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Nobody said being a member of the Lawrence school board was easy.
Take it from a former Lawrence city commissioner.
“I think my job was a lot easier than yours,” Lance Johnson told the board’s seven members Monday night, as they fielded complaints about a standards-based grading system entering middle schools this year. “Dealing with angry neighbors was a lot easier than dealing with angry or passionate parents.”
That spurred a quip from Mark Bradford, the school board president who also happens to be chief of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical: “Are you the angry or the passionate?”
Johnson: “I’m probably both, tonight.”
Johnson was among several parents who showed up to express their concerns about the grading system, calling for a halt to system that has been in place for more than six years in elementary schools, which up until this year had included sixth-graders. For 2011-12 and beyond, sixth-graders are in middle schools, where traditional letter grades — A, B, C, D and F — have been the norm.
The standards-based system uses other letters — E, S, M and T — to gauge whether a students “excels,” “successfully meets,” is “making progress” or is “targeted for growth” in meeting state standards and having proper learner behaviors.
Johnson understands that sixth-graders still will be getting traditional letter grades to go along with their standards-based grades, but that isn’t the point. Plenty of parents are upset, about their lack of input in the process and also being left uninformed about the implementation of a system that they had thought would be left behind when the students left elementary school.
“I say shame on whoever let the train out of the station without the communication and the public process,” Johnson told board members, noting that he had learned as a commissioner that proper processes were important for initiatives to be successful.
“I’m appealing to you to get it right,” he said. “There are some fundamental differences that people have, and I don’t think the day in court — or the opportunity — has presented itself for people to vet all the different issues out, with all the parents and teachers. …
“Let’s call a timeout and get it right.”
Johnson also couldn’t help chiming in on the district’s planned purchase of 172 iPad 2s, an order approved unanimously Monday night by members of the school board.
“My 3-and-a-half-year-old plays more with the iPad than I do, so that next generation is going after that,” he told board members.
The purchase of iPad 2s is the latest of such purchases for the district. Others have been used by administrators for testing purposes, and the Lawrence Schools Foundation has purchased some for teachers who have proposed plans for using them.
Monday night, board members Randy Masten and Rick Ingram questioned whether spending $122,230 on such equipment, software and training services would be worth it. They asked staffers for more information about how the iPad 2s would be used, and why they needed to be purchased for what would be considered a testing run for teachers.
“This is a significant amount of money to spend on a ‘maybe,’ ” Masten said.
In the end, they signed off on the purchase. But Masten said he would like to see more information in the future to back up the need for such investments.
“It just wasn’t deep enough for me,” he said.
Administrators in the Lawrence school district are still looking for answers as to why the district gained 200 students from a year ago, and a consulting firm will be helping make sense of the numbers.
Rick Doll, district superintendent, told board members Monday that RSP & Associates, a consulting firm from the Kansas City area, would be assisting the Central and East Lawrence Elementary School Consolidation Working Group. The consultants will help the district make sense of its current enrollment numbers and also come up with projections for the future.
Doll said that this year’s enrollment increase wasn’t a “bubble” spurred by a large increase in any particular grade level or portion of the Lawrence area.
“It’s kind of across the board,” he said.
One thing that is clear, however, is that having more students should translate to receiving more money from the state than the district would otherwise receive.
“This is a really good thing,” Doll said.