Lawrence school board members told the Journal-World on Thursday that the board would not formally interview the 11 candidates vying for the seat left vacant by Kristie Adair last month.
Instead, board members will review applications independently after Monday’s submission deadline, select three applicants as their top choices, then discuss the merits of those applicants at a public meeting March 13, the same meeting in which they are also expected to appoint the new board member.
There’s an option of contacting applicants before that date, school board vice president Shannon Kimball said, “but that’s left up to each individual board member.”
It’s the same process used twice by the school board to fill vacancies created by board members who left for other positions, said Kimball, specifically when Bob Byers and current president Marcel Harmon were appointed to the board months apart in 2014.
The Journal-World began inquiring about the process after one school board candidate, Steve Wallace, told a reporter that he hadn’t been contacted for an interview and wasn’t sure if he would have the opportunity to meet with board members before the March 13 meeting. He found that “lack of communication,” as he put it, puzzling and concerning.
“I would love to know the answer,” Wallace said earlier this week. “I don’t think you can make a decision based solely on the application, unless I’m supposed to be having my friends and everybody call the board members. I have no idea.”
Longtime board member Vanessa Sanburn said the board wasn’t provided ethical guidelines that would mandate how and where school board members might contact or meet with candidates during the selection process, which was loosely based on common-practice guidance from the Kansas Association of School Boards. And she defended the process Thursday when asked about its fairness.
“I think we are all fairly engaged in the community, and I think it’s fairly easy to search someone’s name and know who they are through the process of vetting candidates,” Sanburn said, adding, “We are public servants that are elected to a role, and we can meet with anyone who requests to meet with us to provide insight, guidance and general information.”
The school board, notably, differs from the City Commission in this appointment process. When former Mayor Jeremy Farmer resigned from the City Commission in 2015, his fellow commissioners embarked on a lengthy — and very public — process to find his replacement.
The City Commission first established an advisory committee to review and evaluate applications. That committee then narrowed the applicant pool down to 12 semifinalists, presenting those applications to the City Commission during a public forum where applicants were permitted to make brief statements and answer any questions posed to them by the advisory committee.
Those committee members then voted to select six finalists for the position, a list of which was provided to the City Commission in a public meeting where commissioners selected candidates to be interviewed in another public forum days later. After that public forum, in which candidates were asked questions submitted to them in advance, the City Commission met for a final public meeting to nominate and elect its new commissioner, Lisa Larsen.
But Kimball and Sanburn both argued it’s unwise to compare the City Commission and the school board. One glaring difference, Sanburn pointed out, is the relative lack of interest she said she has seen for school board races over the seven-plus years she’s served on the board. While she appreciates the idea of engaging the community in the appointment process, she also said “no one” on Lawrence’s Voter Education Coalition wanted to host a public forum when Harmon first applied for an open seat on the board in 2014.
“Maybe that’s our fault and we need to try harder to promote this,” Sanburn said. “I guess I’m hard-pressed to think that if we would have put more time and energy into hosting lots of meet-and-greet forum opportunities, that they would be well-attended enough to help us inform the decision.”
But Sanburn also said she’s “thrilled” to see the level of engagement from community members in filling the seat. Harmon agreed. He said that while the school board “typically struggles to get public notice and participation in these kinds of things," the board may have received more applications during its current appointment process than the last two appointments combined. And that, he said, is a good thing.
“Being more clear on that ahead of time,” he said, referring to giving the candidates notice of the process, is a valid suggestion. And in the future, Harmon and the board might consider making public interviews a part of the appointment process. However, he said he doesn’t see it happening this time around.
As far as what Sanburn and her colleagues are looking for in a new board member, willingness to take on the challenge of an “underfunded” Kansas school system, she said, is key. Parents and those with experience in education, Harmon said, also make attractive candidates.
And, in the face of ongoing racial equity issues (including the wide achievement gap between white students and their peers of color) that have prompted criticism of the all-white school board as of late, Harmon and Sanburn both agreed that candidates of color would be strongly considered. Kimball has also publicly said that she supports the idea of diversifying the school board.
“We definitely want someone who is willing to come at this problem with that lens,” Sanburn said. “Obviously, a person of color that brings a perspective that our board is currently lacking is important, and I think that is a quality that we have an opportunity to address in this appointment.”
The deadline to submit a school board application is 5 p.m. Monday. School board members will review applications at their March 13 meeting and then appoint one applicant to serve the remainder of Adair’s term, which ends on Jan. 8, 2018.
Profiles of applicants to fill vacancy on USD 497 school boardThe Journal-World has published information, as it became available, on applications for the spot vacated by Lawrence school board member Kristie Adair.
March 10 — Lori Hutfles
March 10 — Norine Spears
March 9 — Ruben Flores
March 9 — John Rury
March 8 — Jo Ann Trenary
March 8 — Jesse Brinson
March 7 — Linda J. Sheppard
March 7 — Melissa Johnson
March 6 — Kyung Hwang
March 3 — Syed A. Jamal
March 2 — Mitzi Robinson
March 1 — Steve Wallace
March 1 — William “Bill” Roth
Feb. 28 — James Hollinger
Feb. 25 — Dr. Fatima Khan
Feb. 24 — Margaret Weisbrod Morris
Feb. 23 — Mary Loveland