Lawrence school board candidates state what they want in next superintendent

Five candidates are actively campaigning for three open seats on the Lawrence school board in the Nov. 7, 2017, election. They are, clockwise from top left, Gretchen Lister, Kelly Jones, James Hollinger, Ronald G.R. Gordon-Ross and Melissa Johnson.

One of the most important decisions for the three school board members who will be elected in November will be one of their first: hiring a superintendent.

The school board election is set for Nov. 7, and James Hollinger, Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross, Melissa Johnson, Kelly Jones and Gretchen Lister are actively campaigning for three seats up for grabs. As the Journal-World reported last week, Jill Hayhurst and Steve Wallace announced they no longer are seeking a seat on the board, although state law will not allow their names to be removed from the ballot. Candidates are vying for the board seats that Johnson, Marcel Harmon and Vanessa Sanburn currently hold. Harmon and Sanburn chose not to seek re-election.

Last month, the school board hired Ray & Associates to conduct the search for the next superintendent and established a schedule that will have the board interviewing finalists for the superintendent position in mid-January. New board members will take their seats in early January.

The board’s goal is to hire the next superintendent in February, but Anna Stubblefield will continue as interim superintendent through the remainder of this school year. The new superintendent’s first day with the district will be July 1.

The district has already posted a community survey on its website that will be used to develop a candidate profile for the superintendent search. Consultants Ray & Associates will host input meetings with constituents on Wednesday and Thursday.

The Journal-World asked the still-active candidates what qualities, skills and experiences they wanted in the next superintendent.

Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross

Ronald G.R. Gordon-Ross

As an IT professional, Gordon-Ross was pleased with the Lawrence school board’s decision last month to introduce for the 2018-2019 school year as the district’s student information system the flexible and user-friendly student PowerSchool platform. He wants the district’s next superintendent to have demonstrated expertise in guiding those kinds of initiatives to consolidate and update technology, he said.

“I want to see a foundation in and track record of utilizing technology,” he said. “You can spend a lot of money on technology and get very little, or spend a little money and get a lot. I want a superintendent who can show by previous experience, he or she knows how to spend money wisely on technology and knows how to use it in a way that is beneficial to everyone.”

He would also be looking for experience on diversity issues in the next superintendent, Gordon-Ross said.

“I want to see a track record of success in the past,” he said. “I want candidates to show based on their careers, they have already done those things and have worked through and initiated programs, so that we can see based on what they accomplished that they can continue to carry that work forward for us.”

Openness and availability were also important traits he wanted in a superintendent, Gordon-Ross said. That meant more than just making office hours available for visitors, he said, citing a practice of former superintendent Rick Doll.

“Dr. Doll used to have breakfast at the 23rd Street Hy-Vee once a week so people knew where they could talk to him,” he said. “A superintendent being willing and finding creative ways to engage the public is very important.”

James Hollinger

James Hollinger

If the Lawrence school board wants to continue to make progress on equity and diversity issues, it needs to start at the top when it hires the next district superintendent, Hollinger said.

“I think this district needs to put its best foot forward,” he said. “I would like to see an individual of color or a female.”

Equally important is a demonstrated record of progress on equity issues, Hollinger said.

“I would like a superintendent who has dealt with that before,” he said. “I would not want this to be the first time the person is dealing with these issues.”

Hollinger, who works for Douglas County Public Works, said as a board member he would also look to hire a superintendent who came up through the ranks.

“I want someone with classroom experience,” he said. “I know it’s not a requirement, but I think it is important the person was a teacher or principal who can relate to students and parents and not just some professional who can’t relate to anyone else.”

Classroom experience would make the new superintendent more open to listening to students and teachers and provide more credibility when addressing problems, Hollinger said.

“A superintendent should be able to listen to their employees, evaluate the situation and act appropriately with direction from the board,” he said. “It should be a person who understands the board is elected and the superintendent reports to the board and not the board to the superintendent.”

Additional qualities Hollinger would look for are moral character and the ability to manage the district’s budget and the position’s time demands. The superintendent should also set an example for transparency and ensure that the board does district business in an open manner, he said. Being accessible, he added, was part of his vision of transparency.

