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Candidates for the Ozark School Board weigh in on open enrollment and teacher retention, hiring

Ozark High School in Ozark, MO
Ozark Schools
Ozark High School in Ozark, MO

Voters in the Ozark Public School District will choose their school board members on April 2.

IWC_Ozark School Board_UPDATED.mp4

The Informed Voter Coalition interviewed candidates for Ozark School Board, including James Griffin and Patty Quessenberry. Dustin Kirkman was invited but declined to participate, and Jason Shaffer did not respond to the invitation.

You can hear the interviews recorded at KSMU by clicking on the "listen" button above or watch a video of the interviews recorded by Nathan Papes of the Springfield News-Leader.

James Griffin

Introduce yourself and tell us why you decided to run for this office.

"My name is James Griffin. I am a husband of 23 years, father of three amazing boys who all went to Ozark schools, two of whom are in the military and one is still in Ozark Middle School. I am a follower of Jesus Christ, a 21-year Navy commander, retired. I was a helicopter pilot, did tours around the, around the world, including the Pentagon, Afghanistan, the Middle East. And I was the commander of the Navy Reserve Center here in Springfield. I am a business owner, a volunteer wherever I go, including my church. I was the president of the board of directors for a local nonprofit called Light the Way Ministries, as well as a volunteer for the Ozark Community Center OC soccer club. So I want to extend that — years, all my years of service here in Ozark by — with the leadership that I've learned in support of the Ozark School Board."


How have previous board service leadership roles or other experience prepared you to serve as a school board member?

"During my 21 years in the Navy and business and as a president of a...non-profit, I've had tremendous amount of leadership opportunities. I've been an advisor to admirals, to secretaries of the Navy at the Pentagon. I've managed millions of dollars of budgets, $2 billion in budget at the Pentagon, for energy initiatives that directly support our war fighters. So in all those cases, each one of those have given me the opportunity to learn leadership, to grow, and especially here in the — as the commander of the Navy Reserve Center, the opportunity to oversee hundreds of personnel who are deployed around the world and take their insights, take the — take those insights that they have, provide them to myself and make it make it a better place, better organization for them. Also, as far as here locally, as the president of the board of directors for Light the Way Ministries, I was able to step in, help the ministry grow. We originally, they had one event per year, and now we had three the prior year. So we exponentially grew that. And we're looking to grow that, grow that further, so financial management at that level, financial management across the board in each one of those cases, really just give me the opportunity to take those pieces, which — I believe financial management is one of the key attributes to success as a school board member, especially when you're looking at the fact that we have about $100 million budget in the school system. That's where I can really make a difference. Thank you."


Legislators in the Missouri House and Senate have filed bills in favor of school choice, also known as open enrollment. Can you explain what you think this means for your district? Would you support it? Why or why not?

"So, with regards to open enrollment, when I let me take — let me just share how I first came to Ozark. When I was the commander of the Navy Reserve Center, I first learned about coming to Springfield, and I had no idea about the area. I called up my predecessor who was also a commander and trusted friend. He told me to come to Ozark, and so I immediately looked up the Ozark area and found the only house available at the time and rented that place. And he said, 'you know, come to Ozark because of the schools.' I — we came here, our oldest kids were in junior high and Ozark Upper School, and we loved the area, love the school system. After I went back to DC to retire from the Navy, I, we retired, came back here to Ozark, and the only place we wanted to come was really Ozark. We could have gone anywhere. But one of the main reasons was because the school system is is excellent. And so with regards to open enrollment, you know, we know that people want to come to Ozark. So there's a shortage of housing there, which means that people want to come there because it's a great school system, because it's a great community. And one of the key things that we look at is — with regards to open enrollment, one of the, one of the legislative pieces is taxes. People are concerned about how it's going to impact our taxes. Well, as far as the legislation goes, it's — there's, the majority of the taxes are local. Those taxes do not shift. The taxes shift as far as the state taxes go. So if someone from outside the district wants to come in, those — the state taxes would shift with them. If someone in Ozark wants to leave, those state taxes would shift. So if you have some children that — some students that leave and come and go, ultimately the tax structure will stay the same and be minimal. So as far as that goes, I think we need to make sure that those taxes are there for them. And that would be the biggest case."


How would you work to attract and maintain quality teachers and support professionals in the Ozark district?

"So when we look at teachers, our teachers are our number one employee workforce across the district. And they're our number one asset in the district. So we need to treat them as such. We need to treat them not only as a — not as a commodity but as an asset that is integral to the success of our school board and and school system. So we can't teach kids without teachers, without quality teachers. And that's what makes the school system great, is the great teachers. In order to retain them, there's a number of things we could talk about for quite a while, but this is something that I did as a commander of the Navy Reserve Center. You know, I looked at how to retain people. You know, one is pay. Obviously, we need a fair and competitive pay structure across the board for teachers. That way they don't leave because of a pay issue, so that's one thing. But what I found is, as a child who grew up with parents in the school system, they were both educators, they were paid fairly, but they didn't stay in the school system — they didn't retire from the school system — because of the pay. They retired because they loved the impact that they would make for kids, for students and generations to come. So my father made that huge impact. And so what they loved about it was the fact that their impact made the difference, that they, that they were respected. And that's what we need to do in Ozark is, is make a system where we can take inputs from teachers, respect them and value them and, you know, give them not only a fair pay system, but awards, equity and value. So we want to take inputs from them. We can't as a school board members, as administration, we can't, we do not know what the teachers think until they let us know. They're the best ones on the ground to be able to let us know how to make fair changes. And that's what I think we need to do, is be taking those inputs to better our school system."


