Lawrence school board candidates on Saturday afternoon discussed issues they feel are most pressing to the school district and how they’d like to address them.
Two candidates, Ariel Miner and Shannon Kimball, are running for a two-year term. That position will fill the final two years of the unexpired term of a board member who resigned in 2022. Voters can only vote for one of the two on their ballots.
The remaining candidates, Carole Cadue-Blackwood, GR Gordon-Ross, Yolanda Franklin, Rachel Stumblingbear, Brandon Moore, Anne Costello, Jody Meyer and Edward Gonzales, are running to fill four school board seats that will serve four-year terms. Voters will be able to vote for up to four of those candidates on their ballots.
Kevin Coronado’s name will also appear on the ballot despite his recent choice to remove himself from the race.
Ahead of the Nov. 7 general election, candidates on Saturday answered questions at a public forum, hosted by the Lawrence Branch NAACP, Black:30 and Loud Light.
Ursula Minor, Lawrence Branch NAACP president, served as the forum’s moderator and asked candidates about issues related to implicit bias, supporting marginalized students’ successes, dealing with the budget and more.
Gonzales was absent Saturday due to a family loss, but he provided a statement that was read on his behalf during the forum.
Although candidates generally agreed that inadequate state funding has limited the district as well as stood against book bans and other curriculum censorship, each candidate expressed varying priorities if elected.
Candidates for four-year terms:
Cadue-Blackwood, who’s a current school board member, said she centers mental health in all of her work.
When Cadue-Blackwood during a board meeting on Sept. 11 voted against the district’s maximum local option budget — as part of its final approved 2023-24 budget — she mentioned comments at public hearings before the board voted to close Pinckney and Broken Arrow elementary schools. She said she wrote in her notes during the hearings that community members expressed mental health concerns around school closures.
She suggested during Saturday’s forum that the district should partner with Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health to conduct an equity impact analysis on how the school closures have affected community members’ well-being.
To a question about improving “academic outcomes for minority students,” she said feedback from Pinckney and Broken Arrow neighborhoods is needed.
“This has the potential to reduce costs, provide intercultural proficiency to better understand and value the cultural needs, background and experience of our BIPOC, LGBTQ2S+ students,” she said. “Pushing people out of these neighborhoods can change the composition of the neighborhood and drive families out, creating greater gentrification.”
Gordon-Ross, who’s a current school board member, said his experience within the district has given him a well-rounded perspective on issues such as budgeting and creating school boundaries.
“During my almost five years on the board, I’ve had the opportunity to work on the boundary committee and the negotiations committee and the facilities committee. And the work that I’ve been able to do there is to help work on the opportunity gap and also to work on staff wages,” he said.
Gordon-Ross said he thinks the two most challenging issues currently facing the district are closing opportunity gaps for marginalized students and fully supporting LGBTQ+ students. He said the latter is an especially important focus as the Kansas Legislature passes state laws, such as Senate Bill 180, restricting LGBTQ+ people’s rights.
“Our school district, every building and every place, needs to be someplace where every student feels loved, supported and welcomed,” he said. “And the work that we can do within the walls of our buildings to address and counter the effects of SB 180 is vital. It’s going to take everyone, it’s going to take a lot of work, but it’s vital work because in the end it could save lives.”
The district’s schools have failed to prepare students for life after finishing high school, Franklin said. She said she’s not confident students know how to balance a checkbook, apply for jobs and maintain jobs when they graduate, for example. That’s a top concern for her.
Franklin acknowledged struggles the district has faced being underfunded by the state, but she shifted responsibility to the local arena.
“We also need to be making sure we’re keeping our funds equitable between our schools and keep our dollars close to our kids,” she said. “For example, why is one school have to do fundraisers for school equipment, and another school is getting theirs funded through the district? This is why we need a people-powered movement to make sure our funding goes to our students.”
Franklin responded to the question asking candidates how they’d improve “academic outcomes for minority students” that she’d push for better representation. She wants students of color to have more teachers and staff of color to look up to, and she suggested implementing a curriculum that is “centralized more toward them and their unique learning needs experiences.”
Stumblingbear said the district needs to improve its communication with the community at large to find common ground.
“I also think that the district has not done a very good job showing the programs that it is doing,” she said. “We’re not seeing actually what is happening in the district … So I think that we have a big perception issue in the city that we don’t always know what is going on, or we follow human nature and we only look at the negative.”
When discussing ways to address implicit bias, Stumblingbear said the district should implement some sort of reporting system so that situations involving implicit bias can be talked about.
Stumblingbear also suggested more mentorship opportunities for students. In response to the question asking candidates how they’d improve “academic outcomes for minority students,” she said pairing students with mentors could give students different approaches to grasp material in classes, such as science and math.
Moore said the biggest challenge currently facing the district relates to its treatment of staff. Though teachers and staff members are seeing raises this year, Moore said many have expressed they continue to feel “unsupported” by the district. It’s especially upsetting to see staff and teacher salaries in comparison to administrator salaries, he said.
