During Chamber forum, Lawrence school board candidates convey visions for public education

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Lawrence school board candidates on Wednesday gave their thoughts on past board decisions as well as their visions for public education if they’re elected.

The Lawrence Chamber of Commerce hosted the candidates Wednesday morning. The forum was the finale in a series of scheduled forums hosted by different community organizations ahead of the Nov. 7 general election.

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.

Hugh Carter, the Chamber’s vice chairman of external affairs, moderated Wednesday’s panel and asked candidates for their thoughts on recent school closures, tax breaks or incentives for developers, budgeting, attracting and keeping teachers, declining enrollment and more.

Cadue-Blackwood, Moore and Gonzales were not present for Wednesday’s forum.

Candidates for four-year terms:

Rachel Stumblingbear

Stumblingbear said she was inspired to run for school board this year because her family set an example of serving others.

Her vision for public education in Lawrence includes community-based learning opportunities, such as pairing students with local businesses that are part of industries they’re interested in having careers in. Not only will that help their preparedness, but it will also encourage students to love to learn, she said.

“Let’s get them working with people in those industries so that they can start developing those skills and be more confident as they leave,” she said.

Stumblingbear said the district should have communicated its school closure process sooner, but she said the final decision to close Pinckney and Broken Arrow reflects normal life changes. She said leaders’ roles now are to help the community move through the losses and into the future.

Declining enrollment in the district’s consultant’s projections present concerns. Stumblingbear said the district should look to attract more families rather than retirees.

Tax incentives can also be positive to the district, Stumblingbear said, but she’s cognizant that some local developers may not be favorable to some community members. That’s why the district should fully evaluate developers interested in gaining the board’s approval, she said.

“I think it’s important when these projects come before the school board that each of them has a vision of what they are and what they’re actually giving the school board because we will want to make sure that our budget within the school board is funded properly so that we can take care of students,” she said.

GR Gordon-Ross

Similar to Stumblingbear, Gordon-Ross said his mother set an example for him when she ran for the school board. He also said he wants to help finish the work he helped get through when he rejoined the board in August 2022 after serving from 2018 until the beginning of 2022.

Closing the opportunity gap between student groups, which includes achieving curriculum comprehension goals on time, is a priority, Gordon-Ross said.

With a background in finance and prior experience managing budgets of nonprofit organizations he’s worked with, Gordon-Ross said he hopes to continue making the district’s budget planning easier to understand for the community.

A current board member, Gordon-Ross voted to approve the Pinckney and Broken Arrow closures. He said he witnessed the school board 11 or 12 years ago invest heavily in neighborhood elementary schools, but the growth it hoped for didn’t occur. 

“We got to a point that we just couldn’t do it anymore, and we had to adjust to the realities of our enrollment, realities of where we are as a city and we had to level set and move forward,” he said.

He also voted to approve tax breaks for First Management Inc. to transform the long-vacant downtown Borders building into its new corporate headquarters. He said no revenue from the general fund was lost. The project will create jobs, too, he said. 

Jody Meyer

Meyer said the district needs to focus “like a laser beam” on academics and that she’s concerned the district may be leaning toward lowering standards to boost outcomes. Her top priority, however, is ensuring safe schools, she said.

“What I would like to see first and foremost is safe schools, safer students, safer teachers,” she said. “I don’t really think that at the present moment the high schools are for a lot of people – for teachers or for students.”

Teachers are also “overburdened” by a lack of adequate plan time and large classes, Meyer said.

Although Meyer doesn’t have budget experience at the level that the school board is responsible for, she said she’s able to comprehend statutes and other legalities. 

While trying to understand the district’s budget as a community member, Meyer said it’s been frustrating gaining access to information from district leaders who have been delayed responding to her emails or haven’t provided all the information she hoped for. More dialogue with the community during school closures would have helped, she said.

“We just don’t know enough about the budget, quite frankly,” she said. “I mean, the budget was published, but in order to get to the details of it, it’s almost impossible if you’re not an insider. I can’t tell you today what could have been done different in order to prevent the closure of schools. I will say that I think one of the problems is the communication in USD 497.”

Meyer said if she was a board member at the time of the First Management tax break approval, she would’ve voted to approve. She said the city, county and school board should collaborate more moving forward. In addition to lobbying for public school funding at the state level, the Lawrence school board should make a point to take issues directly to the county and city commissions.

Yolanda Franklin

Franklin said she wants to be a voice for the parents and grandparents of students across town. She recalled experiencing racial discrimination throughout her years going to public school.

“I’m here to be that bridge for the community so no other parent or child has to deal with the things that I did when I went to school,” she said. “So my inspiration to run is because I am here now.”

Franklin’s vision for public education includes increased support for minority students, and she stressed the importance of ensuring graduates are prepared for adult life.

