Equity — and to a lesser extent, funding — was once again at the forefront at Monday’s school board meeting, where board members heard presentations from most of the candidates vying for the seat Kristie Adair vacated in January.
The meeting, which lasted approximately two hours, saw each candidate give a five-minute presentation about his or her qualifications for the position. Board members were then given roughly 10 minutes to pose questions to each candidate, though these questions were few, and mostly focused on whether candidates were interested in retaining the seat after serving the remainder of Adair’s term, and whether candidates would be willing to commit the time necessary to serve on the board.
Ruben Flores, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Kansas, chose to devote much of his platform that night to the equity issues facing Lawrence schools. So far, Flores said, he’s been “very pleased with the quality of my children’s education” in the local school system, including the district’s equity work over the last decade that he said “has really accelerated” within the last five years. Earlier this semester, the district had moved more than 90 percent of its certified staff (including teachers and administrators) through Beyond Diversity training, inching closer to its goal of having nearly 100 percent trained by the end of the school year.
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
“Yet, at the level of our constituents, I think it’s apparent that we haven’t made strides quickly enough yet,” Flores said, referencing concerns raised by some students that they hadn’t been contacted by administrators after reporting incidents of what they described as racially motivated harassment.
Flores said the district will need to rebuild trust among the historically marginalized communities, including students of color and their families, after last fall’s controversial investigation into allegations that a South Middle School teacher had made racist comments during class. The teacher, who denied any wrongdoing, was eventually revealed to have entered into a settlement agreement with the district that agreed to withhold information from the investigation in exchange for the promise that the district would not be sued over the matter.
“Ultimately, teachers and administrators are merely instruments,” said Flores, who also predicted equity issues would only become “more intense” over the next three to four years. “It’s at the level of our students and our parents that we’re going to make a true difference for our community.”
Melissa Johnson, a teacher and mother of three, said she taught for two years in the Lawrence school district before taking a job in the Kansas City, Kan., school system. The integration of culturally relevant materials into her curriculum at Kansas City’s Whittier Elementary School, she said, has “opened my eyes as an educator and as a human being” to the realities faced by her students both in and out of the classroom.
On Monday, she acknowledged similar work being done in the Lawrence school district, and suggested relations between the district and its constituents might improve if students and families were better kept in the loop about such initiatives.
“The community is calling for transparency,” Johnson said. “And while I understand that changes to equity concerns won’t happen overnight, I believe that with the transparency and (effective) communication, we can show the community exactly what type of progress has been made.”
Johnson also said she would prioritize closing the “opportunity gap” between historically disadvantaged students and their more privileged peers, and “as a result, close the achievement gap” between white and nonwhite students.
John Rury, a professor of education at KU, also spoke of racial disparities in his presentation to the school board. Rury, who said he recently wrote a book on that very subject, pointed to last year’s state assessment results as an example. The 2016 scores show that two-thirds of African-American high school students in Lawrence are performing below grade level, said Rury, whose research focuses on inequalities in American school systems.
“This is a big puzzle,” Rury said, adding, “There are a significant number of kids in Lawrence today being left behind … I think the big question is, how do we address that?”
Lori Hutfles, who briefly served as state legislator in the Kansas House of Representatives in the early 1990s and now works in government affairs, said closer attention needs to be paid to funding issues — and how potential cutbacks may affect equity in public schools.
Equity, which she regarded as one of the most important issues facing the Lawrence district, is directly related to the decisions made by lawmakers, Hutfles said.
“Equity is going to be even bigger next year and this year because of the funding that is coming from the state and the federal government. The issue that we really need to be able to sit down and focus on is the money we have coming in, and how it’s going to go out to schools,” Hutfles said.
“The huge issue that we should be concerned about is whether these kids that are getting basically federal money for the lunch program, may not get it next year. Or, it may be cut back,” she continued, referring to free and reduced-price school lunches for economically disadvantaged students. “… Those are issues that are really important to me.”
There are now officially 18 candidates vying for Kristie Adair’s open seat: Mary Loveland, Margaret Weisbrod Morris, Dr. Fatima Khan, James “Alan” Hollinger, William “Bill” Roth, Steve Wallace, Mitzi Robinson, Syed A. Jamal, Kyung Hwang, Melissa Johnson, Linda J. Sheppard, Jesse Brinson, Jo Ann Trenary, John Rury, Ruben Flores, Norine Spears and Lori Hutfles.
One candidate, Craig Comstock, withdrew his application and used his platform Monday night to urge the school board to instead consider a person of color for the position, while another candidate, Daneka Vann, did not attend that evening’s meeting. Janice Dunn, the school board clerk, told the Journal-World that Vann had not withdrawn her submission and was still technically in the running.
The school board members will independently review applications before appointing the new board member during a special meeting at 6 p.m. March 27. Applicant attendance at that meeting will be optional, district spokesperson Julie Boyle told the Journal-World last week.