Lawrence school board candidates offer ideas for lagging teacher and staff compensation

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Teacher and staff wages took the stage Tuesday as candidates vying for spots on the Lawrence school board squared off at a forum sponsored by district employee unions.

Moderating the event were Lindsay Buck, president of the Lawrence Education Association teacher’s union, and Tatyana Younger, interim vice chair of Personnel Association of Lawrence – Communications Workers of America, which represents the district’s hourly employees such as paraprofessionals, custodians, secretaries, electricians, and maintenance and food service workers.

The candidates were asked to weigh in on how they would address pay raises and advocate for staff and teachers, who face a pay freeze after completing a difficult school year. Younger told the forum nearly half of PAL-CWA’s members do not earn a living wage in Douglas County.

Incumbent school board member GR Gordon-Ross said he supports pay raises. 

Salaries comprise about 86% the district budget. He said he was committed to the process, which might even be incremental. “In order for us to do that, we have to work collaboratively with both unions to figure out what that number’s going to be to make those raises. How long is that going to take? Is it going to take a year? Is it going to take two years? Whatever it’s going to take, that’s what we have to do.”

As a representative of the board on the contract negotiations team, Gordon-Ross said he’s committed to do that work equitably with “finite resources.” He said the negotiation process has traditionally saved wages and compensation for later stages of negotiations, but this fall the committee will flip that and begin with talks about pay.

The other incumbent in the race, Kelly Jones, said when she started on the board, union-negotiated raises were historically applied equally to administration and classified staff. She said the board started looking at awarding raises differently, giving classified staff a slightly larger percentage to get hourly workers closer, for example, to an $11 per hour wage. “Nobody’s comfortable with $11 per hour, but it’s those types of … incremental decisions that get us closer to $15 per hour.”

Now, however, Jones said, the district’s contingency funds are almost gone and the district can no longer “nickel and dime our way there.” She said the district needs to be “very strategic” about how it awards raises, works with the unions and needs to “back into what that increase should be.”

Travis Tozer said he couldn’t speak to the question with the “level of detail and specificity” he would like “from the outside as a parent.” He said he knows candidates are committed to staff and teacher raises, but “there just isn’t as much money as there should be.”

Calm, steady, good-faith communicators, he said, are needed for both sides of the issue.

“Really all we can hope for is that best of what we’ve got. At the end of that we’re all here for the students, and I think that partnership between the sides is what’s best for them.”

Kay Emerson said the district needed a “long-term plan” for increased pay and compensation. “It’s not enough that we focus on short-term gains, but we focus on keeping our mindset to what will happen in five, 10 years from now.”

Emerson said she believed the district could multitask and prioritize. She said during negotiations the district needed to focus on building a school system “envisioned” by the community. Emerson emphasized partnerships with the community — such as the Lawrence Public Library, providers of mental health and childcare services, and local nonprofits — where resources “are unified” with the district’s.

“There’s a multitude of ways that we could focus on this,” while prioritizing staff and teachers, Emerson said.

For Nate Morsches, the question gave him an opportunity to share his experience as co-owner of a downtown restaurant when many carryout-orders weren’t generating adequate tips during the onset of the pandemic. He said he saw an employee post on social media they had made a yogurt “last two meals.” Morsches said he then moved forward with a plan to pay employees a $15 minimum wage.

“This is an example of how strongly I feel about living wages,” Morsches said. He said he would like to participate in contract negotiations as a board member. And as an entrepreneur, he said he’d “advocate by finding more money.”

“I have a handful of ideas,” Morsches said, adding he was already talking through some with current board members.

Elizabeth Stephens acknowledged the difficulties teachers have faced during the last year and thanked them. She said she supported living wage increases.

“If you’re going to find more money, you also need fiscal responsibility,” she said, adding conversations about additional funding should include looking at the issues differently. New funding from the state and federal government, asking what other school districts are doing, and interim relief funds for teachers and support staff were mentioned by Stephens. 

“I’ve heard stories of teachers going and teaching in Eudora. What are they doing? … How can we apply some of those things here?”

Markus Logan said “these valued employees deserve” not to worry about working a second job to pay bills or feed their families. “At some point those in power making decisions need to focus on facilitating a living wage.”

Logan said the cost of living fluctuates year to year, and the pay needs to “match that fact.” “It has to be frustrating to put in a long eight or nine hours watching these bright-eyed kids looking at you knowing that you might eat ramen noodles when you go home or have to go to another second job.”

Andrew Nussbaum vented his frustration. “I heard terms like ‘nickel and dime, incremental decisions.’ That does not commit. That is not congruent with the mission and vision of LEA and PAL-CWA, but that is the priority for district leadership. At what point are we finally going to have some school board members that every single time, consistently and confidently and critically say ‘I am pro-union,’ over and over again?”

Nussbaum said power, resources, access and decision-making should be redistributed equitably to those who work with students over consultants and new six-figure jobs.

Melissa Clissold said she “was steaming.” She urged voters to watch PAL-CWA negotiation talks online to “see the truth.” 

She mocked the idea that the district has a cash-flow problem. “I agree. Our cash flows into the wrong pockets instead of going directly into our classrooms where it belongs.”

Clissold said the pandemic didn’t cause the district’s problems, but it did expose them.

“They were here before. The pandemic was just able to shine a light on where we fell short.” 

Douglas Redding said even $15 an hour “isn’t enough.” As a parent of two students in the district, he said describing their teachers during the pandemic as “heroic” didn’t do them justice. 

He said he didn’t know how the district could get enough money for adequate pay, but a different approach was needed, mentioning the ongoing pandemic and its uncertainty with new variants.

“What we have to do now is change how we work so that we’re prepared when this happens again.” 

Myranda Zarlengo said the district was in “a crisis” after the district’s loss of more than 600 students last school year. She said families, students and teachers all struggled in the pandemic and will continue to struggle because of the budget deficit.

Zarlengo said she looked at open positions in Lawrence and other districts and compared wages. “We need to be attractive to hire the right people … budget issue or not, this is what it’s going to take to make sure our kids are taken care of.”

“We need to critically look at which positions we must have and which positions are nice to have. Same thing with programs in the district.”

Candidate Leticia Gradington did not attend the forum, which was held at Free State High School. Find more coverage and information about the election at this link. Advance voting for the Aug. 3 primary begins Wednesday, July 14.

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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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