Archive for Friday, August 11, 2017

Racial disparities, transparency among issues discussed at school board candidate forum

Seated from left are school board candidates Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross, Yasmari Rodriguez speaking for Melissa Johnson, Kelly Jones, James Alan Hollinger and Gretchen Lister. The Lawrence branch of the NAACP held a school board candidate forum Thursday evening, Aug. 10, 2017 at the United Way Building.

Seated from left are school board candidates Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross, Yasmari Rodriguez speaking for Melissa Johnson, Kelly Jones, James Alan Hollinger and Gretchen Lister. The Lawrence branch of the NAACP held a school board candidate forum Thursday evening, Aug. 10, 2017 at the United Way Building.

August 11, 2017


Racial disparities, police officers in schools and concerns over transparency were among the issues discussed at a forum Thursday for Lawrence school board candidates.

As part of the event, hosted by the local NAACP, school board hopefuls fielded prepared questions submitted by NAACP members. Much of the hour was devoted to the district’s ongoing equity issues — along with the lack of trust, as more than one candidate described it — harbored by some in the community toward the current board.

“The board seems to have lost some of the public’s trust,” said Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross, one of five candidates to attend Thursday’s forum. “I’d like to restore that trust through open and honest communication.”

Others, while fielding prepared questions from NAACP president Ursula Minor, were a little sharper in their criticism. Gretchen Lister, a longtime social worker and former district employee, said she wanted to “be bold” in her run for the school board. It’s time for a change, Lister said, at the district offices and in the classroom.

“I think our board has failed our kids and our community in many ways. I’m going to say it and be loud and be proud of it,” Lister said. “I think it’s time we look at the disparity between our Native kids, our African-American kids, the fact that we don’t have the same graduation rates as we do (with) our white kids ... There’s no excuse for the disparity we have in our classrooms.”

A report released earlier this year by Lawrence Public Schools revealed a pattern of inequity across several areas, including placement in gifted programs, the likelihood of being identified as having a learning disability and the severity of discipline issued. Of the 500-plus “gifted” students in the Lawrence district circa January 2017, for example, only eight were black.

In 2016, more than 36 percent of the district’s white high school students were considered “college-ready” by state assessment standards in math. That same year, about 12 percent of the district’s black high school students landed in that category, while Native American and Hispanic students are also struggling in comparison with their white counterparts.

Each of the five candidates who attended Thursday’s forum — including Melissa Johnson, who had a proxy deliver prepared answers before she arrived toward the event’s end — recognized equity as an important issue in the upcoming school board race. Minor, serving as moderator, asked how candidates would address local and national findings that students of color receive more frequent and severe punishment than their white peers.

As a parent of color, Johnson said through her proxy, she wasn’t surprised to see research back up her “first-hand” experience with this issue. Johnson, who is black, has three children in the Lawrence district. She also teaches second grade in the Kansas City, Kan. school system, and has served on the school board since her appointment this past spring. In her view, students are sometimes punished for certain behaviors without being given the opportunity to “reflect and regroup,” a course of action that does more harm than good in the long run.

“As a board member addressing this issue, I would propose that disciplinary reports are reviewed more frequently, by outside equity advisory councils and/or by the District Equity Leadership Team Advisory, so we can catch the disparities earlier and what types of disparities are occurring,” said Yasmari Rodriguez, reading a written statement from Johnson.

James Alan Hollinger, who applied to the school board following Kristie Adair’s resignation earlier this year, also said he would work closely with DELTA, in addition to ensuring students’ rights to appeal any “unfair” treatment through all channels, including the school board. Strengthening relations between students and school staff, including teachers and administrators of color, was a suggestion shared by several candidates Thursday, including Gordon-Ross, who wants the district’s workforce to better represent Lawrence’s racially diverse student population.

Candidates generally agreed that law enforcement should have a minimal — but effective — presence in the district, where the Lawrence Police Department currently lends out a handful of resource officers between Lawrence and Free State high schools.

Kelly Jones, a registered social worker and staffer at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare, said social workers and other support staff, if used more effectively, would lessen the need for on-site police officers. However, she said that district staff, in her conversations with various stakeholders, seemed to hold the school officers in high regard.

Johnson, speaking through her proxy, said police officers should only be called in case of emergency, or through community engagement and educational roles. Lister said firmly that she did “not want police in schools,” and also suggested security cameras in classrooms as a way of monitoring behavior.

Hollinger, however, was a little more welcoming toward the idea of officers serving in schools.

“I feel that their presence in school is a good idea, provided they’re there to work as positive role models — to show students and faculty that, yes, they are human, they are people, everybody makes mistakes,” Hollinger said, conceding that officers should be pulled from schools if their presence “becomes a problem.”

Candidates were also quick to identify what they saw as the biggest obstacles standing in the way of delivering high-quality education to all students. Some, such as Gordon-Ross, pointed to the economical imbalance between schools in the district, where more affluent PTA groups are able to provide more funds and supplies than schools with largely low-income families. Parent involvement was also highlighted by Johnson, who said students whose families aren’t able to attend parent-teacher conferences because of work responsibilities, for example, will need extra support. Partnerships between schools and their surrounding communities, she said, are paramount to ensuring student success.

“Even casual observers would point the finger at Topeka and say that the mess made of the school finance formula and the cleaning-up that we are currently undertaking are the major obstacles in the district’s efforts to improve education in Lawrence,” Kelly Jones said.

However, there are longstanding issues within the district itself that intersect with challenges faced statewide, she added. Jones said her communication with the Lawrence Education Association indicated that morale among teachers is low. The LEA, Lawrence’s local teachers union, came to an impasse in contract negotiations earlier this week with district representatives over salary disagreements.

