Lawrence school board candidates address paraprofessional pay, LGBT issues, suspensions

Gretchen Lister, left, answers a question Tuesday at a forum for candidates for three Lawrence school board position on the Nov. 7 ballot, while, from the left, Kelly Jones, Melissa Johnson and G.R. Gordon-Ross listen. Candidate James Hollinger was unable to attend the forum at the Union Pacific Depot because of illness.

Four people running for the Lawrence school board made a Tuesday candidate forum personal by often answering questions through the lenses of their own experiences and histories.

Four of the five candidates who remain active in the race for the three open school board positions on the Nov. 7 ballot — Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross, Melissa Johnson, Kelly Jones and Gretchen Lister — fielded questions at the event, which was held at the Union Pacific Depot. The forum was organized by the Lawrence chapter of the NAACP, Kansas Appleseed, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, the Disability Rights Center of Kansas and the Children’s Alliance of Kansas. Candidate James Hollinger was unable to attend due to illness.

Late in the forum, Jones said she was the daughter of a South Dakota union organizer who had frequent visits from police displeased with his activities. With that background, she said she would support the unionization of the school district’s paraprofessionals. A union would work to increase the paraprofessionals’ pay and benefits and also would help attract a better level of applicants to the positions, she said.

Jones had earlier said it was important that the superintendent the next school board hires in February be someone who supports collective bargaining and due process rights for teachers.

The other candidates also supported higher pay for paraprofessionals, something Gordon-Ross and Johnson said could be possible with the prospect of increased state aid to the district. Lister, who has a child with special educational needs, said repeatedly at the forum that paraprofessionals and therapists in the district were great resources, but that parents had to be active to ensure those resources would best benefit their children. She, too, supported better pay for paraprofessionals, therapists and teachers, saying the district could afford it if it reduced its “top-heavy, bloated” administrative staff.

As a second-grade teacher in the Kansas City, Kan., school district, Johnson said she saw the need for more teacher education on such topics as providing equal educational opportunities to special education students in the classroom setting and student discipline.

In response to a question on equity for LGBT students, Johnson, who was appointed to the board in March, said the school board took a step in that direction Monday with the approval of LGBT guidelines. Those guidelines call for schools to address bullying and harassment, require teachers to address students by the pronouns or names of their gender identity, and provide transgender students access to restrooms or locker rooms matching their gender identity. District students now needed to be educated on the issues of LGBT discrimination and harassment, she said.

Gordon-Ross said efforts to address harassment of LGBT students would benefit from the development of clear and consistent guidelines, with the knowledge there would be consequences for offensive behavior. Lister agreed, but also said there were no consequences for the Lawrence High School incident that prompted last month’s student sit-in protest. The football players behind the offensive texts that led students to protest should not have been allowed to play, she said.

Jones said she decided to run for the school board when she learned the district suspended black students at four times the rate of white students and students with disabilities at twice the rate of students without disabilities. The district should move away from suspensions except in cases where students were a threat to themselves or others and toward a policy that crafted individual improvement plans that had the best interest of students in mind, she said. Lister, too, called for the end of suspensions, saying the district needed to focus on why students lost interest in school.

As an IT professional, Gordon-Ross said he would like to further explore the data. It would be important to know if a large number of minority and disabled students were being suspended or if the same students were being suspended multiple times, he said.