What do you view as the greatest challenges facing the Ozark School District? Which of these would be your priority objective, and how would you meet those challenges?

"In the Ozark school system, like I said, we came here because we love the area. We love the school system. Obviously there's a number of issues that can be at play, but as far as I'm concerned, my core focus is to keep Ozark at the same level or better that we've had for the number of years. So my values are to keep family values at the core of Ozark, which is a tenet across Missouri in general. So with that as a baseline, we want Ozark, the policies that we form in the Ozark School Board, to be centered on Ozark first. What I mean by that is, we don't want policies outside the area at the federal and state level to come in and tell us what we should be teaching or what we should be doing as Ozark. We want financial responsibility to also be a core tenet. The budget for Ozark ranges from between $75 and $100 million a year. It's quite a large budget, and it's the largest employer in Ozark. So with that amount of money, we need to make sure that taxpayer funding and taxpayer expenditures are properly being utilized. And so when we step in there we want to make sure those issues are all taken care of and avoid issues that are being derived by the state and federal mandates."

Patty Quessenberry

Would you please introduce yourself and tell us why you've decided to run for this position?

"My name is Patty Quessenberry, and I am from Ozark. I have served on the Ozark School Board for 27 years, and my reason then is the same as it is today. I love children, and I believe in good education for all kids, and I filed again because I want to continue helping lead the district and making the right decisions that we have a great education for all and in a safe environment. But my heart is in it. I have the passion to advocate for kids and education."


How have previous board service, leadership roles or other experience prepared you to serve as a school board member?

"Well, my 27 years speaks for itself. I feel like that I have grown up in Ozark as a school board member, and I've seen a lot of things happen, helped to bring great programs, and we've passed several bonds in that 27 years successfully. We've built two elementaries, added onto buildings. We built a new high school, but all of these things are so exciting. One of the most exciting things was when we bought the old Fasco building, and now it is our Ozark Innovation Center. That's amazing because it used to be that we felt like all kids need to get an education to go to college. My belief is all kids need an education to succeed, whether they go to college or trade school. But the OIC is offering students certificates so they can go right to work, whether it's in the medical field or maybe it's woodworking, construction, whatever. And I love that because I feel like we're really educating all kids to succeed in what, in some way or the other."


Legislators in the Missouri House and Senate have filed bills in favor of school choice, also known as open enrollment. Can you explain what you think this means for your district? Would you support it? Why or why not?

"Okay. Open enrollment — I understand that a parent may want to have their child in a better school district, but I have to say this: right now Ozark's growth is amazingly growing and still growing, and our buildings are full. So it's like, it's not that I would want to turn away a student, but we have to look at what — how we are filled up now in all of our buildings. I do believe that if this happens, that I believe the money should follow that student to our district. I don't believe that our taxpayers in Ozark should pay for a student that's, say, from Springfield comes to our schools to be educated. I believe it needs to be fair that the money follows them if that happens. But like I said earlier, I believe all kids need an education whether they're Ozark, Willard, Republic, whatever, if we have the capacity to accept them in."


How would you work to attract and maintain quality teachers and support professionals in the Ozark School District?

"That is something that is my passion. And several years ago, the board told our superintendent then that we wanted to hire the best teachers and retain those good teachers. And one thing we've always done, we've been able to keep our salaries up, give them raises. But last year we decided to bring up that base pay. Base pay is now $41,000 for a teacher starting out. The other thing that we have done is, several years ago, I think I asked about how many of our teachers have masters, how many are continuing their education. At that time, it was probably 25, 27% of our staff. They started up a program that's a master's degree that our administrators instruct. It's through the Evangel College so that they do get their master's degree. And we asked the teachers why they didn't. And their thing was, they didn't have the time or the money to do it. We do it for free. And they have the classes right there in our district office building where there's room. And right now we're sitting on probably 72% of our staff has their master's degree. So I think there's things that you can be creative with in retaining those good teachers. But I also believe that they need to be praised and awarded when they do great things. You know, don't just expect that they do those things, but, you know, recognize when they achieve something as a teacher or that their class does. And that's one thing I love to do is walk through the buildings and get to watch the teachers in action with the students and show that we appreciate them. The other thing is safety. I believe our teachers need to have a safe environment to teach, along with our students having a safe environment, so that's one thing that I really want to look at going forward."


What do you view as the greatest challenges facing the Ozark School District? Which of these would be your priority objective and how would you meet that challenge?

"I believe that the greatest is — I believe there's certain groups trying to destroy public education. To me, public education is a pillar of our democracy. Public education has been around for how many years? And I believe — one thing about public education we don't turn any child away. In fact, if we have a transfer in, they — teachers or principals are told, 'you get them in the classroom, we'll worry about the paperwork later.' And even with our special ed — we have a lot more special ed, special needs kids in our district. They have heard how well Ozark treats them and how they work with them, but I believe that's one thing is standing strong as a school board, as a school staff, with our community, with our parents, for public education, to know that we're not going anywhere."