At a Saturday candidate forum, four of those running for the Lawrence school board either said in person or through a written response that they would make the time commitment necessary to serve on the board.
The forum the Douglas County Democratic Party hosted Saturday at the Lawrence Arts Center attracted incumbent board member Melissa Johnson and candidate Kelly Jones.
Of the other five candidates who will vie for the three open board positions to be on the Nov. 7 ballot, Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross was represented by his wife, Kathleen, and candidate James Alan Hollinger, whose job with Douglas County Public Works required him to attend Saturday’s collegiate outdoor swimming national championships at Lone Star Lake, submitted written responses to the questions given to candidates in advance. Candidates Jill Hayhurst, Gretchen Lister and Steve Wallace neither attended nor submitted answers.
The question about time commitment traced to the February resignation of board member Kristie Adair, who stepped down after missing numerous meetings. Johnson, who was appointed to serve out Adair’s unexpired term, said she understood the time commitment required of a board member and how to balance that with her teaching job in the Kansas City, Kan., school district and her responsibilities as a single mother.
“It definitely feels like a second job,” she said of the board position. “I have a great support system with my school and also with my children. I made sure they understood the time commitment before I applied for the board position.”
She decided not to run for the school board in the past because she was working out of town, Jones said. That changed when she took her current job as associate director of field education in the KU School of Social Welfare, she said. She now has the time and support of her family, she said.
In a written response, Gordon-Ross stated his position allowed him to work at home and gave him the flexibility to attend afternoon school events and meet with teachers, parents and administrators during the day.
The candidates all voiced support for the district’s equity and diversity efforts. In his submitted statement, Hollinger noted he was a member of the district’s Equity Council and would remain on that body. Gordon-Ross’ statement, which his wife read aloud, said the district’s Beyond Diversity seminars for faculty and staff gave insight into what institutional racism and white privilege were.
The district has made progress in its 10-year equity effort, Jones said. But she also called for additional progress, quoting school board president Shannon Kimball’s statement: “Being less bad doesn’t make you good.” The district needed to address the disproportionate representation of students of color given in-school and out-of-school suspensions and their underrepresentation in achievement outcomes, she said.
Johnson agreed with those observations, but added that programs like the Beyond Diversity seminars were only effective if “internalized.”
“The district’s focus has to be how can you get people to buy in,” she said.
Johnson cited a recent board change in response to a question on how the board can improve communications with constituents and foster greater transparency. She noted that the amount of time audience members had for statements or questions at board meetings had recently been increased from three to five minutes.
She would like to take that a step further, however, and have the board schedule town hall-type meetings, Johnson said. She also suggested that the site councils of different schools meet as one group so members can discuss common concerns and learn more about the problems unique to specific buildings.
In their prepared statements, Hollinger and Gordon-Ross said all decisions needed to be made before the public unless they involved those few issues that require a closed-door executive session, such as those dealing with nonelected personnel of the district. It's important that the public hear what questions board members have about each issue, Gordon-Ross wrote. He also wrote that board members should schedule open-office hours to meet constituents or make time on social media to interact with them.
The district was doing a better job of providing board agendas to the public and sending news releases to the press, Jones said. She, too, said she would support the board scheduling town hall meetings.
Although she is a social worker, her current job and recent ones really involved community outreach, Jones said.
“I have to be good at community engagement, or my job doesn’t get done,” she said.