Lawrence school board candidates agree on need for more openness, differ on charter schools

Lawrence school board candidate Gretchen Lister answers a question while three other candidates (from left), Ronald G.R. Gordon-Ross, James Alan Hollinger and Kelly Jones listen during a two-hour forum the Voter Education Coalition sponsored Sunday at Lawrence City Hall.

In answering a question at a Sunday school board candidate forum about how to build community consensus, James Alan Hollinger said widespread support would be achieved through transparency on the part of the board and through building the public’s trust.

“I would make sure all the decisions the school board made were open,” he said. “There are a list of things that have to be discussed (in executive session). Everything else should be done publicly with the students’ input, the parents’ input and community’s input. I believe as a school board member, you make sure everything is done openly and honestly and with as much input as possible. If that means pushing an issue to the next meeting, so be it.”

Hollinger was among four of the candidates running for the three open board seats to be contested on the Nov. 7 ballot at the forum the Voter Education Coalition sponsored Sunday at Lawrence City Hall. Joining him at the forum were Ronald “G.R.” Gordan-Ross, Kelly Jones and Gretchen Lister. Melissa Johnson, the only incumbent in the race, missed the forum to be with a child recovering from surgery.

To build community support, board members needed to be accessible, Hollinger said. As a Douglas County Public Works employee, he was expected to be accessible to constituents at all times. He’d make the same commitment as a board member, he said.

Now the associate director of field education in the KU School of Social Welfare, Jones said as a social worker, she had experience in organizing town hall meetings and other forms of community engagement. The board’s goal of scheduling town hall meetings would be helpful in encouraging openness and dialogue, she said. Another positive step, she said, would be the hiring of a superintendent committed to community engagement.

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.

The three board members elected in November will be on the board in February when the new district superintendent is hired. Gordon-Ross, a health care IT consultant, said he would question candidates in January about their experience in addressing equity and achievement gap issues.

“The big thing I said in the superintendent search is I don’t want someone who has just said they have done things, but I want them to validate they have actually done things to address equity,” Gordon-Ross said.

He, too, wanted a superintendent with experience in making equity improvements, but he also wanted someone with a classroom background, Hollinger said.

“The other question I would probably ask is if they had teaching experience,” he said. “I would prefer a superintendent who came from the teaching field, rather than a profession field, so they can relate to their employees.”

Lister said teaching experience mattered less to her than someone who had a passion for improving the educational achievement of all students.

“We’re all teachers in some regard,” she said. “I want them to have a rich life experience, to be creative, be outgoing, to care about people, particularly young people.”

In one of the few points of disagreement, Lister said she would consider supporting creation of a Lawrence charter school, or a publicly funded, independently managed school. Gordon-Ross and Jones rejected charter schools out of concern they would divert resources away from other pressing district needs and the goal of improving all schools. Hollinger said he hadn’t researched the topic.

Lister, an outpatient therapist for KVC Behavioral Health Management, worked for five years as a paraprofessional and transitional specialist in the Lawrence school district. She would consider charter schools as a way of addressing the disparities she witnessed firsthand, she said.

“I’m not opposed to anything that brings about positive results,” she said. “I want to bring back the alternative high school. I’m very big on video education on our schools.”

Three of the candidates endorsed the district’s practice of working with the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department to provide free condoms to high school students.

“I absolutely would support as a board member … making condoms available,” Jones said. “What we know from the data is the rates of sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies go down.”

Lister and Gordon-Ross also supported the practice, but added it was a discussion parents should have with their children.

“I would also support the means by which the district could provide the same education and tools to parents who might not be comfortable having that conversation,” Gordon-Ross said.

Hollinger passed on answering the question, saying he didn’t know enough about the district’s sex-education curriculum to answer.