Lawrence school board braces to stand against ‘efforts to dismantle public education’

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The Kansas Legislature likes to emphasize local control — right up until it doesn’t, Lawrence school board members agreed Monday.

“I feel like we have struck a balance at the state level with really emphasizing the importance of relying on our experts at the local level to do this work and to lead this work,” board President Shannon Kimball said during Monday’s meeting. 

“The kind of improvement that the Legislature wants to see and expects to see is not going to happen through them legislating away all of our decision-making authority, but that seems to be the go-to move,” she continued, “and so we have tried to push back really hard on the notion that they know better than we know how to help a student at Sunset Hill Elementary who is struggling.”

Board member Kelly Jones followed with similar sentiments.

“That’s the doctrine they’ve lived on since I’ve lived in Kansas for the last 20 years, so it’s so bizarre that we’re sitting here advocating for local control, but I guess this is where we’re at,” Jones said.

Every year, the district must outline its highest needs to communicate to state legislative partners. Board members decided this year to start the process earlier than it ever has to get ahead of what they expect to be a rocky 2023 legislative session, and because the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) convention happens a month earlier now than it used to, so the board needs to review those draft legislative priorities before the KASB delegate assembly.

“In past years we haven’t really been able to leverage the legislative priorities at the state level by, for example, partnering with other districts because the board hasn’t had this collective agreement on what those priorities ought to be,” Jones said. “… I anticipate what’s going to happen in Topeka this year will be, potentially, an assault on public education that is extensive and long.”

In introducing some suggested changes to this year’s legislative priorities, Superintendent Anthony Lewis said “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that public education is certainly under attack.” 

Lawrence Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Lewis and board President Shannon Kimball talk about legislative priorities during the school board meeting on Oct. 10, 2022. (Screenshot / USD 497 YouTube)

“In our priorities, we spell out that universal public education is the bedrock of our democracy and it is a fundamental right that does and should provide for each child the opportunity to reach that child’s potential,” he continued. “There are literally organized efforts to dismantle public education.”

Lewis shared the administration’s recommended additions for the 2023 priorities, including:

• Equity policy: The district would like to add a direct reference to its equity policy to note “Current and past federal, state, and local failures to act urgently in the pursuit of educational equity contribute to reduced access to academic opportunities, and to disparities in graduation outcomes and disciplinary actions for students from historically marginalized communities.”

• Non-academic tests and risk assessments: The district would like to address House Bill 2567, the latest school funding bill that went into effect in May and says districts should contact parents before tending to students who may be experiencing suicidal ideations.

He also shared the district’s structure of its 2022 legislative priorities to give context. Those current priorities can be read in full at this link on the district’s website, some of which include:

• Firearm safety: The district seeks support of “Red Flag laws and firearm safety proposals such as closing the background check loophole. Schools cannot carry the burden of student safety on their own; community policies must address the presence of and access to deadly weapons within the community.”

Jones said she would like to see even more emphasis on sensible gun laws, particularly following a shooting in March at Olathe East High School.

• Transportation to and from school: “Urges the legislature to study state transportation aid to include students living less than 2.5 miles from their assigned school.”

• Retention and recruitment of employees: The district urges the Legislature to support “school districts in exploring new and innovative ways to recruit and address staff shortages including the expansion of the Grow Your Own programs across the state” and “increase and fund pathways for individuals employed in school districts,” as well as support “a long-term, sustained commitment to state funding for KPERS, including changes to make KPERS a more attractive retirement program to support recruitment and retention of highly qualified teachers, administrators, and support staff.”

• Eliminating Native American mascots: The district urges the Legislature to “review and eliminate the use of Native American mascots, imagery, and names by educational institutions and sports teams, unless used by a tribal school or educational institution.”

• Tobacco 21: The district asks for support of “Anti-vaping initiatives and raising the age for purchase and possession of tobacco and nicotine products to 21 (Tobacco 21 proposals).”

The board on Monday also looked at a draft of the KASB’s state resolutions, which included some recommended changes and additions to previous years. The KASB committee, which Kimball serves on, met Saturday and discussed its plan.

• Special education: “If special education is not fully funded by the legislature, school districts must shift funds away from the general student population to pay for mandated special education services,” Kimball said.

• House Bill 2567: KASB would like the Legislature to make the bill “less proscriptive so we have more flexibility,” Kimball said.

• Revenue neutral rate hearing: KASB is asking the Legislature to amend laws on revenue neutral rate hearings because “it is causing confusion and forcing districts to spend money out of their general funds to mail notices to taxpayers,” Kimball said.

The board will look to approve the district’s 2023 legislative priorities during its next meeting at 6 p.m. Oct. 24 at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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