Lawrence school board primary candidates share views on school closures, relationship with administrators and more

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Primary Election Day is Tuesday for the Lawrence City Commission and one Lawrence school board seat.

For those who are studying up on the candidates in preparation to cast their ballots, here are the school board primary candidates’ answers to questions about the board’s relationship with district administration, what they learned from the board’s choice to close two schools, and who should make decisions on “controversial” lesson topics.

There are nine candidates running for four-year terms on the Lawrence school board; all of them will advance to the Nov. 7 general election. Three other candidates are actively running to fill the remaining two years of the term of Andrew Nussbaum, who resigned in 2022.

The nonpartisan primary will narrow candidates running for the two-year term from four to two. Three of those candidates are actively running, and their answers are provided here; a fourth has said she’ll be unable to serve and is not campaigning for the seat. Tuesday’s election will narrow the field from four to two.

Turnout for odd-year primaries is generally fairly low — just a little more than 10% of registered voters cast ballots, according to Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew. In 2021, the sixth candidate to advance from the school board primary election was decided by just seven votes.

These questions and answers are republished with permission from the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. Visit lawrencechamber.com/elections to see candidates’ full questionnaires for the chamber.

Find much more election coverage at lawrencekstimes.com/election2023. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 1.

Candidates’ answers are given in alphabetical order by last name.

“Describe your views of the roles of the school board and administration. What is the ideal relationship between the two offices?”

Justine Burton: Every individual school board member and administrator at least needs to have the competence to function as one body and work for our children’s welfare and success.

Shannon Kimball: The board governs, sets policy, and holds district leadership accountable to achieving the board’s goals and carrying out the district’s mission. Administration manages the district in alignment with the board’s vision, goals, and policies.

To provide what our students, families, and staff need and deserve will require each board member to commit to working together as a team with district administration. To do this work effectively, the seven members of the board and the superintendent must work closely together and develop relationships grounded in transparency, accountability, trust, and a clear understanding of and respect for the roles of each member of the board/superintendent team. The district will see the greatest success in meeting the challenges that lie ahead with a board and an administration that act together, with meaningful input from the community, to move the district toward a common vision, guided by clear goals and expectations.

Ariel Miner: The school board and administration are most effective if they work as a team and maintain a transparent, communicative relationship. The school board members are elected representatives of the community and responsible for setting policy, approving budgets, and advocating for students, the district, and public schools. The superintendent manages the day to day operations of the district and along with district administration makes recommendations for board approval. The Board governs the district and is responsible for hiring, evaluating, and monitoring the superintendent. A quality of a high-functioning board listed in the governing manual of USD 497 is “Board operates in the open, involves community in decision making.” The community had no opportunity to be involved in the recent extension of the superintendent’s contract which is arguably the most important decision made by a school board. This is not ideal and diminishes community trust in the leadership team.

“Describe what you have learned from the recent decision to close two schools. What could we have done differently or better and how will this inform decisions you will make as they relate to budgets, staff, and educational outcomes?”

Note: Read more about the board’s decision to close two schools in this article from March.

Justine Burton: This sentence is a little confusing. What have I learned from the school closing? What I have heard it is affecting the children. I don’t know how much thought was put into school closing, but it seems it is always the same schools. Changing to Montessori (this seems more experimental), private or commercialization is not a good idea. This says to me administration is picking at straws. Closing schools should not always be the goto for cutting the budget. I would still like to see an increase in teacher salaries and school staff salaries. Freezing administrative increases would be something to review as well.

Shannon Kimball: These decisions were going to be difficult, no matter what process or approach the district took to make them. As with any similar process, the board must assess what went well and what lessons must be carried forward to the next set of decisions.

Accountability and transparency are essential components of every decision I make as a board member; the school closure decisions demonstrated this very clearly. The board engaged staff and the community over a two-year period in multiple processes to provide input and feedback on the district’s financial challenges. The board used that feedback to ultimately identify three related and essential financial goals and then used the feedback to make difficult decisions to reallocate scarce resources to meet those goals. All of this work came together to support the board’s ultimate goal of better serving all students across the district but particularly those students who continue to struggle the most.

The board’s budget work has highlighted for me the necessity of providing the community with clearer, simplified explanations of the district’s budget and finances at more frequent intervals going forward. The district must translate the abundant but frequently byzantine information about its finances and operations—byzantine because the Kansas Department of Education and the legislature require the district to use certain accounting and reporting formats and procedures—into straightforward graphics and shareable information that helps the community understand how the district uses its funds and how the board’s decisions are meeting the needs of staff and improving educational outcomes.

Ariel Miner: I learned that our school district needs to have long term strategic plans that include working closely with city leadership, not only for financial health but to ensure student safety. Taxpayers will be paying off the debt on the school bond until the year 2030 so these families dealing with the emotional impacts and economic burdens of losing their schools will still be paying off the bond. The Futures Planning Committee was asked to vote on school closures blindly – they had no information or knowledge of which schools would be impacted or the immense consequences of their vote. This lack of transparency without any accountability is unacceptable as these are our public dollars. I think this community needs board members willing to look more deeply at systemic issues in our district.

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“Who do you think should have the authority to make decisions on controversial lesson topics – students, teachers, parents, school board, or state? Why?”

Justine Burton: Parents, school board, or state are not in the classrooms. Teachers have an obligation to prepare students to live outside of Lawrence, Kansas and IF students feel there are some topics they want to learn why not? Controversial topics are those topics that some adults are not comfortable with. I think that if all students plan to stay in Kansas, then not learning about controversial topics might be okay for them. However, if any student plans on going out and competing globally their ability to interact with other groups of people with different backgrounds will be stifled.

Shannon Kimball: I am completely opposed to the restrictions on academic freedom and access to learning materials that are proliferating in other parts of the country. The board must support broad academic freedom. Teachers must have the freedom to ensure that students become critical thinkers and life-long learners. Parents should be well informed about what is going on in their child’s classroom so they can make decisions for their own child regarding especially sensitive subjects. But those subjects are, in reality, limited (e.g., sex education). Parents should not be allowed to prevent other people’s children from accessing an extensive range of reading materials or from learning about diverse subjects, viewpoints, and experiences. Teachers must be respected and trusted to evaluate the materials they use for relevance, rigor, cultural responsiveness, and age-appropriateness. The state should not play a role in this beyond setting rigorous and comprehensive learning standards that encompass the full breadth of skills and knowledge that a student should have to be a prepared and well-informed citizen in a global society.

Ariel Miner: “Controversial” is a vague and subjective qualifier – what is controversial varies greatly from one person to the next. However, if those “controversial” topics include teaching true American History, book bans on gender identity topics, or sex education, I wholly disagree. LGBTQ+ and trans rights are human rights and not a topic of controversy or something to hide by banning books. I feel the spotlight on supposed controversial lessons is just a distraction from the real issues our society faces, like not fully funding education, poverty, unaffordable housing, inadequate healthcare, income inequality, systemic racism, and climate change. Information about curriculum should be available to the public with plenty of opportunity for comment and engagement but I look to teachers to be the authority on education in their own classrooms.

Learn more about the candidates in these articles, or check out our coverage of four candidate forums at lawrencekstimes.com/election2023.

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