(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) Eight candidates are vying for three seats on the St. Joseph school board Tuesday.
Each of the seats, which will be decided during Buchanan County’s April 6 general municipal election, carries a three-year term.
One of the first tasks for the newly-elected school board will be navigating the aftermath of voters rejecting or accepting the $107 million dollar school bond issue also up for a vote on April 6. Another area that will garner early attention from the board is the continued struggle of protecting in-person learning and the people who go to school every day.
The two candidates running for re-election are Lute Atieh and Larry Koch. The third current board member running, Richard Gehring, was appointed following the resignation of former board president Sam Wright.
The other five of the eight candidates, in order of ballot appearance, are David Foster, Colby Oyerly, David Jordan, Latonya Williams, and Kenneth Reeder.
The top-three vote-getters will be named to the board along with current board members Tami Pasley, Bryan Green, Lori Witham, and Rick Gilmore. Here is a look at all six of the nonpartisan candidates (listed in the order they appear on the ballot) running for school board seats in the upcoming election:
Education: Associate’s in Graphic Design, Vatterott; Central High School
Notable: Volunteer with MidCity Excellence, Board Member of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and served on the St. Joseph School District Facilities Planning Committee.
David Foster is a local community volunteer, realtor, and businessman. He believes the school board could benefit from his passion for at-risk students and fresh ideas.
“Staff diversity, aggressive recruiting, workforce, and trade school career guidance, enhancing early childhood development for higher graduation rates, it’s all about the kids at the end of the day, and these are ideas that will help them,” Foster said. “These are issues that I don’t hear a lot of other candidates talking about which is why I’m running.”
His previous experience as part of the District’s Facilities Planning Committee helped provide a firm foundation for the upcoming school bond issue and established working relationships with current school board members. He said ultimately that experience is why he is in favor of the district’s plan to become a two-high school system.
“When I was on the facilities planning committee, my first objective was to try to shoot it down,” Foster said. “Do I think the plan is perfect? No, but I don’t think there is a perfect plan and for everyone who wants three high schools, what concerns me is that I haven't heard a long-term solution to sustain three high schools. I've still yet to hear that. I've heard some short-term solutions but nothing long-term.”
Foster views his demonstrated community involvement with youth, previous volunteer experience, trade school background, and personal history as an at-risk youth growing up in St. Joseph, as assets that inspire his ideas and ground them in a unique perspective.
“I think the board members are good people but my passion is for at-risk students. I was one of those guys. You know? I didn’t breeze through school. Every day was a struggle. I dealt with a lot of struggles in high school,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I would run.”
Foster has been endorsed by the two largest educator unions in the area, St. Joseph NEA and St. Joseph MSTA, as well as EM-PAC.
Education: Attended Missouri Western State University.
Notable: Served as a city councilmember, St. Joseph Aviation Board member, U.S. Army Reserve, and worked as an executive at Heartland Health.
Koch has served on the school board since 2017 when he was appointed to serve out the remainder of former member Chris Danford’s term after he resigned. Koch then took the seat outright in 2018 for a three-year term.
As one of only two incumbents running for a seat in the upcoming election, the longtime public servant with decades of experience on various governmental boards said his background puts him in a position of understanding how the school board works and the importance of following through on promises to voters.
“When we asked for a levy increase in 2019, we said it was going to go to three things; teachers’ salaries, building maintenance, and security,” he said. “Those promises have been kept.”
Koch has lived in St. Joseph for 70 years and has two sons and one grandson who graduated from Lafayette, one grandson who is a senior at Lafayette, and a daughter-in-law who works as the LHS nurse. He said because of his deep family ties to area schools, he understands why many residents are opposed to the school bond issue but he will be voting “yes” on April 6 for it. He said the current three high school system is not equitable or fiscally responsible.
“We do not have equal opportunities for half of our high school students. Half of our students do not have all of the academic opportunities as the other half have, merely because of the size of the school,” Koch said. “We are taking money away from academics to fund operating these underutilized buildings. It’s really wasting the taxpayers’ money.”
If re-elected, he would be only one of three board members who has previously taken part in the district’s pandemic response plan, future district building school plans, and believes that experience will be invaluable in hitting the ground running on next steps after the election.
Education: Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice, Missouri Western. Central High School.
Notable: Previously worked at a screen-printing business, bank officer, social worker, financial planner, and substitute teacher in the school district.
Gehring was appointed to the board in 2020 after former school board president Sam Wright stepped down. Gehring currently works as a consolidated insurance agent.
He is a lifelong St. Joseph resident and has a child who attends Benton and another child who attends Hosea. Gehring said his knowledge of what it’s like as a former student and current parent in the St. Joseph school district informs the way he makes decisions including the school bond issue.
