Lawrence school board candidates address staff retention during forum

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The candidates for Lawrence school board have a lot of differences, but there was one thing they could agree on Saturday: none of them support charter schools or any form of privatization of public schools.

Eleven of the candidates running for school board got to introduce themselves to the public during a forum hosted by the Douglas County Democrats Saturday morning at the Lawrence Arts Center.

The Lawrence school board governs the district and makes tough decisions about budgets, programs and more. There are seven positions on the board, five of which are up for election. Board members are not paid for their service.

This year’s school board election is a little different from most: Nine candidates are running for four seats to serve four-year terms. Three candidates are actively running for one seat that will serve a two-year term, and a fourth candidate is no longer campaigning for the seat. There will be a primary election on Aug. 1 to eliminate two names from the ballot for the two-year seat, and five school board members will be elected in the Nov. 7 general election.

The roughly two-hour panel gave candidates a chance to introduce themselves and share their thoughts on charter schools as well as improving staff retention and stabilizing the workforce.

Mac Moore/Lawrence Times E.J. Gonzales (left) speaks during the forum.

E. J. Gonzales said he’s running for a four-year term because he has four kids in the school district, two of whom have special needs, so that’s a very important topic for him. He said he wanted to show his son that there are ways that his voice can be heard, even if it’s through his father.

“I want to see a change and I want to see our district grow in the most positive way possible,” Gonzales said.

Regarding stabilizing the workforce, Gonzales said administrators get raises and salaries that allow them to afford nice vacations, houses and steak dinners, but teachers don’t get that, “and that is a shame.”

“Especially since we’re continuously ask our teachers to do more. Class sizes are increasing. We ask them to stay late to do more,” Gonzales said.

Mac Moore/Lawrence Times Ariel Miner (center) speaks during the forum.

Ariel Miner is running for a two-year term. She said she’s worried about racism in schools, fair wages, mental health, special education, marginalized students getting lost in the shuffle, LGBTQ students and staff, turnover among teachers and principals and more.

“I truly believe that if we work together, we can transform our district and make the changes that are desperately needed for our children,” she said.

Miner said she thinks the district should hold regular town halls so teachers and staff members can tell the board what they need in order to thrive in their jobs. She said the district also needs thorough exit interviews.

But “we have to do the work to prevent the departures, and that means creating a culture where the staff feels comfortable speaking to the board, and the board welcomes the input,” Miner said.

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Mac Moore/Lawrence Times Jody Meyer (center) speaks during the forum.

Jody Meyer is running for a four-year term. She said there are a lot of people leaving the district, and the number of good, quality teachers who are leaving was the straw that broke the camel’s back for her.

“The fact of the matter is it’s not finances. That’s not the sole reason people are leaving,” Meyer said — there are other reasons, such as discipline problems, bullying and issues with administration. She said people don’t want to be micromanaged in their classrooms or have an administrator telling them what they can and can’t do.

She also said there was an administrator at the secondary level who was abusive to staff, and complaints were ignored for years. She said that she hates to suggest another administrative position, but she thinks the district might need an ombudsman to serve as a neutral third party selected by the school board who can help deal with complaints and problems without the fear of retribution that staff members might feel.

“This is all consistent, and this is impacting the quality of life,” Meyer said.

Mac Moore/Lawrence Times Anne Costello (center) speaks during the forum.

Anne Costello, who has also applied for two school board vacancies that have come up in the past couple of years, is running for a four-year term. She said her experience working on building site councils, the superintendent’s advisory board and as a member of the Futures Planning Committee has only allowed her to see so much, and she couldn’t impact as much as she wanted.

“Running for office is a scary thing, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it,” Costello said. “But I knew that if I wanted to be able to actually make impactful change, that I had to push myself out of my comfort zone.”

On staff retention, Costello said money isn’t everything, and culture is important. She said the district needs to foster collaborative and positive cultures in schools and in the central offices.

“In addition to salary and class size, we need to provide greater supports for mental health,” Costello said. “We need to create outlets for teachers, staff and school leaders to be able to ask questions and voice concerns without fear of repercussions.”

Mac Moore/Lawrence Times Rachel Stumblingbear (center) speaks during the forum.

Rachel Stumblingbear said her mother was a paraprofessional, so education has been important to her throughout her life. She said in her time in the Lawrence community, she’s worked at restaurants, in retail and currently in public health, and she’s seeing how much education matters to families. She’s running for a four-year term to help students and staff deal with the trauma of COVID-19 and other circumstances to move forward and be prepared for the future.

“I decided that yes, I have the time and desire to serve my community on the school board to make sure that our staff and students have the supports that they need to continue to thrive in this environment,” Stumblingbear said.

Stumblingbear said she thinks it’s good to have people in positions for long periods of time, but it’s also important to ensure that younger professionals are getting prepared to take on higher positions as opportunities open up.

“I think that by developing our long-term professionals and our younger professionals, that will create that stability in our workforce, and that it will also help create a funnel of future leaders to continue onwards when our older ones retire,” she said.

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Mac Moore/Lawrence Times Brandon Moore (center) speaks during the forum.

Brandon Moore said he’s been working in restaurants for 20 years, and one thing that has always helped him be successful is that he makes sure everyone who works for him is important, understood and energized, and he’s not sure the school board is doing enough to make sure staff feel that way.

Moore said he’s running for a four-year term because he wants to make sure the district is equaling out resources in schools and focusing on fine arts and ensuring that those areas are supported. “It’ll definitely help us improve the overall culture within our school district which hopefully with that, and also improve the culture for the teachers as well,” he said.

He said teachers and staff feel overworked, underpaid and unsupported.

