Article updated at 10:46, 11:47 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28:
Several Lawrence school board members expressed anger during their meeting Monday after Kansas Commissioner of Education Randy Watson retained his job despite video showing him making racist comments about Native Americans during a virtual professional conference in mid-February.
Board members Carole Cadue-Blackwood, Paula Smith and Kelly Jones directly confronted State Board of Education representative Ann Mah, who provided a legislative update to the board during the meeting.
Watson attempted to resign late last week after his comments prompted backlash and calls for his resignation, including from Gov. Laura Kelly, but KSBE rejected his resignation, opting instead to suspend Watson for a month without pay. Board of Education chairman Jim Porter said Friday that Watson’s comments should not be “career ending,” and Mah repeated that sentiment on Monday.
Data from KSDE shows 250 of the district’s 11,000 K-12 students in 2020-2021 identified as American Indian or Alaska Native. Cadue-Blackwood and Smith, both Native Americans, were elected to the Lawrence school board in 2019.
In her comments at the beginning of the meeting, Cadue-Blackwood said she is still waiting to hear an apology from Watson. She also referenced an open letter she wrote to The Times outlining her thoughts on Watson’s comments, which she said she also sent to Kansas State Department of Education members, though she has not received a response.
“Restorative justice — it’s not something that’s just in a vacuum. We have two Native American elected officials right here. We’re highly educated women. … I’m just speaking out of anger. I’m frustrated. I’m hurt. I’m saddened,” she said. “Systemic racism costs the United States $16 trillion a year for missed opportunities. I’m just so angry.”
Following a legislative update to the board, Mah said she was asked to address Watson’s comments, and she explained the board’s process when considering disciplinary action. The board looks at the history of work, a pattern of behavior, and whether the person has shown remorse and made amends, she said.
“We have never had a complaint about Dr. Watson about anything, the seven years he has served. Also, as soon as Dr. Watson realized what he had done, he immediately started making contacts and apologizing to people across the state,” she said.
Because of that, and because the board believed that “firing Dr. Watson would solve little as he needed to be here to rebuild those bridges,” the board unanimously agreed that “one mistake was not going to end his career,” Mah said.
Smith told Mah she had received an apology from Watson but couldn’t accept it because of the hurt his statements caused to students in the district and fellow Native Americans, including tribal leaders.
Beyond an apology, she said she urged Watson to create an action plan for self-learning and to have discussions about racial equity for students. She asked him to commit to the removal of Native American mascots and to hire a cultural competency consultant to “address the passive-aggressive behavior” of KSDE toward Native people, people of color, women and those identifying as LGBTQ.
She called out KSDE staff, as well, for participating in the “chop” – a tradition of the Kansas City football team – which the Not in Our Honor Coalition has advocated to end.
Jones then expressed her frustration that the unanimous vote to reject Watson’s resignation went against Gov. Kelly’s request.
Mah responded, “I just have to reiterate what Chairman Porter said: The governor had no business weighing in.”
“You had no business voting the way you did,” Jones quickly replied.
Superintendent Anthony Lewis took a moment to honor Native Americans in Lawrence Public Schools — including Smith and Cadue-Blackwood — during his report at the beginning of the meeting, and then addressed Watson’s comments directly. He began his statement by saying that he was “saddened” and that the remarks “perpetuated a harmful racial stereotype about Native Americans.”
However, Lewis said that Watson called him last week, and that phone call led Lewis to believe that Watson “understands the pain he has caused.”
“I believe that his apology and his commitment to learn and to do better is sincere,” Lewis said. “One of the things that makes Lawrence Public Schools special is its diversity of students. … And all of us benefit from a different perspective than our own.”
Lewis further said that everyone benefits from listening and being in spaces with others from different backgrounds and cultures. He also said that Lawrence is fortunate to have Haskell’s Indian Nations University in the community and to be able to learn with the University about Indigenous peoples across the country.
“With that, I want to say, to all of our Native Indigenous peoples here in Lawrence: We see you, we honor you, and we will continue to lift you up.”
