Candidates for Lawrence school board defined their perceived roles in public education advocacy, budgeting, COVID-19 safety protocols, hiring, wage increases and grading the superintendent during a forum on Saturday.
Sponsored by the Lawrence Education Association teachers union, the event was moderated by Blake Swenson, a Free State High School teacher of U.S. History, U.S. Government and African American History.
Candidates participating in the forum, in alphabetical order by last name, were Kay Emerson, Kelly Jones, Nate Morsches, Andrew Nussbaum and GR Gordon-Ross. Elizabeth Stephens did not attend due to illness. The questions were provided to candidates in advance.
Swenson asked candidates to define their job as a board member in oversight and evaluation of the district superintendent and what function that oversight would play in relation to the staff and community.
Answering first, Nussbaum said he viewed the question as important and “active,” in that he hoped and expected anyone elected to the board would continue asking themselves that question daily. “In a lot of ways, first and foremost, the board member is expected to listen to the community, especially those most directly affected by core decisions — students, staff and families. As a staff member, for over a decade, the board felt a long ways away from me.” Nussbaum added that students and families felt that separation, too — so much so, he said, “they decided they needed to make sure their voices were heard in 2016 and occupied the school board building. And the school board and district leadership called the police on them. Not OK.”
Nussbaum was referring to a period in the Lawrence school district’s recent history. Five years ago, a teacher at the former South Middle School — now Billy Mills Middle School — was placed on paid administrative leave after accusations that he made racist comments in the classroom. The district entered into a settlement agreement with social studies teacher Chris Cobb that allowed him to resign in the fall yet receive compensation through the end of the school year.
“As a board member, we have a lot of responsibility for oversight, evaluation, monitoring in terms of our district leadership, and especially our superintendent. And we’ve gotta prioritize better relationships with staff … students … and with families.” Nussbaum said the board is expected to evaluate the superintendent based on application of the district’s policies, strategic plans and goals, including an equity initiative that began in 2009.
“Yet as (Superintendent) Dr. Lewis and I were sitting in his office about two months ago, we acknowledged that our outcomes are not any better than the school districts around us — or statewide or nationwide — in terms of racial disparity, in terms of disproportionality of out-of-school suspensions, in-school suspensions and police contact.”
Nussbaum said, if elected, he would play a “vital role” in advocacy, budget, staffing, employee contract negotiations, and still “stay closer and more connected with those that are directly affected” while “ensuring equity, justice and well-being are central to all that we do.”
Emerson said the school board has one staff member it is responsible for evaluating. “I think about my direct experience with program evaluation,” referring to her job as AmeriCorps Kansas director for the Kansas Volunteer Commission within the Kansas Department of Education, and her work with the Department for Children and Families as public service executive for vocational rehabilitation services in northeast Kansas.
“In my daily life, I evaluate multimillion-dollar program operations. I have evaluated direct professionals with again, multi degrees, including PhDs, when it comes to evaluations.”
She said the community — including families, teachers and staff — should collaborate to develop standards and expectations when evaluating the superintendent’s work. Emerson said a fresh look at the standards to which the superintendent should be held was due.
“At the core of this, our superintendent — he/she/they — are going to be at the core of what makes our schools successful. Evaluation is very important, and I have prior experience with that.”
Jones said when she started on the board nearly four years ago, the evaluation process was “fairly weak.” She said she collaborated with fellow board member Shannon Kimball and others on the policy committee to align the evaluation standards with the district’s strategic plan, and they made revisions to the school board manual “that would ensure a comprehensive superintendent evaluation process.” Statutorily, Jones said, the board must evaluate the superintendent annually, but it has added quarterly superintendent evaluations and a rotating committee to facilitate them.
“We built into that evaluation tool a process in which we include metrics that look at whatever community input, whatever teacher retention numbers, school environments and that’s part of that tool now. The superintendent does a self-evaluation to present his own data to show, ‘These are the things I’m making progress on, and these are the areas you’ve identified.’”
She said an anonymous survey also gets distributed to the superintendent’s direct reports. “So we’re looking at what are those multiple data points we can utilize to make sure that Dr. (Anthony) Lewis is having the kind of progress — and the support, honestly, that he needs — in that strength-based evaluation process, or a future superintendent would need. I would agree this is one of the most important things that we do,” adding board members take it “very seriously.”
The race’s other incumbent, Gordon-Ross, acknowledged the evaluation process and criteria had undergone “significant improvements” in his four years on the board. “Those items are directly tied to items in the strategic plan, which we went through and specifically worked through with community input and staff input to know what direction the school district needed to go.”
He said a full annual evaluation in February, plus quarterly check-ins, has allowed more frequent data reporting of strategic plan goals related to equity, math and reading scores, discipline, enrollment and advanced placement courses.
“We don’t wait until the end of the year anymore to get that data. We get it now twice a year … so in the middle of the year we can see where we’re at and we can make adjustments.”
Gordon-Ross said the board evaluates the superintendent, and the board answers to the community. “We set direction and policy for the district. And then it is the superintendent’s job to manage the day-to-day operations of the district. If he’s not doing that, then it’s up to us to be accountable to help (them) to do that or explore other options.”
Morsches fielded the question last. “Overseeing and evaluating the superintendent is key to ensuring the well-being of our district and it’s one of the primary jobs of the board of education. If the superintendent goes rogue, the board is there to evaluate, correct and even relieve the superintendent of duty if necessary.”
He called evaluations a “first step” and said he felt “grateful” to hear from current board members they had already made changes to the system. “It isn’t enough to say or feel like he is or is not doing a good job. There have to be measurable standards. For these we can go to his written job description. We can look at the strategic plan and determine whether he is accomplishing it or not.”
Morsches said the board must consider the needs of the district and listen to concerns from staff members and the public. “The board is responsible to support the well-being of the district, and insofar as the superintendent is obtaining good evaluations, the board should support his efforts and not impede his work, but if those evaluations are demonstrating that he is harming the district either by negligence, poor performance or poor outcomes, the board’s responsibility is to do whatever’s necessary to act on behalf of the interest of the district.”
In July, the school board renewed the contract of Lewis through the 2023-2024 school year with an annual salary of $226,530, plus 20 paid vacation days, holidays recognized by the district (not to exceed 40 days) and 12 days paid sick leave. The contract states the board may “provide Lewis with increases in salary as it may from time to time determine appropriate.” See the full contract here.
Watch the full forum at this link.
Advance voting starts Wednesday, Oct. 13. The deadline to register is Tuesday, Oct. 12. The general election takes place Tuesday, Nov. 2. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Election Day. Find more voting info at this link.
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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.
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