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Candidates for Lawrence school board sound off on staff pay, budget in forum

Eleven candidates for Lawrence school board found consensus on the importance of better pay for frontline staff, namely teachers and paraeducators, during the Douglas County Democrats forum Saturday morning.

However, the candidates gave a variety of ideas for how to get there. 

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Moderator Norine Spears asked the group to identify their top priority for the budget and what they would cut as the district’s state funding has decreased with the departure of roughly 700 students.

Mac Moore / The Lawrence Times Moderator Norine Spears speaks during a Douglas County Democrats forum for Lawrence school board candidates on Saturday, July 10, 2021 at the Lawrence Arts Center.

Andrew Nussbaum gave the first answer.

“I’m very concerned that we are top-heavy — district leadership, admin, consultants, advisers, facilitators — and that we have a shortage of classified staff, paras, other classified staff in the buildings, food service,” he said. “So I would again say that equity has to be a redistribution of resources to the frontline where young people actually are.”

Melissa Clissold said she agreed that the district is top-heavy.

“We don’t need any more administrators, until we get our budget under control, until we can pay our classified staff a livable wage and that way they don’t have to depend on public assistance and second jobs to survive,” she said. 

Kelly Jones, an incumbent school board member, said the district has a cashflow problem. Contingency funds are low, and there needs to be a balance between building them back up and paying certified and classified staff higher wages, she said. 

“So we need to engage our community — all of our staff at every level to say where is the best place for us to make those cuts,” she said, “and certainly will need to work with our Equity Council and our Parents of Color Council as well to make sure that where we make those cuts, we’re not causing too much harm to get to those wage levels.”

GR Gordon-Ross, the other incumbent running for reelection, said the Lawrence district isn’t unique in losing students this year. He said the district’s strategic plan lays out the process for staff to evaluate the budget. 

“I like to allow the district personnel and the staff who have the knowledge and the insight into personnel to make those recommendations to us, and I think that that’s a good process that we have in place that we can continue to use going forward,” he said. 

Travis Tozer said he agreed that frontline staff was his biggest priority for the budget. 

“But I also recognize that administrative pay is essential to many of the goals expressed by some of the other candidates,” he said. He added that he doesn’t intend to assume he knows something that district financial staff doesn’t know, and “I intend to add my voice to solutions and not to make assumptions.” 

Kay Emerson said she thought the district should lean in on unexplored partnerships within the city and look within.

“When it comes to our budget, why do we keep looking outside? Why do we keep hiring consultants?” she said. “You know, there’s value in that. But there’s also value in the people who live in our city. There’s value in lifting up what we have.”

Myranda Zarlengo said the budget is going t0 be a challenge, but protecting teachers and paras is “where the energy needs to be.” 

“My friends are teachers, and these are issues that they felt strongly about prior to the pandemic,” she said. “So we cannot let that get in the way of their livelihoods, so that, I will stand firm on.”

Markus Logan said he may sound like a broken record, but teachers and paras really are the frontline workers who work with students every day, and they needed to be addressed the most. 

“I just can’t imagine being in front of children that you’re trying to lead to success, you don’t feel like you have that same success in your own life,” he said. “It shows on the faces of the professionals that we put in front of our students.”

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Nate Morsches said in his experience as a co-owner of RPG, a restaurant downtown, during the pandemic, they found a way to pay workers a living wage in a financially sustainable way. 

Also,  he said the district could get more funding if it brought in more students, and he had some ideas in the works for how to do so. “I believe that there are ways to bring students back to new programs, expanding certain programs.”

Douglas Redding, who drives a bus for the district, said that in the last five or six years it seemed like every building was getting renovated, and in his job they were trying to figure out how to accommodate new buildings. 

“700 students less one year, and all of a sudden we’re out of money?” he said. “What happened? … All of a sudden it’s gone?”

Elizabeth Stephens said she believes there is a systemic issue in which organizations, including beyond the school district, become administration-heavy and there’s a big pay gap between those at the top and those providing direct service.

“We have an opportunity to become leaders in our community, in the surrounding counties, in our state to flip that narrative,” she said. “How do we flip that, so that our frontline staff are compensated in a way that makes sense?” 

In some quick-hitting yes or no questions at the end of the forum, Spears asked candidates if they support the right of transgender students to participate in sports consistent with their gender identity. Zarlengo said no; all the others said yes. 

Spears also asked, “Do you believe that students should be taught to explore history and the humanities broadly which includes an examination of race and equality?” All candidates said yes. 

A 12th candidate, Leticia Gradington, did not attend.

Find more coverage and information about the election at this link. Register to vote by Tuesday; advance voting begins Wednesday.

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Mac Moore / The Lawrence Times Andrew Nussbaum, center, speaks during the Douglas County Democrats forum for Lawrence school board candidates on July 10, 2021, at the Lawrence Arts Center.
Mac Moore / The Lawrence Times Melissa Clissold speaks during the Douglas County Democrats forum for Lawrence school board candidates on July 10, 2021, at the Lawrence Arts Center.
Mac Moore / The Lawrence Times Kelly Jones, an incumbent, speaks during the Douglas County Democrats forum for Lawrence school board candidates on July 10, 2021, at the Lawrence Arts Center.
Mac Moore / The Lawrence Times GR Gordon-Ross, right, an incumbent, speaks during the Douglas County Democrats forum for Lawrence school board candidates on July 10, 2021, at the Lawrence Arts Center.
Mac Moore / The Lawrence Times Travis Tozer, left, speaks during the Douglas County Democrats forum for Lawrence school board candidates on July 10, 2021, at the Lawrence Arts Center.
Mac Moore / The Lawrence Times Kay Emerson, right, speaks during the Douglas County Democrats forum for Lawrence school board candidates on July 10, 2021, at the Lawrence Arts Center.
Mac Moore / The Lawrence Times Myranda Zarlengo, left, speaks during the Douglas County Democrats forum for Lawrence school board candidates on July 10, 2021, at the Lawrence Arts Center.
Mac Moore / The Lawrence Times Markus Logan, right, speaks during the Douglas County Democrats forum for Lawrence school board candidates on July 10, 2021, at the Lawrence Arts Center.
Mac Moore / The Lawrence Times Nate Morsches speaks during the Douglas County Democrats forum for Lawrence school board candidates on July 10, 2021, at the Lawrence Arts Center.
Mac Moore / The Lawrence Times Douglas Redding, right, speaks during the Douglas County Democrats forum for Lawrence school board candidates on July 10, 2021, at the Lawrence Arts Center.
Mac Moore / The Lawrence Times Elizabeth Stephens speaks during the Douglas County Democrats forum for Lawrence school board candidates on July 10, 2021, at the Lawrence Arts Center.

— Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached via email at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-422-6363.

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