A study from the Kansas Association of School Boards shows that of Kansas’ 18 largest districts by enrollment, Lawrence — with a K-12 enrollment of 11,150 and 20 central office administrators — has the third highest ratio, at 557.5 students per administrator. The lowest ratio is Andover’s, which has 1,470.7 students per its six central office administrators, and the average is 838.4.
However, the district is closer to the average (333.3) in its ratio of students to building administrators, with 337.9 students per building administrator. The highest was Shawnee Mission, with 576.6, and the lowest was Topeka, with 198.4.
The study did not include any salary information.
The Lawrence school district also has an above-average number of central office administrators classified as “other,” the study showed.
Here’s a sortable table of central office administrator position counts in the 18 districts:
The positions included in the “other” category are as follows:
The full report is available to download at this link.
Elementary English Language Arts
The board also decided on a new Elementary Core English Language Arts resource. The district’s current program was discontinued in July 2021. A group made up mostly of teachers that came together evaluated a list of 14 programs, and narrowed the list down.
Benchmark Advance 2.5, the program the district staff recommended, was the group’s second choice, which caused hesitation among some board members.
“This really matters to me,” Jones said, “… because I’m really uncomfortable voting for the second choice and trying to understand budgetarily what that second choice means … for our students learning to read.”
Kimball echoed that sentiment.
“Like Kelly, I’m pretty uncomfortable with going with our teachers second choice in this instance, particularly given the amount of emphasis that the State Department is putting on structure literacy and the amount of emphasis and scrutiny that we are under from both the State Department and, frankly, the legislature around reading achievement mastery by third grade, and improving scores for our at-risk students.”
Lewis analogized the choice as the difference between a Cadillac and a Ford — the Cadillac has nice features, but both vehicles will get the district to its desired destination.
“I think this is a part of the overall big picture of some of those conversations around acknowledging that there will be some loss as it relates to some of these budget decisions. This is one of them. While I would love to go with the first choice of our teachers, … when we look at our budget, we just can’t,” he said.
Board President Erica Hill agreed with Lewis, noting that budget conversations will lead to more difficult decisions in the near future.
“If we’re asking the district to bring (budget) recommendations, it’s not always going to be the top-tier Cadillac, if you will, because that’s not where we are right now. So even though these funds won’t affect that, we will have decisions in the coming weeks that will,” Hill said. “Yes, we’d love the Cadillac, but we can work with the Ford.”
A six-year contract for the program costs $882,900, to be paid from the Student Materials Revolving Fund elementary curriculum and instruction budget — in other words, the expense does not come out of the general fund and is not a part of the budget reduction conversations.
Chief Academic Officer Patrick Kelly said he wished the decision could wait, but if the board asked for a different recommendation, the materials would likely not be available for the next academic year.
Ultimately, Jones, Smith, and Kimball voted “no,” but the motion passed 4-3.
Kimball said she does not “reject a recommendation from our staff in this area lightly,” but explained that she voted against the program due to the emphasis that KSDE and the Legislature have put on third grade reading achievement.
“I felt compelled to cast my vote because I wanted to emphasize how I feel that we should be prioritizing this particular curriculum decision probably above all others in terms of the resources that we’re choosing to do this work because it is so foundational to everything else that we’re doing,” Kimball said.
In other business:
• The board meeting began with the special recognition of several student and staff members, including Sunset Hill Elementary counselor Amanda Atkins, who won the 2022 Kansas Counselor of the Year award; Free State High School thespians who earned Superior ratings at recent competitions; Barb Tholen, Lawrence High School journalism adviser who was recently honored as a master teacher; and some of Tholen’s students, like Kansas’ student journalist of the year, Cuyler Dunn.
• Lewis said the community’s Safe Routes to School work group will be reviewing requests for school crossing guards this spring. Community members have previously expressed their frustrations and anxieties about safe routes not having crosswalks or crossing guards in some spots. The deadline to submit a request for a crossing guard in a certain location is Friday, March 4, and the request form can be found here.
• Lewis addressed masks during his report to the board. The countywide mask mandate is set to expire on Wednesday unless the Douglas County Commission votes to extend it again.
“Our executive leadership team will review these local and national public health updates and communicate with our staff and school families if changes are made to our district COVID-19 measures,” he said.
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Emma Bascom (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from December 2021 through May 2022. Read more of her work for the Times here.
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