“I have two kids at Benton and it’s not a secret that the kids at Benton and Lafayette sometimes don’t have the class offerings, that the kids at Central get,” Gehring said about the distribution of educational opportunities between schools.
Gehring said he understands why parents of Benton and Lafayette students may be frustrated by the plan to change the three high school systems but his decision to vote for the bond issue comes down to what makes sense going forward.
“My kids are going to be some that would be going to the Central Campus if this passes. Just to let people know that this isn’t something that was done by politics,” he said. “The harsh reality is that there is not the same number of kids in our district that there were, you know, 10, 15 years ago and we are just at a point now where it makes no financial sense to try to operate three high schools when they are all going to be underutilized.
As a current board member, he said his experience and knowledge about the issues facing the school district gives him a leg up on other candidates who would have a big learning curve if elected. Gehring said his message to voters is that if elected, he will continue to be transparent with his views and how he arrives at decisions.
“I myself just try to be as open as I can with my intentions of why I want to be on the board and what I want to accomplish,” he said.
Education: Attended Missouri Western State University; Hillyard Technical Center Computer-Aided Drafting and Design. Lafayette High School.
Notable: Experience working and running area restaurants and speaker at high school special education classes.
Oyerly has lived in the St. Joseph area all of his life and has two children in the district. He said as a parent of students in the district he sees gaps in the district’s support and academic services.
“Early childhood development and special education, you know, that hits home for me. My son is in the special education program,” he said. “The other most pressing issue facing the district is I think the mental health of our students with everything that they have gone through over the last year.”
Oyerly said if the school bond issue passes, he believes the mental health issues will be exacerbated.
“Adding more students to a building can cause more problems especially when we are suffering with these mental health issues and people, children being left behind and stuff like that,” he said.
Oyerly said he is for the district raising money for schools with a bond issue just not this issue. He said he is voting no on April 6, because he doesn’t believe closing schools is the answer to the district’s problems.
“I think there are other options that we can have to utilize buildings better like 6th-grade centers or even putting sixth grade back into elementary,” he said.
As a self-described “blue-collar” worker, he would use his seat on the board to fight the closing of schools. If elected, Oyerly said he will also focus on increasing vocational programs in the district.
“I went to Hillyard’s. I think we need to focus on technical programs,” he said. “They have the opportunity to go but they don’t think that college is for them and you know I don’t blame them so giving them the skills that they need.”
Education: Master’s in Business Administration, Bachelor's in Information Systems, Associate's in Business Administration and Networking.
Atieh is one of two incumbent board members running for re-election after first being elected to the board for a three-year term beginning in 2018. His experience serving as vice president of the board, he believes, is an attribute that will serve him well as the district continues to grapple with declining enrollment and increasing expenses.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a proper investment in our district. We passed a levy when I got on the board for a little under $10 million for the five-year sunset and the majority of that went to teacher pay and some important security upgrades and that was just catching up. We are still not quite caught up.”
He said three years on the board informed his decision to support the school bond issue and helped him realize the effect of continuing to kick the can down the road.
“Change is necessary and we have to do it. We’ve tried other ways. The district has tried to raise money to keep the current infrastructure in 2017 that massive bond failed and that bond was designed to keep our current infrastructure and keep it up to date,” he said. “This board is now left with the fallout of that.”
He said restructuring the schools is an essential hurdle the district must overcome to stop bleeding money on facility maintenance.
“We need to reorganize our district to free up money and put it where it counts, put it in the classroom, put it with the teachers, and put it with the people that deal with these issues. We need more counselors, we need more social workers, we need more behavioral interventionists and we need training for those people because you can’t teach kids something if they are not ready to learn because they have more pressing issues to deal with and that’s into the classroom,” Atieh said.
If re-elected, he believes his experience navigating the ups and downs of voters' decisions in past elections will serve as an asset following April 6. He said if elected, voters can expect him to make decisions that are in the best interest of the St. Joseph School District’s future and continued transparency from the board.
“The moment we learn anything it’s released and that is causing in some cases causing some negative feedback of, ‘they don’t even have the plan together.’ ‘Well, because we only found out a week ago that American Family was willing to sell and so we announce and we’ll put the plan together as we go.’ That’s what I would call painfully transparent,” Atieh said.
Education: Master’s in Secondary Education, Administration and Curriculum Design, William Woods; Bachelor’s in Business Administration & Marketing, Missouri Western State University; Education Certification, Northwest University.
Notable: Taught business marketing and economics at Central High School in the St. Joseph School District for 19 years, served 9 years as a Curriculum Coordinator for the district, and worked as a Missouri Western adjunct professor.
Jordan, a St. Joseph native, taught high schoolers in the district for 19 years before retiring in 2017. He also taught adult education classes and worked at Missouri Western as an adjunct professor. Now, he hopes to be a voice for teachers and use his background in business and accounting to help fortify the district’s financial position.
