Dozens of community members attended Thursday’s Columbia School Board meeting, a dozen of whom addressed the board.
Most of those 12 expressed support and gratitude toward the school district and its administrators in the wake of recent criticisms, but a few spoke about their concerns.
Many of the comments related to possible issues involving the district’s special education department.
That started with Jeanna Wheeler, a special education teacher at Parkview Elementary who has worked in the district for 25 years and lives in Troy.
“The teachers are the heart of the special education department in Columbia,” Wheeler said. “We are the soldiers on the front line. We work hard and we are proud of the progress our students make each day. We hope that the board and the community will continue to know that we are dedicated to the students of Columbia and we will do our very best to make sure their needs are met.”
Tiffany Dill, a teacher in the special education department at Parkview Elementary, echoed those thoughts.
“Over the last year, the newspaper and social media has shared several public comments,” she said. “And they always state ‘it’s not the teachers. The teachers are great. It’s our special ed department.’
“I do take great offense to that because that’s me,” Dill continued as she teared up. “I am the special ed department. If you don’t have a specific problem with a teacher, please do not generalize. We’re in the trenches every day… For anyone to insinuate that I’m not doing my job, it breaks my heart.”
Other members of the public spoke in terms of the teachers in general, extolling the work they put in for Columbia’s students.
“I am sad that outsiders who are not educators in Columbia think that they know what is best for us,” said Jennie Steckler, a third grade teacher at Parkview who has been with the district for 20 years. “No one is more dedicated to your children than every teacher in this room. We have given up our time, our families to make your children succeed.”
Another common topic community members addressed was the administration.
“Over the past year, year and a half, our administration and staff have come under fire stating that we are inadequate and we do not care about struggling students,” said Janet Kniepkamp, who serves in several roles in the special education department at Parkview. “I have never heard any such hurtful and untrue statements.”
Some speakers got more specific with their comments.
Among those was Cindy Hettenhausen, a Columbia resident for seven years who has had three children in the school district and worked in special education under superintendent Gina Segobiano in a previous district.
“I am deeply disturbed when I hear that people are questioning Dr. Segobiano’s commitment to the students of Columbia District 4,” Hettenhausen said.
A final topic community members repeatedly mentioned was the effect of the criticism on the district and the importance of the April 2 election.
“I am deeply concerned by the recent accusations being made against our school district,” Kniepkamp said. “They are tearing this community apart, not to mention how the morale of the staff is being impacted by this.”
A frequent point of criticism for individuals speaking on this topic appeared to be two recent videos school board member Tammy Hines shared on her Facebook page.
In the videos, Hines talks about her goals for serving on the board and how she believes the district has erred.
“Be very, very careful about using social media for your own political gain,” said Stacey Zerban, who has two children in the school district. “It’s a slippery slope.”
Similarly, Steckler decried focusing on negativity surrounding the district.
“Certain people in this community cannot focus on anything positive,” she said, becoming louder as she talked. “They are constantly focusing on something that is a personal vendetta. I urge the citizens in this town: do not vote on population and names. You ask a teacher and you ask the people who are here every day – both sides of the story – before you vote for this board of education.”
Those running for the Columbia School Board seats in April are Scott Middelkamp, Hines, Ted Schrader, Jeremy Donald, Tyson Search, Cress Morr, Lisa Schumacher, Phillip Taylor and Greg Meyer.
There are four spots up for election.
The three people who spoke about problems with the district brought up a couple different concerns, but they all started with a similar sentiment.
“We’ve had so many amazing teachers,” Amy James, a Columbia resident for four years with at least one child in the district, said.
After praising the teachers, the three parents spoke about their concerns with the special education department.
Courtney Acevedo has three children, two of whom are in the Columbia school district.
The third child was in the district from early childhood to first grade, but the Acevedos decided to send him to school in St. Louis.
The child has autism and severe dyslexia, and he could not identify letters or numbers while he was in Columbia, Acevedo said.
“We pay tens of thousands of dollars for him to get an education outside of Columbia schools,” she said. “We want to pull him back. Eventually, that is our goal. But he needs the foundation, which unfortunately he didn’t get (in Columbia).”
Acevedo said she attempted to advocate for her child, going so far as to meet with the superintendent.
“I was told ‘keep him here for two to three more years, and if we can’t service him then we’ll help get the help he needs,’” she said. “I’m sorry, two to three more years for a child who cannot read in first grade, not even identify his letters… that is not an option.”
Acevedo said in the two years since she pulled her son out of Columbia, he has improved significantly.
Patty Rachell told a similar story.
She had two children, one at the top of the class and one near the bottom. Until high school, things were going OK, but then her child who struggled in school had some issues.
“In high school, he was told he had to flunk to get an IEP,” Rachell said.
“It is not the lower grades,” she added. “The families that have kids in lower grades, you are getting absolutely what you need. And I wish what we got at the lower levels was what we had at the higher levels.”
Rachell said she came to the meeting for one reason only.
“I’m standing up for what’s going on,” she said. “I’m standing up because I want to see that we are caring for children all the way through high school.”
James said she came to the meeting to learn more about concerns in the district, as she has seen friends leave it unsatisfied with their children’s education.
“I’m trying to validate your concerns, too,” she said. “I think there are bullies in the room. I know that personally. I’ve been told that ‘I should be careful who I make friends with’ and ‘this is not the type of image I want in this neighborhood.’ If I talk bad about somebody in the room, then they’re going to ostracize me.”
“In the high school last year, I was specifically told ‘you better watch your cars. You better watch your house,’” James added. “And it was from the side of the story that’s not being told. Why would the teachers know that? Why would you know that my house is going to get egged?”
James, who is also paying extra for one of her children to get services she said the school would not provide, concluded her speech with a call for open-mindedness.
“I think that there are questions that need to be asked… I hope that we can ask them without being defensive,” she said.
Finally, near the end of the meeting, Hines spoke to defend her actions.
“I may have brought up uncomfortable conversations and questions that need to be addressed by the board,” she said. “I am not bashing our school. I am informing the community that we have concerns that need to be addressed so we can find solutions. These concerns have been brought to me by parents and teachers.”
Hines also clarified that she is “very aware” that “teachers go above and beyond and give everything they can to all students.”
For more on the events of the school board meeting, including the renewal of eight administrator contracts, see next week’s Republic-Times.
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