Voter Guide: Lawrence school board candidate profiles

Five candidates — from left, Ronald G.R. Gordon-Ross, James Alan Hollinger, Melissa Johnson, Kelly Jones and Gretchen Lister — are seeking election to the Lawrence school board this year.

Voters in the Lawrence school district will elect three people to the school board this election cycle.

The three candidates elected will be asked to make one of their most important decisions as board members soon after taking their seats. The finalists for the open Lawrence superintendent position will be announced in January, and the newly elected board members will be part of the finalists’ interviews and the selection of the next superintendent. They will also be asked to make progress on equity and transparency issues in the district.

The three candidates receiving the most votes will be elected to the positions in which Johnson, Marcel Harmon and Vanessa Sanburn now serve. Harmon and Sanburn chose not to seek re-election. There will be seven candidates on advance ballots and those given to voters on Nov. 7. Two of those candidates, Steve Wallace and Jill Hayhurst, have withdrawn from the race, but state law requires their names to remain on the ballot. Still actively campaigning for the three seats are Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross, James Alan Hollinger, Kelly Jones, incumbent Johnson and Gretchen Lister.

More on the 2017 Lawrence city and school elections

• Read up on profiles, candidate forums, ballot issues and more in the Journal-World’s Voter Guide.

Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross

Ronald G.R. Gordon-Ross

Gordon-Ross moved to Lawrence as a college student in 1996, eventually graduating with a pharmacy degree from the University of Kansas. He now works remotely as a health care IT professional for a hospital in Montana. It’s a job the father of five said would give him the flexibility to attend daytime school lunches and district functions and thus be accessible. It also provides an insight into a quality he wants in the next superintendent.

“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.”

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

“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.”

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.

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 says he “grew up all over the place” as the son of an Air Force service member, but has called Lawrence home since 2001. After graduating from high school, he went on to study pre-veterinary medicine at Kansas State University from 1990 to 1995, ultimately hitting pause on higher education before taking up jobs in the agricultural and landscaping industries from 2000 to 2006. Hollinger, now a vegetation control specialist, has worked for Douglas County Public Works since 2006.

Hollinger’s vocal support for equity in the district predates the current board contest. He first made his views known at a March public forum for applicants seeking the vacant seat of Kristie Adair. The board later selected Melissa Johnson to fill the seat.

“I believe that all students should have a fair, equal and safe opportunity to learn at the school level,” Hollinger said at the forum. “… They should have all the tools they need to get that accomplished, so that when they do leave school, they’re going to be successful adults, whether they go to college, pursue the military as a career or do some sort of technical training.”

Last month, Hollinger told the Journal-World the board’s quest to make progress on equity and diversity issues needed to start at the top with the hiring of the next district superintendent.

“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. I would like a superintendent who has dealt with (equity) before. I would not want this to be the first time the person is dealing with these issues.”

To promote transparency, the school board should only go into closed session when it was a legal necessity, Hollinger said.

“I still think the board is using executive session too much,” he said. “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.”

Melissa Johnson

Melissa Johnson

Johnson is the only incumbent running for the three school board positions on the ballot. The U.S. Marine Corps veteran and mother of two brings to her seat the perspective of a professional educator.

Johnson, who was appointed to the board in March to fill the unexpired term of Kristie Adair, moved to Lawrence with her children in 2005, earning a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from KU in 2007. Johnson spent two years teaching in the Lawrence district before taking a job in the Kansas City, Kan. school system. She is now a second-grade teacher at Kansas City’s Whittier Elementary School. It’s a job that informs her view of what the district needs in its 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 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. She suggested the committees should collaborate more often.

“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.”

Kelly Jones

Kelly Jones

Raised in small-town South Dakota, Jones became the first person in her family to earn a college degree, graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. That same year, Jones and her husband, KU chemistry professor Jon Tunge, moved to Lawrence.

At a recent forum for Lawrence school board candidates, Jones shared more about her South Dakota childhood. Her father was a labor organizer who had frequent visits from local law enforcement displeased with his work. With her pride in those roots, Jones joked she was disappointed when one of her two daughters told her she decided not to participate in the September sit-in against what student protesters called a culture of LGBT discrimination at Lawrence High School because she wanted to finish a class assignment. At the same forum, her response to a report that students of color were twice as likely to be punished with in-school or out-of-school suspensions was simply: “It’s racism. End it.”

Jones said she takes equity issues seriously. It was the report on the disparity of punishment that prompted her run for the board, she 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 enhance 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.

Jones is the associate director of field education in the KU School of Social Welfare. It’s a position that will give her the time to devote to the school board, she said. The job and others she has held in the past have also provided experience in community outreach, including organizing town hall meetings. The background in outreach gives her confidence that transparency is one issue the district can fix, she said.

Gretchen Lister

Gretchen Lister

With a fine arts undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in social work, Gretchen Lister admits 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, an outreach coordinator for the Willow Domestic Violence Center and currently an outpatient therapist for KVC Behavioral Health Management. 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.

“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.”

It’s time for the board to consider new perspectives and approaches, she said, and as a former district employee with two sons still in school, she feels she’d make the right person for the job.

“I’m always going to be honest with people. I’m one who levels, and sometimes that’s going to be uncomfortable for people,” she said. “But I think if you’re talking about change and talking about being transparent, you have to be forthcoming. As a community, I think we do want to know what’s going on.”

One such pull-no-punches moment occurred at a recent candidate forum. Lister said the district could afford to pay paraprofessionals more by reducing the size of its “bloated” administration.

With equal candor, Lister says the district needs to heed its own words and get serious about addressing equity issues.

“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.”