“As a parent, I should be able to talk to the superintendent or a board member at any time,” he said.

Melissa Johnson

Melissa Johnson

Johnson brought a teacher’s perspective to the Lawrence school board with her March appointment to fill the vacant seat of Kristie Adair. Johnson, who started her teaching career in the Lawrence school district but now teaches second grade in the Kansas City, Kan., school district, said her teaching experience would inform her decision on the next superintendent.

“As a teacher, what I look for in a superintendent is the ability to think critically and think on their feet,” she said. “It’s important to be present in the schools, and not to just be there but to listen. Tell us what we are doing well and if we’re not doing well, offer insights in how we can fix it.”

The next superintendent should have experience handling equity issues, Johnson said.

“I believe a successful candidate should have a background in equity work,” she said. “The next superintendent needs to be ready to go to work on those issues.”

Johnson said she would also look for evidence of honesty, communication skills and attention to detail in the final candidates presented to the board. Attention to detail would be particularly important because the next superintendent would oversee the construction projects authorized in the $87 million bond issue district voters approved in May, she said.

The superintendent search process the board has approved, including two opportunities for the community to meet the finalists for the job, should help ensure the board hires the right person, Johnson said.

“I think it’s great for them to potentially meet the people of the community and get a sense of the environment in which they will live,” she said. “We have a diverse community. It will help the community know if the candidates are a good fit and let candidates decide if they are a good fit for our district.”

Kelly Jones

Kelly Jones

Jones has a background in social work and is now the associate director of field education for the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare. Her job involves community outreach and communication, which she says gives her insight into what a superintendent should bring to those efforts. Jones sees as one of a superintendent’s major responsibilities as setting the district’s direction and tone. To do that effectively, a successful candidate needs strong community engagement skills, she said.

“Given that, I will advocate for selecting a superintendent who has a documented history of equity and inclusion work in public schools and understands that when you create equitable learning environments, all students and staff benefit,” she said. “A strong candidate should also demonstrate a commitment to interweave the district mission and vision into all aspects of resource allocation decisions.”

Jones said she would look for a superintendent who would be flexible and cooperative with the district’s teachers.

“A part of measuring that would include evaluating the candidate’s support for teachers’ bargaining and due process rights, as well as gauging how the candidate intends to provide support and resources for classroom instruction and teacher-driven curriculum innovation,” she said.

If elected, Jones said she would work with other board members to collect input from teachers and the community and use it to set hiring priorities. Having attended the board meeting in which the board heard presentations from three different search firms, Jones said she was encouraged with the selection of Ray & Associates to conduct the search and the process that has been established.

“As someone committed to community outreach and engagement, I like the process that allows multiple methods of community input,” she said. “I want to see people using them. Teachers need to provide what they want in a superintendent, and the community needs to take the survey and go to input meetings. I think the current board is committed to a community-driven endeavor and learned from the last experience that there are ways to improve the selection process. I am ready to participate in that process.”

Gretchen Lister

Gretchen Lister

With a fine arts undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in social work, Lister said her career experiences have been varied. She’s been a sculptor in New York City, a paraprofessional and transitional specialist in the Lawrence school district and, currently, an outreach coordinator for the Willow Domestic Violence Center. Although that is a more varied career path than many people experience, she said, the Lawrence school board should acknowledge in its search for a new superintendent that most of today’s adults do change careers, she said.

The district would benefit from a superintendent who had traveled a nontraditional career path, Lister said.

“I want someone who has walked in different shoes experientially wise and work-wise,” she said. “Our students are going to have more than one career. I want someone out of the box. I want someone with a really rich life experience. It doesn’t have to be in education.”

If the next superintendent understood that career change is inevitable for most students, the district could do more to make sure its students were employable after finishing high school, Lister said.

Lister said she would prefer someone comfortable with having regular informal conversations with students at lunch or on other occasions.

“The district needs a shot in the arm and to look at things differently,” she said. “We have never had a superintendent get out and spend time with kids. I want a superintendent who gets out from behind his desk and talks to kids. We needs someone who will ask them, ‘What are you about? What makes you tick?’ I want the superintendent to hear from kids.”