Affordable housing is vital to recruiting and retaining teachers, Franklin said. The district should communicate with the city about the housing market to achieve ways that teachers can afford to live and work in Lawrence. Lawrence being an affordable place for diverse families to live could also help reverse the trend of declining district enrollment, she added.

Franklin said the district’s request for community input didn’t reach the full range of stakeholders and that she would do things differently.

“What I learned is that we did not listen to our entire community when it came to making decisions, and that’s something that we truly need to change in this school board.”

Anne Costello

Costello said she’s focused on closing the opportunity gap for students and is focused on minority students, students participating in special education services and students with low socioeconomic status backgrounds. 

Issues relating to class sizes and student behavior contribute to teacher turnover in the district, showing they need more extensive mental health support and guidance from the administration, Costello says.

“We need to give them outlets and ways that we can support them in their mental health,” she said. “And then to support them, also as far as it goes with dealing with students who are causing issues and that sort of thing. There’s a lot of behavioral issues post-pandemic and I think we need to find ways to support our teachers in their addressing of these behaviors.”

As a former member of the district’s Futures Planning Committee, a group charged with making budget plan recommendations to the superintendent last year, Costello said school budgets are complicated. But she’s equipped to translate that sort of information to make it readable for community members.

As declining enrollment is projected to continue in the district, Costello said the district, city and county should unite and find ways to improve housing and job opportunities. She suggested encouraging KU graduates to build their lives and families in Lawrence, but she said that won’t happen without attractive jobs and affordable housing.

Costello said if she was on the board for the First Management tax break decision, she would’ve voted to approve. She said district leadership should help the community understand that tax incentives benefit the district.

“It’s not a loss of money; it’s future potential,” she said. “And that’s so important that people realize that we’re not just handing out money to these developers. And if they weren’t here, who’s going to do that? … We have to do these things in order to grow the city.”

Candidates for two-year terms:

Shannon Kimball

Kimball said her vision for public education in Lawrence is to recenter a narrative of it. She wants to promote the district’s successes and the progress that’s being made. 

School closures, which Kimball as a current board member voted to approve, were part of last year’s budget cuts. The top priority in the budget plan was to fund teacher and staff raises, and Kimball said the board achieved that priority by approving certified and classified staff’s contracts that included raises. She also said the district’s budget work has also helped to reduce class sizes.

Other feedback the board received from teachers indicated they love their building leaders but need more support from district administrators, she said.

“I think that’s a real interesting thing to point out because often we hear criticism of our district that we’re top heavy, we have way too many administrators, and yet we have staff saying ‘We are not getting enough support,’” she said.

Kimball said her knowledge and experience advocating for public education, at local, state and national levels, sets her apart from her counterparts. Disputing claims that the district has not communicated well with the community, Kimball said issues are being discussed openly at the board table.

“I think that the issue is that it’s not out there in the way that our community wants to see it,” she said. “It’s not that it’s not available, it’s not that it’s not there, we just need to figure out how to take that information and make it more digestible in infographics and other ways.”

In addition to a focus on housing and jobs, which Kimball said the city, county and school district have already been collaborating on, there needs to be a focus on affordable early child care options for families who want to grow in Lawrence.

She also said she was surprised to hear overwhelming support across the candidate panel for the district getting involved with tax incentives for developers as she recalled some candidates were previously against it. Regardless, Kimball said it helps keep the district’s mill levy down to benefit homeowners.

Ariel Miner

Miner said she can bring more collaboration between the school board and city and county entities and that a long-term strategic plan between the three of them is much needed. She said she views education as a cornerstone of democracy, but she’s concerned that the district isn’t equitable across all schools.

“I believe that every school in the Lawrence community should be equitable so that it doesn’t matter if you live on the east side or west side; there’s no divide,” she said. “Every school offers the same equitable opportunities. I have concerns about marginalized students. I have a minority, multiracial child myself, and equity is very important to me.”

Miner said she liked that the First Management tax break benefited downtown and East Lawrence development-wise but that the district should’ve better communicated the outcomes of it.

Teachers are struggling to balance their workload, and they need smaller class sizes as well as better administrative leadership, Miner said. 

“I think we have to trust the teachers,” she said. “I don’t think we trust teachers enough in this district. When they tell us things, we have to use the information.”

Miner said many community members lost faith in the district after it closed Pinckney and Broken Arrow. She said the budget process should involve the community each step of the way. And she would also like to build up existing programs for college and career readiness that benefit students.

“I think we have some great things going at the College and Career Center, Peaslee Tech, expanding on those I think would be a great idea,” she said.

The general election is coming up Tuesday, Nov. 7.

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.

Read about other candidate forums:

Note: Post updated at 8:57 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 12 to add recording

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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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