“Our enrollment has decreased and declined over the last few years to where we have far more buildings than what we actually need and what that causes is with lower enrollment, that means we have lower income but our expenses haven’t changed so anyone in business knows that when the expenses remain the same and income goes down it’s not a good situation,” Jordan said about why he was voting in favor of the upcoming school bond issue.
As a former Central high school teacher and curriculum coordinator, Jordan said restructuring the high school system is essential to ensure all students, no matter where they go to school, have the same opportunities and offerings.
“I do know that the courses we were able to offer at Central were about double what we could offer at Benton and Lafayette and that was just merely because of numbers and statistics,” Jordan said.
In running for a seat on the school board, the former teacher views his many years of experience as unique insight into the classroom issues to the board as it works to prepare students for the future. He said in addition to expanding the district’s offerings in vocational training and work skills, Jordan has two other passion projects he hopes to work on with the board.
“Expand our at-risk programs; that ties right into that vocational area and finally, it's a very hard subject to address, and that’s addressing the generational poverty that we have in our community and how that ties into the school district as well,” he said.
Jordan has received endorsements from the St. Joseph NEA and EM-PAC.
Education: Master’s in Business Administration; Bachelor’s in English, Journalism, & Public Relations, Missouri Western. Central High School
Notable: Serves as the executive director of the Bartlett Center, owns a local photography business, and previously worked as Edison’s family involvement Coordinator and a Spring Garden paraprofessional.
Williams has lived in St. Joseph since she was a child, and has one daughter who graduated from Central and is now in college, and two daughters in the district. Williams said if elected, she would bring a unique perspective to the board that is not currently represented.
“I know that I’m going to give thousands of people a chance and an opportunity and a voice that they’ve never ever had before,” she said. “Unless you are a mom having your kids on your own, you won’t understand that particular perspective those are the reasons that I want to run on the board, and plus, I just think at times things need a little bit of shaking up and I know I can do that.”
Williams said she represents black people, women, small business owners, youth advocates, moms, and individuals with learning disabilities.
“As a child, I was in LD classes because of my stutter. I was lucky enough in that I had teachers able to have a look at me and my potential and then a year later I was in gifted programs at school and so I’m just afraid that our kids are not going to be adequately prepared to be able to achieve the greatness that I know they have,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of kids broken by our choices as adults.”
Williams said she is also from midtown and believes if elected she could provide a voice to the board about a part of town that is often overlooked. She said because the upcoming bond issue will affect her neighborhood, children, and Bartlett Center youth who she works with on a daily basis, she does not feel comfortable voting yes or no.
“It’s life-changing. These are our kids’ lives. I don’t like how the choice was made to do A or B and nobody looked at C,” Williams said about the Board’s decision and the Facilities Planning Committee Recommendations. “There’s a lot of little steps, I think, that was much needed and they were overlooked but on the other hand, our kids need equal educational opportunities.”
If elected, she looks forward to using her skillset to improve the communication, outreach, and transparency of the board.
Williams was endorsed by the Northwest Missouri Central Labor Council and EM-PAC.
Education: Bachelor’s in Criminology, Missouri Western State University.
Notable: Involved in Missouri River development and recovery project groups, substitute taught in the St. Joseph School District, and is active in local politics.
Reeder is a self-employed lobbyist for a variety of local issues. He said he is a proud St. Joseph native.
“I’m from the most blighted zip code in Northwest Missouri. It’s the 5-0-5 zipcode, West 22nd is the 505 gang signal. If you ever get lost up there” Reeder said as he signaled with his hands. “But I’m okay with that. Everybody that I talked to seems to get plenty of good educations.”
Reeder said he was critical of the current and past St. Joseph School District leaders for not being more proud of the city. He said the continued comparisons between SJSD and other Missouri school districts are not fair.
“We’ve been here for 140 or 150 years. Lee’s Summit, Blue Springs, all these other, Parkville, that they compare us with, oh my gosh, they didn’t really become school districts until 40 or 50 years ago,” Reeder said.
He also questions the motives behind school officials' decisions, taking particular issues with what is causing the continued decline in the city’s population. He said it's not the old schools that are scaring people away.
“It’s a total lie because of the poverty discrimination that our school district has perpetuated on this town for years. They don’t come here because there’s 70 percent free and reduced lunch and they’ve got an option that’s 25-minutes down the road,” Reeder said.
Reeder is a firm opponent of the school bond issue and believes the school district could have avoided these issues if it had enforced school boundaries. If elected, and the bond issue passes, he vows to continue the fight against it and said he will even find a way to lock up the issue in court.
“If we are lucky enough to get me on the board, I’ll be that one vote against it, and that gives us a lot better opportunity, the voters, the taxpayers, the students, the future of our town, we are in a litigating position,” he said.