversations.

I think it's really hard. I was talking yesterday at the Boone County retired teachers' monthly meeting and I shared, when we're talking about history, an awful example right now as with what's happening over in Europe, with the Ukraine-Russian conflict, right? There are facts about what's going on over there. And there's two large, larger perspectives that are happening and talking about those facts, you have those that are more pro-Russian, you have those that are really pro-Ukrainian. And so when we look at history, not as it's unfolding in this moment, but we look at history in the past, right? There are facts, and those are more objective, but then the various perspectives on those facts are going to be subjective and different. And so it's really important for kids to know that and to hear these varying narratives of the same events, because it allows them to understand not only is the human experience isn't monolithic. And it allows them to see that there when you're talking with people, when you're working with people, when you're engaging with folks in your community, you're all going to be having these varied lived experiences that are going to at times have a larger experience that we all had.

With COVID, we've all experienced COVID. But all of our experiences vary ... And I think we all understand that as human beings and as individuals. But when we're talking about history, it's so important to also show our kids that because they're young and so sometimes that's not always in the brain like, "Oh, that is like that cognitive learning of there being a variety of differences." And especially when we have these heavier topics, right, topics that don't make the history of our nation or the history of our state look always the best. And it's important to have that. ... Why I think it's important is I grew up in Alabama. So a majority of our field trips or social study field trips, we went to the Edmund Pettus Bridge we went to, we went to Tuskegee University multiple times, because it was only like 45 minutes away. And we talked about the Tuskegee Airmen, we talked about the Tuskegee Project, all of these things ... the goods and bads, right? We also went to Atlanta, and visit the MLK Jr. Museum and went over to the church over there that he preached. I mean, like these sites that mean so much and have scars. And also good history, right

It's these things that, especially with current legislation here in our state, I fear with the kind of definition of divisive or controversial material, it's like, would my field trips as a kid, would that be seen as controversial topics, right? We're talking about Bloody Sunday, Edmund Pettus Bridge being controversial. When I talk about these field trips, I'm not meaning we're junior high or anything we're talking fourth, fifth and sixth grade, like these were those grade ranges that I was visiting these locations, and we were learning about this. And you know, here in Missouri, we don't have as many of those type of sites like we had in Alabama. And so it is more of how do we talk about it? How do we get this information to our kids?

So I do think that we're doing a good job, I do have some concerns with where the state conversation in the national conversation is at, just because I feel like it's saying that we're going to be eliminating these experiences that might seem controversial, and not have our kids learn about it, which does a variety of things. But two of them being that, it says this is a this is a piece of our history or information that we're going to keep away from you. And I don't think that any governmental entity should be the one saying we're going to keep this away from you. While at the same time, we're saying that anyone who has an affiliated identity or some type of historical connection to that experience that we are saying, we're not going to allow you to have access to, we're then saying that narrative doesn't matter. And that's not okay. Because then we're saying that these pieces of who you are as an individual don't matter. And I don't think that's what anyone should be wanting to do, nor should hear in CPS, that is not the ethos of our district in any way. And so I do think that we're doing a good job. And I know, I added more into answering your question than what's there. But I do think that's, you know, I think that's a part of the question, right? Because this larger conversation, I think folks in our community would like to know where folks' ideas land on where those current bills are at.

How accessible do you think the school board is to the public?

Folks will talk about transparency and communication and talking with constituents, I always ask them okay define for me, what do you mean by like, transparency, and communication? And a lot of times what gets said is ... telling us that, like, why you made a decision that you made. And I said, Okay, our conversations as a board are recorded, they're published, they're up there, it's recorded live the majority of the time, and we're not required to do that, right. Like recording of board meetings is not a state statute. It is something that CPS does to be transparent. And they go, Well, we want more. And so I'll ask, okay, well, do you want that communication of almost like Supreme Court decisions? Like ... the dissenting opinion and like the prevailing opinion, and like one board member writing it. ... Okay, well, I have not pinpointed it when talking with folks, what exactly they're wanting to see beyond what we do.

Because anytime that I bring up something, and obviously this isn't for everybody, but this is very general brush of when these conversations happen, anything that I add on, that isn't what they were thinking, just like the one example I just shared, they go well, no, I don't mean it that way. And so it's just really hard to pinpoint. And I think that it makes sense that these words of transparency and communication are very broad. And ... how that all operates is very different in a district this size. And so I think when it comes to the board itself and how we've been operating for the last two, like three years since I've been on it, we've made some changes in the way that we try to communicate. It used to be that just the board vice president did the responding for the board and communications. When we receive an email the board vice president would be the one that would say thank you for sending this email to us. We appreciate it. We'll direct your question to the superintendent. Or if it was more of like, why the board did this, like what policy is designed, like aligns if it's something that can be very answered from a board perspective, like we give that answer.

