Lawrence school board candidates express views on equity, transparency

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.

It hasn’t been too difficult for candidates seeking a seat on the Lawrence school board to spot racial disparities in the community’s education system.

A report in January, for instance, showed only eight of the approximately 500 students in the district’s gifted program were black, although black students account for about 6.5 percent of the student population. The report also found harsher punishments were disproportionately meted out to students of color, with black students accounting for 17.5 percent of those receiving out-of-school suspensions.

The board and district also have been criticized for a lack of transparency during the past year. Community members protested the board’s handling in late 2016 of a resignation of a South Middle School social studies teacher under district investigation for allegedly making racist remarks in class. The district’s handling of the issue involved a settlement agreement that had been kept from the view of the public and that required the district to keep from any future employers the fact that the teacher had been the subject of an investigation into alleged racist incidents.

The school board election is set for Nov. 7. Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross, James Hollinger, Melissa Johnson, Kelly Jones and Gretchen Lister are actively campaigning for three seats up for grabs. 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.

As part of its election coverage, the Journal-World asked the candidates about their equity and transparency concerns, and steps they would support as board members to address the issues.

Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross

Ronald G.R. Gordon-Ross

Gordon-Ross is an information technology consultant to the health care industry. He said the district is doing many things right as it attempts to address equity issues, praising the comprehensive three-tiered model of prevention that rewards elementary and middle school students for appropriate behavior and the Beyond Diversity training all district staff and board members receive.

The district could make building-level improvements by improving the effectiveness of the equity teams created in every district school, Gordon-Ross said. Faculty members have told him that some equity teams are more effective than others. He proposes the district’s 25-member Equity Advisory Council conduct interviews of the building-level equity teams to learn what makes the successful teams effective. Identified successful practices could be used to establish districtwide equity team guidelines, he said.

The most important thing the next school board would do to promote equity is to hire the right superintendent, Gordon-Ross said.

“I really want to see a superintendent who doesn’t just say he or she will be an equity champion, but has a career that demonstrates that claim,” he said.

Gordon-Ross said as a board member he would avoid executive sessions except when they were legal necessities. Open board debate and questioning of district staff is healthy, because it shows the board is being thorough and asking the right questions, he said.

“I think the community perspective is there’s been too many 7-0 votes,” he said. “It seems like those conversations that led to consensus don’t happen in the open. It’s OK to have 5-2 or 4-3 votes. The board represents the community, and the community doesn’t always agree on everything.”

James Alan Hollinger

James Hollinger

Hollinger, a Douglas County Public Works employee, applauds the school board’s decision to make the search of the next superintendent an inclusive and transparent process. The plan included the use of an online survey and focus groups to develop a superintendent candidate profile and the public will have the opportunity to meet and question the finalists for the position after they are identified in January.

“They seem to have moved forward in that aspect,” Hollinger said. “I still think the board is using executive session too much. I think they could have more open discussion before making decisions on some topics.”

As a board member, he would welcome a greater opportunity for the public to voice opinions on controversial or complex issues, Hollinger said.

“There should be a little more public input on hot-button issues, even if it pushes something back until another meeting,” he said. “If the board is more transparent and open, it sets a precedent for the district staff to be more transparent.”

The district, the District Equity Leadership Team Advisory and the Equity Advisory Council have made progress on equity issues, but he said the district still had work to do. The district needed to find ways to keep all students engaged so they didn’t drop out. He also called for the district to find the reason for the disparities in discipline.

“The need to figure out what’s causing that,” he said. “I have read the complete policy manual. You can’t have one student getting more severe punishment. Perceptions have to change. You can’t assume. You have to have strong facts before you act on punishment.”

Melissa Johnson

Melissa Johnson

Johnson, a second-grade teacher in the Kansas City, Kan. school district, is the only incumbent in the race. She thinks the school district has made effective use of committees, such as DELTA, the Equity Advisory Council, LGBTQ Alliance and Special Education Committee, to address equity issues, Johnson said. She suggested the committees could build on their successes by working in collaboration.

“I believe these committees need to communicate with one another from time to time to see if there are issues that we can address as a collective unit, especially since there are times when there’s an individual or individuals with intersectional issues to consider,” she said.

For example, there are students of color who are gay or have special needs, Johnson said.

“We need to be proactive with the committees so when a situation comes up we know how to address it,” she said. “We can do that by having joint meetings or having other committee members sit in on a few meetings.”

The school board has attempted to address transparency issues by better communicating with students, parents, staff and the Lawrence Journal-World, Johnson said. It could further improve with the more effective use of newsletters. She also supports the idea of the board scheduling two town hall meetings at which board members and district staff would take questions from the community.

Kelly Jones

Kelly Jones

Her current position as the associate director of field education for the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare and her past jobs in social work outreach gave her direct experience in public engagement, including organizing numerous public forums, Jones said. That background gives her confidence that transparency is one district issue that can be fixed, she said.

From campaign conversations about transparency, Jones said she believes patrons want board members to be accessible. The proposal that the board have two of its board meetings in a town hall setting would be a positive step in that effort. Board members are expected to attend formal and informal school functions, and she is committed to doing that, Jones said. Just as importantly, she would report what she heard at open board meetings, she said.

The issues of unequal racial graduation rates and disparity of in-school and out-of-school suspension rates for students of color and students with disabilities were central in her decision to run for the school board, Jones said. To address the issues, the district needs to move away from a system that focuses on student deficits and punishment to one that values students’ strengths, she said. She advocates more extensive use of individual education plans that build on students’ identified strengths. That would increase the likelihood they improve academically and take part in extracurricular activities, she said.

Jones also stressed the importance of faculty training in culturally relevant teaching and of recruiting and retaining a diverse cadre of highly qualified teachers, paraprofessionals and other support staff. That would be a priority for her when the board was allocating resources, she said.?

“There is a lot of data that tells us that all students, but particularly minority students, benefit from staff diversity,” she said. “I am positive from the data that investment in that resource would have a high return.”

Gretchen Lister

Gretchen Lister

Lister, now an outpatient therapist for KVC Behavioral Health Management, formerly worked for the school district as a paraprofessional and then as a transition specialist for the district’s Community Transition Program. In a written response on equity, she wrote that to address the achievement gap the district must first believe that all students can learn and achieve at high levels and then believe the skills to effectively educate all students already exist, she said.

“Our district’s mission states it is ‘committed to ensuring educational equity and excellence,'” she said. “So let’s go board members, administrators and teachers. It’s time to hold each other accountable for that mission and oath by ensuring equitable access, culturally relevant and effective instruction starts now for every student in our district.”

Teachers should not lose sight of their power, influence and ability to make a difference in student learning, Lister said.

“We all know equality in our schools can only be achieved when all our kids are treated the same,” she said. “We also know that equity can’t be achieved unless all our students receive the resources they need to graduate prepared and confident in their ability to succeed after high school.”

Lister did not provide a response to the question on transparency.