(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) The president of the St. Joseph School District Board of Education is stepping down, citing a job opportunity in Kansas City.
The district announced that Seth Wright submitted his letter of resignation Thursday morning. He said he will be moving to the Kansas City area for a professional opportunity with his law firm.
"It doesn't mean I'm not sad about it," Wright said. "I've grown up in this community. I've lived here my entire life except for college and law school. It's a great community. There have been a lot of tears in the Wright household as we've been telling people we're going to move."
Wright was first elected to the board in 2018. He will be leaving before his presidency ended in 2021.
While proud of what the board accomplished during his tenure, Wright also expressed how disappointing it is to leave the job undone.
"When I ran for the board there were two things I wanted to do," Wright said. "First, stabilize our operations and second was to address our facilities. I think we accomplished the first."
In April 2019, voters in St. Joseph approved a tax levy increase benefiting the school district. Similar measures had been talked about, proposed, and voted down under prior SJSD boards.
"When I came onto the board we had a three or four million dollar deficit and now we're operating this year at about a six million dollar surplus," he said.
However, shortly after that district win, a series of initiatives failed to get the same kind of community support.
"To me the status of our facilities is unacceptable," Wright said. "They are aging, they are inefficient, they are inadequate and that has got to be addressed. I'm disappointed I'm leaving that incomplete."
Last fall, the district paused plans to reorganize, renovate and potentially build new schools after it was met with widespread resistance from the community. School officials proposed five plans aimed at tackling problems in St. Joseph high schools including declining enrollment districtwide, opportunity imbalances, and uneven class sizes between schools.
"In my opinion, the question is not what happens if we build new schools, the question should be what happens if we don't," Wright said. "I think we're looking at a crossroads with aging facilities and declining enrollment. I think that's going to come to a head now especially with a decrease in funding most likely coming from the state and government level due to COVID and the pandemic."
Unable to get enough support from the community to fix St. Joseph high schools, the school board then attempted to end "open enrollment" in the district. If school boundaries were enforced, the board reasoned, schools would have more balanced enrollment alleviating some of the overcrowding at Central High School and the underutilization of other facilities.
But the public backlash of the proposals forced the Board of Education to reverse course and extend open enrollment for an additional year. Wright expressed disappointment in the board's decision back in February and again Thursday.
"You see these other communities investing in themselves and as we continue to stay the status quo, they're getting better," he said. "Status quo is falling behind and we got to change that narrative. We need to take responsibility for that as a school district, as a school board and come up with a plan that addresses the concerns and needs of the entire community and come up with a plan that moves the school district forward looking forward to 2030, 2040."
The unwillingness of people and policies to change in St. Joseph, Wright hinted, is one of the reasons he is leaving.
"It's also true that people are leaving this community for opportunities elsewhere and I guess I'm the poster child for that as well," he said. "I hope at some point the community will wake up and say how many more people need to leave? How many more professionals do we need to lose? How many more teachers and staff do we need to lose that are going and looking for opportunities in other places? We need to reinvest in ourselves."
Wright's resignation will be presented to the Board of Education at its next meeting on Monday. The board approved Tami Pasley to serve as its new president. Wright said he believes the board and its new president, will lead the community in the right direction.
"It's bittersweet but this is a great community with great people," he said. "This community can succeed. I think it will succeed."
Below is a statement provided by the district, Wright wrote:
“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the students, teachers, staff, and community as a member of the Board of Education. It has also been my privilege to serve with a great group of board members and a strong administrative team. I wish you all the best and nothing but success in the future. I appreciate your time, commitment, and devotion to the SJSD.”