Lawrence school board primary candidates discuss systemic inequities during NAACP forum

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Candidates vying for a two-year term on the Lawrence school board during a forum Saturday discussed issues of equity and systemic racism in Lawrence Public Schools.

Justine Burton, Ariel Miner and incumbent school board member Shannon Kimball are running to fill the final two years of the unexpired term of a board member who resigned in 2022. Their names will be on the ballot in the Tuesday, Aug. 1 primary election.

Nine other candidates are running for four school board seats that will serve four-year terms. There is no primary in that race.

School board seats are unpaid positions. There are seven total seats, five of which will be up for election this year.

During the Lawrence Kansas Branch NAACP forum on Saturday, moderator and branch president Ursula Minor asked the three primary candidates about systemic inequities reflected in school closures, the impacts of budget cuts and more.

The board’s decision in March to close Pinckney and Broken Arrow elementary schools after the end of the school year also loomed over the discussion.

‘How would you address the inequities in the Lawrence Public Schools?’

Burton said she wanted to see more teachers of all ethnic backgrounds so that students can see someone who looks like them in their classrooms. She also wants individual kids’ concerns to be addressed. She said she heard from a 12-year-old boy that he was apprehensive about going back to school in August because he’d been called the n word.

“These are things that affect kids learning,” she said. “… I know it happens. But when it starts affecting a child’s way to learn, then that becomes a problem for everyone.”

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

Miner said the consequences of budget cuts should not fall on the backs of the district’s most historically marginalized families.

“We also can’t just say that the teachers will take care of those consequences from closures,” she said. “Teachers are already overworked and underpaid, and the least we can do is actually care for those affected families by having clear, complete, considerate, thoughtful plans in place for the unfair burdens placed on them from closures.”

Kimball said the inequities in public education here and across the nation have to do with systemic racism in communities, combined with the impacts of poverty on students.

“I have been working and will continue to work to ensure that every one of our students has access to high quality teaching, equitable and culturally responsive curriculum materials, and safe learning environments,” she said. “… In an environment where we have scarce resources, we have to think about how do we use those scarce resources to best support those students everywhere that they are?”

‘What do you see as the biggest challenges facing Lawrence public schools, and how would you address those challenges?’

Miner said she believes integrity in leadership is a big problem for the district. She said when the district was considering budget cuts earlier this year, suggestions such as cuts to administrative salaries and pursuing solar power were not even on the table for the school board to consider.

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

“When I’m knocking on doors, when I’m talking to teachers, even people who don’t have children in our schools, the consistent message is that there is not a lot of trust that the decisions made are in the best interests of this community,” she said. “I think the consequences to that are teachers and staff and principals leaving the district in droves.”

Kimball said the three biggest challenges are teacher recruitment and retention coupled with attempting to pay competitive wages, the resources the district has to do the work it must do, and the need to continue focusing on closing opportunity gaps between students. She said the board is most likely going to approve raises for staff on Monday, and she will continue advocating at the state level for more funding for schools, particularly for special education.

“The state has a historic budget surplus, and the Legislature has refused to fully fund special education. That’s a tragedy,” she said.

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Burton said the raises the board is considering aren’t enough. She also said she’s concerned about issues of safety and how schools would respond to potentially dangerous incidents.

“If, God forbid, something would happen here, you know, are they on top of this?” she said. “These are things that mothers need to know, the community needs to know.”

‘How do you respond to the community’s concerns that the recent closing of neighborhood schools reflects systemic racism?’

As community members pointed out frequently while the board was considering closing buildings to cut costs, Pinckney and Broken Arrow were two of the most racially diverse schools. They both also had higher rates of students who qualified for free and reduced-price lunches than many other schools in the district. Many community members who spoke out against the closures during several hours of public meetings and elsewhere said they felt that the district and school board were putting too much of the burden on students and families who were already marginalized.

Kimball, who has served on the board for 12 years, said this past year has brought the hardest decisions she’s had to make as a board member.

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

“I know that members of our school communities and our community at large have experienced grief and loss over those decisions, and I see it, I hear it, and I feel it myself along with our community,” she said.

But she said research shows that systemic racism shows up in schools through opportunity gaps, and through “operational structures that segregate and silo students of color and low-income students in buildings that are under-resourced to meet their needs.” She said sometimes the best thing to do is to acknowledge that resources are scarce and reconfigure the system to better serve the students who need to be prioritized.

Burton said the district always seems to want to close schools on the east side, and that was something that needed to be looked at. “it reflects to me that somebody’s not thinking,” she said.

She also said the decision to close schools “messes with kids,” and whether people believe it or not, kids won’t forget about this and it can impact their learning as well.

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Miner said she agreed that the closures reflected systemic racism. She said an equity analysis used to justify the closures contained errors that weren’t addressed and that it seemed intentionally difficult to understand.

“It’s proven with research that shows that more diverse schools are often targeted for closure because they’re underperforming,” she said. “Targeting and trying to get rid of a school instead of supporting it with more resources is furthering systemic racism.”

Miner said she thinks the district and the board can do better, and she’s willing to fight for that.

‘What effect do you see the recent budget cuts having on marginalized students?’

Miner said she believes everyone is suffering from the cuts in some ways, but she believes the already-struggling students will be impacted the most. Bigger class sizes will mean more students fall through the cracks, she said. She said changes and instability after the pandemic can’t be downplayed, and teenagers in particular are struggling with their mental health. She said the district needs to be stabilized for community health.

Kimball reiterated that she feels the loss of these decisions, too, “but I would not have made them as a board member if I did not see the path that these decisions would lead us to, to be able to better support all of our students, particularly our marginalized students.” She said ultimately, making budget cuts to improve wages will lead to fewer staff exits and more stability for students.

Burton said the word “marginalized” rubs her the wrong way. “It just seems like they’re getting less than — maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the way I see it,” she said. Every student should be able to get the same education regardless of where they are, she said, and the district needs to address kids as the priority rather than the budget.

One additional candidate who filed to run for the two-year school board term has moved and is no longer campaigning for the seat. The primary election on Aug. 1 will eliminate two of the four total names on the ballot, and the two candidates with the largest number of votes will advance to the Nov. 7 general election.

The three candidates also participated in a Douglas County Democrats forum with almost all of the candidates Saturday morning. Read an article from that forum at this link.

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.

Mac Moore/Lawrence Times Moderator Ursula Minor, president of the Lawrence Branch NAACP, speaks 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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