“Our staff does not feel important, understood or energized, which are my big three that I’ve lived with throughout my career,” he said. “… We need to do more to make sure that not only the staff is paid well, but that they feel supported.”
When candidates were asked how they planned to improve “academic outcomes for minority students,” Moore admitted it was a difficult question for him. He shared what he’s gathered from family members.
“I may be the standard white male up here, but I have a very diverse family,” he said.
“My stepdad is an African-American male. I have two step brothers, which I just call my brothers, that have six kids between them, so my nieces and nephews are all African-American children. And they live in lower-income neighborhoods in Lawrence, and they went to these lower-income schools that got closed. And two of them are on IEPs and we closed their neighborhood schools. And now we’re trying to figure out why they’re struggling in school.”
Costello said the top challenges facing the district relate to inadequate state funding, staff retention and recruitment, and closing opportunity gaps.
In response to a question about how candidates would improve “academic outcomes for minority students,” Costello said employees should participate in training to develop “cultural competence” across the district. Personal, meaningful dialogue between teachers and staff, students and families will show experiences that should be centered, she said.
“We need to do a better job of engaging our community,” she said. “I’d like to see more opportunities for conversations between us and the community — not just commentary at board meetings, but actual conversations.”
Costello said she would lead with listening and advocating as a board member. She added she has a “zero-tolerance policy” for bullying and harassment in schools.
“Providing equitably distributed funding that supports the needs of all students, including those with diverse learning abilities and backgrounds is a critical responsibility of the board when overseeing allocation of financial resources and is something I fully support,” she said.
Along with inadequate state funding, Meyer said the biggest challenge currently facing the district relates to quality of life for employees and students. As someone who sometimes substitute teaches in the district, she said, larger class sizes make it difficult for teachers to manage student needs and behavioral issues.
Attendance is the first step to improving “academic outcomes for minority students,” Meyer said. She referenced a district report that showed overall chronic absenteeism, referring to students who have missed 10% or more of school days due to absences for all reasons, has continued to rise, and Native American and Alaska Native students and Black students had the highest percentages of chronic absenteeism within their racial subgroups.
“If they’re not in the building, the other outcomes aren’t going to improve,” she said. “I think that’s something that teachers have said time and time again, is they have to be there in order to improve in other domains.”
Meyer identified herself as a “realist” when she thinks about issues facing the district. However the district carries out implicit bias work, its expectations and policies should be clear-cut; otherwise, there’s room for interpretation.
“I think as a district when it comes to decision — this is whether it’s our students or employees or whatever category it is — we need to be making criteria for decision making as objective as possible rather than rely on subjective factors, which I think is where the implicit biases set in,” she said.
Candidates for two-year terms:
Miner said though she understands the role state funding plays, local school boards are responsible for the moves they make.
“We do not have to spend money on consultants to the level we do; we do not have to send our money to other states like Boston for virtual school advertising; we don’t have to make those choices,” she said.
“We don’t have to pay administrators the salaries we pay; we don’t have to pay the superintendent the salaries we pay; we have to be more responsible with our funds, and keep our dollars as close to our students and our teachers and our classrooms as possible.”
Miner answered the question asking candidates how they’d improve “academic outcomes for minority students,” with two points: prioritizing small class sizes and retaining staff. Having close relationships with students — and maintaining those relationships — will create trust, she said.
“When we are constantly getting new staff, you cannot build those relationships that are built on trust, and we know that we have to have trust in order to have an open mind to learn, especially for our minority students,” she said.
The first step to peel back implicit bias in the district would be for instructors to teach students about it in their classes, Miner said. She added that staff training would be necessary, too.
“Maybe we need to put some curriculum in our schools about implicit bias, and make sure that we celebrate our differences, that we are exposed to people who speak differently, talk differently, act differently,” she said. “I think that if we’re going to have police in our schools, we need to have some really intense implicit bias training that is continual and ongoing.
A current school board member and past president of the board, Kimball said her track record on the board shows her commitment to public education in Lawrence. She said as public education continues to be threatened by private education incentives, she’s maintained her stance in support of fully funding public schools.
Progress has slowly but surely been made as a result of the district’s work and the board’s policies, she said.
Graduation rates at the end of the 2022-23 year, she gave as an example, steadied or increased within each racial subgroup from the previous year.
“It is admittedly not as much progress as we would like to see, but we are getting there because of the things that we are doing around rigorous instruction, academic opportunities, encouraging students to take challenging classes, culturally relevant curriculum: those things are working, and we need to continue that same focus, and I will continue to do that as a board member as I have been doing for the past 12 years,” she said.
The general election is coming up Tuesday, Nov. 7. There is one more forum for Lawrence school board candidates, but it is not open to the public.
Meet the candidates and find out how to register to vote, double-check your registration and/or request a mail ballot on our election page, lawrencekstimes.com/election2023. The deadline to register to vote or update your registration is Tuesday, Oct. 17; advance voting begins the following day.
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Note: This post was updated Oct. 20 to embed a video of the forum.