When Bob Byers joined the Lawrence school board back in 2009, things were much as they are today. Then as now,, the Lawrence school district faced difficult choices in the face of budget reductions.
But it's slightly different this time around, Byers said. The budget anxiety arises from legislation that is likely to become law, rather than a budget shortfall. Back then, closing schools was an option for saving money. But after voters approved a $92.5 million bond issue in 2013 to improve all of them, it's no longer an alternative.
"I just get the feeling it's going to be more severe," Byers said of the cuts looming. Back then "they worried about day-to-day operations. (Now) it will be more about how do we protect those things that are most valued by us in our education."
And he believes the district will need someone like him in the coming years to get through it all. Byers, an employee in the state social work department for about 30 years, is one of seven people running for a four-year term in the April 7 election.
"My suggestion is, you need people who understand the needs of children, you need people who understand the needs of our community, you need people who understand our schools to make the decisions," he said.
Out of 13 children, Byers was directly in the middle.
Address: 1707 E. 21st Terrace
Occupation: Program administrator for support services, Kansas Department for Children and Families
Education: Bachelor's degree, Pittsburg State University; master's degree, Kansas University
Family: Widower; one adult son
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His father was a sharecropper in southeastern Missouri. When Byers was six, the family moved to Kansas, eventually settling in Paola, where his father worked on a farm while his mom worked in housekeeping.
He was "heavily involved" in church as a boy. When he was 14, Byers said, he got a summer job in the county's welfare department, where he worked alongside social workers. The gig proved influential. He came to Lawrence in the late 1970s for a master's degree in social work at Kansas University. After graduating, he went to work for the state.
"I'm about helping people," Byers said. "(The job) gives you a well-rounded view on society and how things work. If you're into helping people and having bettered their situations in life, you need to have that kind of a view."
In the mid-2000s, Byers joined the district's equity council, which focuses on settling racial disparities and achievement gaps. He got the idea to run for the board when members of the equity council discussed how much they'd like to have a minority member elected.
He won in 2009, but was the odd-man out in 2013, when four candidates ran for three spots. He said his wife's terminal illness during that campaign was too distracting for him to win anything.
Byers was appointed to the board in June 2013 to fill a vacancy, and today he is still the only minority with a seat and the only one running for the board.
When racially charged graffiti appeared on Lawrence High School's campus this past fall, Byers was more outspoken about it than other members of the board, warning against downplaying it as "kids being kids" and saying, "This was five young men who took the opportunity out and the time out to spew their racial hatred."
Byers said he is focused on the "future for education" in Lawrence. That means carefully overseeing the bond implementation, rolling out initiatives such as blended learning and protecting education in face of budget cuts.
"What the Lawrence school district has done very well is we have worked on achievement and achievement for all," he said. "I think we're prepared, I think we're ready. I think there's some rough choices coming."