Archive for Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Ortiz questions lack of minorities on school board

February 19, 2003


Leonard Ortiz doesn't like what he sees and hears of the current Lawrence school board.

Of course, he has strong objections to the board's decision to foist on voters a record-breaking $59 million bond for school construction. And he said he can't believe they feel justified in closing three small, neighborhood elementary schools.

But there's more.

Ortiz, who is Hispanic, says he is uncomfortable the seven-member board doesn't adequately represent Lawrence's diverse community.

"There's no minority representation," he said. "There needs to be ... somebody who can identify with minority or low-income families. There needs to be a voice of that segment of society."

The lack of diversity is shocking, Ortiz said, because one-fourth of the district's 10,000 students are minorities.

Ortiz, who celebrates his 45th birthday on the same day as the primary election Feb. 25, teaches history part-time at Kansas, Baker and Washburn universities.

His parents dropped out of school by the 10th grade, and Ortiz struggled to get a high school education. He worked 15 years in a factory and took college classes at night. He eventually earned a bachelor's degree at Santa Clara University in 1994.

Ortiz completed a master's degree in education at Stanford University and a doctorate at Kansas University. He had a graduate minority fellowship at KU.

Ortiz and his wife, Dana, have two children who attend Schwegler School.

This is one of 13 school board candidate profiles that will run in alphabetical order online each weekday, Monday through Friday, through Feb. 21.6News will provide an accompanying video profile at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. each weeknight through Feb. 21 on Sunflower Broadband's cable Channel 6.Video and text profiles on the candidates will be compiled through the series online on our school candidates site.

Eight of the 13 primary contenders will advance to the April 1 general election. The board's bond plan will be on the ballot in April.

Ortiz jumped into the school board race because he sensed there were "deep sectional divisions within the district concerning what is best for our schools."

The board has failed to listen to what neighborhoods want in public school facilities, he said. Plans to consolidate Riverside, East Heights and Centennial schools and to spend millions of dollars to increase the size of other elementary schools illustrates that point, he said.

"We need to create a bridge across the community that brings people of different neighborhoods together working for the betterment of our children."

In addition to ignoring public outcry about consolidation, Ortiz said he believed the board leaned on inconclusive research to justify its actions.

"There are numerous studies that argue that small, neighborhood schools are more beneficial to students, especially at-risk students, than are larger schools," he said.

All three of the elementary closures advocated by the board would send students to bigger schools. Riverside students will be divided between Deerfield and Pinckney schools. Deerfield has more than 500 students -- the district's largest elementary school.

In the case of East Heights and Centennial, those students would be transferred to New York and Cordley schools after bond-financed expansion projects are finished. The renovated schools would enroll about 275 students or double the enrollment of schools they now attend.

Ortiz said research indicates smaller schools are better for students. Small-scale schools boost academic achievement, lower dropout rates, cut violence and vandalism, offer greater teacher satisfaction and inspire community involvement, he said.

He said the $59 million bond contains worthwhile projects, including replacement of South Junior High School, renovation of Lawrence High School and improvement of Lawrence Alternative High School.

But the overall package is too large, Ortiz said.

"I believe the bond should have given the voters some optional packages to choose from," he said. "Unfortunately, it is an all or nothing deal."

After the bond issue fails in April the board should craft a bond that mirrors public sentiment, he said.

Ortiz said the board also should take off the white gloves in the quest to get a leaner central administration.

"There needs to be more accountability there," Ortiz said. "The district needs to re-evaluate its administrative operations."

However, he admitted he didn't have any idea right now where administrative cuts should occur.

If any money becomes available for reallocation, he said it should be invested in teacher salaries.

"It is unacceptable for a teacher to spend five years in college and start out making half the salary of a business or engineering major," he said. "They should not be taken advantage of by society."

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