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.

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.