Recruiting and retaining a diverse teaching staff, Jones said, would be one of her key priorities if elected to the board.

School board candidates Jill Hayhurst and Steve Wallace did not attend Thursday’s forum. Hayhurst sent her regrets, explaining in a written statement that she and her family were in the process of adopting. Minor, reading a statement from Wallace, said that he planned to drop out of the race.

Johnson’s seat is one of three up for election this year, along with those of Marcel Harmon and Vanessa Sanburn. Neither Harmon nor Sanburn is seeking re-election.

The general election is slated for Nov. 7.


Jeremy Smith 8 months, 2 weeks ago

You know what did not have racial disparity or equity issues? The tax increase this school board decided to levy on the citizens of Lawrence. They even raised the mill levy more than what was advertised when people voted for the school bond issue. We should all sit outside the high schools and make sure the work is done correctly considering we are all paying for it.

Lydia Austin 8 months, 1 week ago

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Richard Heckler 8 months, 2 weeks ago

An excellent public school system drives economic growth !

I believe the work gets dine correctly on school projects because there is less bureaucracy therefore closer over sight. I am all for maintaining our tax dollar owned property to get the most life from it.

"“I think our board has failed our kids and our community in many ways. I’m going to say it and be loud and be proud of it,” Lister said. “I think it’s time we look at the disparity between our Native kids, our African-American kids, the fact that we don’t have the same graduation rates as we do (with) our white kids ... There’s no excuse for the disparity we have in our classrooms.”

Perhaps there is too much blame being placed on the classroom. AND politicians keep cutting money from the district which steals money from the class rooms that should remain in the district.

Kansas Conservatives are creating a hard ship for school districts.

=== Defunding/Dismantling Public Education Team

Point fingers at Topeka first.

Richard Heckler 8 months, 2 weeks ago

While candidates are critical of this school board what candidates will learn once elected is that the board is not that guilty and will also learn that money is being managed well.

As for increasing graduation rates of all children the big question has to be how much are parents involved with the students home work? Class rooms can provide guidelines and tools but at some point parents must step in to make it work.

Do parents want study halls and tutoring for their students? Are parents willing to loudly demand higher wages for the teaching staff?

IN 2003 there was a lot of community activity fighting for neighborhood schools and loudly asking for much better teaching salaries.

Then in 2003 the LJW put forth this question to the public which drew a response number likely never seen before.

Would you favor a sales tax increase to provide more money for Lawrence teacher salaries?

Teacher Salary Support

Of 5,198 voting 80% said yes. Remarkable ( of course we know this won't fly UNLESS the state legislature says yes)

An excellent public school system drives economic growth !

Bob Smith 8 months, 2 weeks ago

You're still linking to a LJW poll from 14 years ago?

Richard Heckler 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Hats off to Marcel Harmon and Vanessa Sanburn. Their backbone and dedication has put USD 497 in a favorable position. Thank you for stepping up to the plate.

When this family located to Lawrence in 1987 USD 497 ranked among the best school districts in the nation. Though we homeschooled for many years USD 497 was among the reasons we located to Lawrence,Kansas. Never know.

USD 497 and Kansas University were quite helpful to our homeschool group.

Richard Heckler 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Americans United for Separation of Church and State “Mission Statement

President Donald J. Trump will nominate Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback as ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

This is yet another ill-considered appointment from Trump. The position, run under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, is charged with the task of promoting religious freedom worldwide. It will be difficult for Brownback to do this since his track record shows he doesn’t believe in religious freedom for all.

At Americans United, we believe there can be no true religious freedom without separation of church and state.

A high and firm church-state wall protects religious freedom by ensuring that every citizen has the right to support only the religion of his or her choice – or support none at all. When the government has a preferred religion and takes it upon itself to impose that faith on people, fundamental rights are violated.

Brownback, an unabashed opponent of separation of church and state, doesn’t grasp this. As governor of Kansas and before that as a member of the U.S. Senate, he worked to undermine the church-state wall and has fought to adopt particular religious viewpoints as law that applies to us all.

As governor of Kansas, Brownback’s record was in this area has been alarming. He openly vowed to use religion (read: fundamentalist forms of Christianity) as a tool to achieve government goals and backed various “faith-based” programs.

Angry over the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, Brownback lashed out in July 2015 by signing an executive order designed to undermine the decision in his state. Brownback’s Executive Order 15-05 was described as an effort to protect groups that hold “the belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.”

As AU noted at the time, the order’s real purpose was to allow religious organizations to discriminate against LGBTQ citizens and others – even when those groups were receiving taxpayer funding.

The following year, Brownback signed legislation allowing religious clubs on college campuses that receive funding from student fees to discriminate against students who fail to meet the doctrinal beliefs of the club.

Under Brownback, extreme fundamentalist groups were given free rein at the state capitol, and some critics charged that the state was getting too close to a fundamentalist ministry run by a self-appointed statehouse chaplain named Dave DePue. DePue celebrated his access to legislators but blithely asserted that Muslims wouldn’t have the same rights.

Clark Coan 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Perhaps the reason that only 8 out of 500 students in the gifted program is black is because one-half of African Americans have an IQ below 85. Sad, but true.

Richard Heckler 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Any change in public education funding should be approved by the voting taxpayers aka the largest group of public education stakeholders.

Our school funding dollars and the mechanism by which the money is raised should NEVER be left solely to a group of politicians.

The tax dollars are OURS TO SPEND and the public schools are OURS TO OWN AND MAINTAIN.

Schools Underfunded 657 million $$$$$$

Richard Heckler 8 months, 1 week ago

Politicians need to bring back to the taxpayers their plans for we the taxpayers so we the taxpayers can approve or not. After all taxpayers are the largest group of stakeholders in any city, county or state.

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