NAACP forum asks Lawrence school board candidates to offer solutions on district inequities

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Candidates for Lawrence school board answered questions about the district’s biggest obstacles during a forum hosted by the Lawrence branch of the NAACP on Thursday. Ten participants offered up solutions for solving those challenges and shared how they would prioritize issues and communicate with the public. Ursula Minor, Lawrence NAACP chapter president, moderated the virtual event.

Candidates participating in the forum, in alphabetical order by last name, were Melissa Clissold, Kay Emerson, GR Gordon-Ross, Kelly Jones, Nate Morsches, Andrew Nussbaum, Douglas Redding, Elizabeth Stephens, Travis Tozer and Myranda Zarlengo. Leticia Gradington and Markus Logan did not attend.

How candidates would address current and historic inequities in the Lawrence Public Schools elicited a range of responses from participants.

Tozer told the forum he would brief.

“This question is a terrific example of how I don’t intend to bullshit my way through this job. I’m a white man from west Lawrence, and I know that I have a lot more listening to do before I start talking about this question. So I will cede the rest of my time to the remainder of the speakers and start taking notes.” 

Earlier in the evening, Tozer told the forum he was “very passionate about public education.” “I’m ready to do this work. I’m very prepared to do this work. My priorities if I am elected are going to be open-mindedness, fairness, equity, communication, cooperation, well informed decision-making. I want to see this district not just succeed but to excel.”

Emerson said she was a “huge believer that knowledge is power.” She said Lawrence is filled with educated people that are doing amazing work in “their silos.”

“But in order to address our historic inequities, we must improve our practices and share that information freely and readily and be proactive in finding ways to connect our resources to address the needs that exist in our classrooms,” she said.

She said it’s more important to not just bring in diverse people for conversations but to build unity. “My goal … is to create those access points for the community to find solutions by accessing what already exists in our great city through building out our partnerships that we have not yet explored.”

In order to address historic inequities, Morsches said, it’s important to accurately teach history.  

He said when teaching events that have been steeped in racism, schools should not “sugarcoat” what’s being taught. “What happened, happened, and we have to tell the truth about these things so that we as a society do not make those same mistakes again.”

In addressing current inequities, Morsches said continuing to stay informed with research about achievement gaps and disadvantaged groups — especially those affected by trauma — should continue. He said restorative practices and “sticking to the district’s strategic plan” are important to addressing achievement gaps and reaching equity goals.

“As a biracial Filipino American I look forward to being something of an example to those who don’t fit into either of their cultural heritage groups.”

Gordon-Ross also cited the district’s strategic plan to address inequities.

“The strategic plan that we developed has laid a great foundation for us to use in addressing the inequities within the school system,” he said.

Gordon-Ross pulled points from the plan and noted their significance, including the directive to “use instructional resources that honor and preserve students’ diverse cultural backgrounds.”  He said the plan has built-in measurement tools and methods for collecting staff feedback.

He said outside the strategic plan, he would continue to focus on class sizes through his work on the district’s boundary committee, and low numbers of students of color enrolled in Advanced Placement classes and college courses, and “the continued gap in our graduation rates by ethnicity or race.”

Clissold said addressing inequities “boils down to where we’re focusing our resources.” She said district Title I money is only distributed to elementary schools, but it’s “desperately needed” in middle schools as well.

“The thought process is we intercept the underprivileged students early, but that’s not really working, because what about the kids who didn’t go to elementary in our (district)? Why are they less than?”

Clissold said additional funding could be used to hire more teachers and reduce classroom sizes. “We all know that classroom sizes produce successful outcomes and more improved outcomes, especially for minority students. It’s critical.”

She said the district should be making “data-informed decisions” and talking with educators and students for input.

Redding told the forum that historic and current inequities in the district are likely “rooted in real estate.”

Citing West and Southwest middle schools, Redding said economic inequities are created when newer areas of town build new schools.  “They get the newer tech, they get the newer facilities, but all that changes over time. I do think that Lawrence schools are on the right track. I think they’ve been doing a lot better with the Avid (college readiness) program and the College and Career Center.”

Redding said talking with parents matters more, though, than geographic location and real estate. Smaller classes — even as small as six or seven students per teacher — would be ideal but at a higher financial cost.

Jones said board members “need to get out of the way of the experts in the district who do this work.” She said her work with other board members helped create the district’s equity policy.

“I’m proud of that policy. I believe in it. And I believe that if we remain, if the board practices it with fidelity we’ll see the kinds of outcomes we want to see for students,” she said.

The policy, Jones said, calls for “clear accountability measures and metrics” beyond standardized test scores. “We need to look for resources and allocate our resources appropriately to students for whom they would most benefit.”

Jones noted the need for culturally relevant content in the classroom and to hire and sustain faculty of color. “How are we creating an environment that is welcoming and encouraging for them to stay and how do we elevate them to positions where they can really shine and be present for our students?”

Stephens said a “good, hard look at historical inequities” was required to address current inequities. She said “doing that work requires sitting in some discomfort.” “Then we can take a closer look at how we approach the current inequities that our students are facing.”

She said recruiting and retaining teachers and support staff of color “are incredibly important.”

“Kids do wonderfully when they see people who look like themselves who are in positions of authority,” she said.

Stephens added that compensating teachers, providing a supportive environment and meeting “core needs” was also necessary for the district.

Zarlengo told the forum that her “lens” in the district’s inequities is based on her and her child’s experience in the district.

“What I would like to see as a sole-providing single mother and how I’ve experienced the school is that there are many gaps for me and for my child, I feel,” she said. “That is our lens, and that is our experience, but I definitely have a concern for other families in the district and other inequities that I don’t know because I see it at my level.”

She said she would start by asking questions and “then get some real action in place.” “This is my concern. What is the action plan, and if there’s not one then we need to create one.”

Nussbaum was the last candidate to field the question. He responded by repeating the question, which he said was really about addressing “injustice.”

“We need to acknowledge and name and celebrate and affirm that Black lives must matter at school, and in school and in our community,” he said. The school system is “complicit and perpetuates harm” to students and families.

“We’ve got to stop saying … achievement gaps, when it’s really structural racism, when it’s really sexism, when it’s really classism, when it’s really ableism.”

Nussbaum said the district’s strategic plan “is not enough.” Until the district centers marginalized students and classified staff’s “wisdom,” all the “talk” isn’t meaningful. “We must re-imagine safety by working towards police-free schools, living wages for all staff, redistribution of resources from district leadership and administration to certified teachers and especially classified staff.” 

A recording of the event can be found on the Lawrence NAACP Facebook page.

The deadline to register to vote is Tuesday, July 13. Advance voting by mail and in person begins Wednesday, July 14.

Find the Times’ coverage of the Lawrence school board election on this page.

More coverage:

Tricia Masenthin/The Lawrence Times

Newcomers Kay Emerson, Andrew Nussbaum and incumbent Kelly Jones win Lawrence school board seats

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With her two sons in tow Tuesday night, Kay Emerson talked with fellow candidates and campaign workers at the Douglas County clerk’s office, discussing next steps. One thing’s for certain: She’ll wear white — a symbol of women’s suffrage — when she’s sworn in.

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