We've recently, you know, recognizing, especially after the 2020-2021, academic year, it was a huge burden, as to Susan Blackburn at the time was an onboarding where she was the VP at that time. And so really, we changed our way of doing communication where every month rotating the board member that's doing the responding for the board. So this way, everyone is getting contact with a different board member at different times, as well as that we're not burning each like this, just one person out on trying to make sure that this communication is happening in that way. When it comes to transparency, I know they're there, their concerns around what things we talked about before. But a lot of times, that's not happening at all ... if there is a conversation that happened before, it is more of from a legal standpoint, because our lawyers were giving us like what legal ramifications would be, which is all allowed under the state, right.

And so all the conversations happen there, we now we have board members who aren't super vocal, and that's okay, there's nothing wrong with them, like only adding in in a conversation on a short basis. We're all different individuals. And we all have a different variety of ways how we process and exchange information with each other during in those meetings, and how it's conveyed to the public. And so I feel that we've been doing a good job, I think we give access to our board meetings in a multitude of ways that are not done in any other districts, we have one of the most expansive ways of communicating with the board and a variety of mediums. And so I do think we do a good job overall, when it comes to a systems approach of giving access and transparency.

I do think that there are parents who are frustrated at times because they're wanting a very specific answer, or they're wanting an answer that isn't the answer they got. And I think there are times where we -- and like I am faulty of this too -- I was in a meeting with someone and I said that you're not giving me an answer that question. And they said, "No, I have, just not the answer you want." And I'm leaving that meeting going, "Okay, you're right. Like you gave me an answer. I just don't like the way that you justified your answer. And I was saying that wasn't an answer."

And so I do think that there needs to be a little bit understanding of the fact that at times, we are answering, it's just it's not the answer you're wanting. We're not as quickly as accepting of because we're human beings and we're all fallible in that regard. Short answer, yes, I think we're doing well job. I think there are ways that we can do things better. But that long answer, I think, just hope hopefully gives context to our community kind of with these questions of transparency and communication, and what can be done to adjust this. And we are looking at ways of making sure that emails are getting to correct staff members and everything. Dr. Yearwood is in his first year. He comes from a district that had a system that they purchased that helped, like funnel kind of these things out. But he really wanted to assess how we were doing it first for a year before really trying to introduce something new and really wanting to see what is it that we need to do to kind of address this concern that's within our community. So it's not something that the board and the administration is pushing away. It is something that we are trying to actively go, "Okay, we hear what these concerns are, how can we address?"

Are there any other issues you see as important to CPS?

We're in a situation, too, where we've had a lot of change over the last two years, we've had to pivot and shift due to COVID. We brought in a new superintendent, almost half of our central office administrative team that's in the cabinet are either new in their positions or interims in their positions. We have new building leaders. And so all of this change around that leadership space, during this time that's been very shaky, has opened up a lot of opportunities, but at the same time, makes us a little bit vulnerable as a district, right? We are in a position to where we're needing to address major issues, these things around academics, around having a healthy work environment so that we can attract and retain staff, and that folks are happy here in the district.

And so in addition to all of that, we also have a very young board. And what I mean by that as a school board is right before I joined in April 2019, there was about ... 48 years of collective board service. So a lot of continuity and history and institutional knowledge of the district was on that board. Now we are a board of 23 years of collective board service with 11 of those held by President (Helen) Wade. And so the rest of it, all of us are in our first term. And so if I am reelected, it means I will be the second senior-most member of the court, with only three years under my belt. And so I hope folks can see kind of what that means, right? Like, we have a lot of massive opportunity here with new voices and new perspectives. While at the same time, if we don't have that continuity of leadership, that institutional and historical knowledge being present, we might be spinning our wheels when trying to address these major issues in ways that we already had. ... And so we're not really quickly moving forward in the way that we need to.

And so that's why I think is really important around what I'm trying to offer to the community with my reelection is the fact that I want to return because we have some major needs, we have some major opportunities to hang on to and grab and really grow this district in a good direction. And I want to help us get there. We have a lot of new perspectives on the board, this community is going to be able to, you know, if you vote for me, get a second vote as well to bring in a new person to the team to have this conversation. And so there's still going to be another new perspective there to work with. And to help train them and get them to know how to operate as a board member really in the position so that they can even be a stronger asset to the team as we are moving forward as a district, while at the same time really wanting to provide that guidance of like, here's what we were we were at and what we were doing to those that are on the board now.

... And this is what we're trying to do, you know, we're going to be creating a new five-year plan as mandated by the state for every school district. And so that's going to be hugely important because that's going to give us a mission, a vision and a mission for the next five years. And knowing that historical knowledge is going to be imperative that we're not just repeating something, or we're not making it ... a vision or a mission that it's like, "oh, we can easily attain that, done in the first year, don't have to worry about it" ... because that doesn't push us to grow. And I think that's really important for the community to know. And just in that regard of like, why I'm running what are those kinds of major concerns that I've seen in there that have pushed me to do this reelection here? Because it has been a really difficult three years. I ran before COVID was a thing. It was eight months into the first year when we had to begin responding to it. So it's not that it's been an easy first term in any capacity.

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Matthew Sanders

Matthew Sanders is the digital content director at ABC 17 News.

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