“This board is the reason why we’re in the position that we’re in, and we have to make change in order to see that (impact),” he said. “And hopefully some of us can bring new ideas and new wealths of experience to the board to be able to provide that change.”

Mac Moore/Lawrence Times Carole Cadue-Blackwood (center) speaks during the forum.

Carole Cadue-Blackwood, tribal member of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas and incumbent board member, is running for her second four-year term. She said she would like to continue her work and ensure that schools support the arts to support cultural and historical heritage. She was motivated to run again after seeing the Kansas Legislature’s attacks on vulnerable populations, she said.

“I would like to continue to work to end systemic problems that are creating barriers and look for solutions by working and collaborating with the city and county government,” she said.

Cadue-Blackwood said it was a lot of work for the district and classified staff union to get to the raises that the school board will likely give final approval during their Monday meeting. She said she knows what it’s like to go to food pantries and apply for low-income housing because she’s been there, and she’d like another opportunity to get those wages all the way up to a living wage.

“Some of these individuals have told me that they slept in their cars,” she said of paraprofessionals. “That is unacceptable, and I will do my best as a board of education member to look into every avenue to increase that wage.”

Mac Moore/Lawrence Times GR Gordon-Ross (center) speaks during the forum.

Incumbent GR Gordon-Ross is running for his second four-year term. He was first elected in 2017 and served from 2018 through 2021. He came in fourth in a six-way race in 2021, then applied and was selected for a seat that was left vacant when a former board member moved out of state. He said when he first got on the board, the district completed a strategic plan, but COVID-19 completely derailed it.

“I’m running for reelection to go back to that equity work, that achievement work that we started in 2018 and try to finish that work,” he said.

Gordon-Ross said the district needs to think outside the box for solutions that are not tied solely to salary in recruitment and retention, but also different benefits. He said the board also needs to find ways to bring the hundreds of qualified, experienced and exceptional staff members who have solutions to the table to engage them and get their help to solve problems.

“If we can do that, we can help staff feel more engaged, more valued, and we can then help them buy into the solution that is then implemented,” he said.

Mac Moore/Lawrence Times Kevin Coronado speaks during the forum.

Kevin Coronado said his four reasons for running for the seat are his children. He and his wife wanted their kids to go to Kennedy Elementary, but the district closed the school to grades K-5 about a month before they moved to that area. But he said what’s beautiful about Cordley Elementary is “the way that the community values community; the way that the humanity of every single person is upheld; the way that equity and equality is pursued in every single avenue of life.

“And my work as a progressive Christian and a progressive pastor here in town drives me and my spouse to teach our children those very same values,” he said, and he wants those values to be upheld everywhere.

Coronado said the district needs to become a place where teachers who are graduating college want to go because they know they’re going to be taken care of.

He said the board has to address “making sure that every single person knows that this administration, that this board has their back, not just in word but in actual deed. That’s how we stabilize the current workforce.”

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Mac Moore/Lawrence Times Shannon Kimball speaks during the forum.

Shannon Kimball, current board president, is running for a two-year term. She’s served on the board for 12 years, and in that time she said she’s worked to build on her skills and knowledge as a board member. She said she has impacted education policy at the board level as well as at the state and national levels by working with the National School Board Association’s policy committee, among others.

“All the things that I’ve done in Lawrence as a board member, at the state and national level have all been focused on trying to make sure that we are directing as much support as possible to improving public education for the benefit of our students and our families in USD 497,” she said.

Kimball said she has focused on increasing wages during her time on the board, and that she’ll continue to do that. She said she’s excited that the board will be asked Monday to approve wage increases for certified and classified staff.

“We have to continue figuring out ways to reinvest resources into these areas so that we can retain the teachers that we love and maintain the building leaders who are effective and make sure that all of those things are there for the benefit of our students and their learning,” she said.

Mac Moore/Lawrence Times Justine Burton speaks during the forum.

Justine Burton is running for a two-year seat on the board. She said to summarize, she got tired of complaining to herself and not getting anything done. She said she wanted to find a different approach.

She runs a nonprofit called StopGap Inc. that supports young adults aging out of foster care. She doesn’t currently have any kids in the district, but she sees all those kids as her kids, and she wants to make changes to get away from the status quo “and be able to talk to community find out what people want, what they’re looking for, for their children, and then go from there.”

Burton said the people who keep the schools clean, and their work shouldn’t be minimized. She said they’re the people who make administrators look good. She said $15 hourly should be entry-level pay for employees who don’t yet have the skills.

“The way I look at it, some administrators, I think they should prove themselves just as much as they want the staff to do,” she said. “… I think they should put, maybe, a freeze on administrative salaries until they can do their job. And these increases, they should go for the people that are really doing the work — the teachers and the staff in the schools.”

All candidates agreed that they value public education and they would not want to see charter schools in Lawrence. Some said they thought the Montessori program at New York Elementary was potentially a good way to bring more people into the district, and some said it was important to think of the reasons why people might be looking at charter schools. Watch the full forum at this link.

Candidate Yolanda Franklin, who is running for a four-year seat, was not present for the forum.

Primary election day is Tuesday, Aug. 1, and the general election is on Tuesday, Nov. 7. Douglas County voters can check their voter registration, register to vote and/or request an advance ballot by mail at KSVotes.org. Learn more about voting in Douglas County at this link.

The candidates for Lawrence City Commission will be the subject of next week’s Douglas County Democrats forum. It will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, July 15, though the doors will be open for networking starting at 9:30 a.m. at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St. The party is hosting the events, but school board and Lawrence City Commission seats are nonpartisan.

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Mac Moore/Lawrence Times Moderator Melinda Lavon, chair of the Douglas County Democrats, asks candidates a question during the forum.
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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