My conversation about transparency with Lawrence school board candidates

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.

Lawrence school board members receive no pay and probably less prestige. Every candidate who is running for a seat on the board deserves our thanks, and that is one of the reasons I called each of the five active candidates recently. After all, the easiest thing to do in Lawrence is to not run for public office.

But clearly I had another objective in mind too: I wanted to quiz each of them on a couple of disturbing incidents that have occurred over the past couple of years in the district. I could have picked more than two. There was the mismanagement of the New York Elementary remodeling project, which included a lack of a safety fence and a lack of city building inspectors. There was the district doing little to notify the public that the board was going to decide on a policy to allow condoms to be handed out at the two high schools. And then there was a decision to allow former Superintendent Kyle Hayden to go back to his old job as an operations manager after a year on the job as superintendent didn’t suit him. The public first learned of that through a press release that made it sound as if the move was a done deal, when in fact it still needed approval from the board.

But I settled on two other issues: one a specific incident and the other a process problem that plays itself out time after time. Here are some key takeaways from my good conversations with each of the board candidates.

Issue No. 1: The South Middle School incident. In November and December of 2016, a teacher was facing allegations that he had made racist remarks to his class. How the district handled the issue raised questions about the district’s commitment to transparency. Specifically, the board accepted the teacher’s resignation but refused to release his name when accepting the resignation. His name, at that point, had never been publicly released. The only way the board members knew his name is because they had been told it in a closed-door executive session. The board essentially came out and said “we agree to accept the resignation of that guy we were told about in a closed-door meeting.” Is that the way open government is supposed to work? That’s what I asked the candidates.

Gretchen Lister, a social worker who previously worked as a paraprofessional and transition specialist for the Lawrence school district, is a firebrand on this subject. She said the board clearly received bad advice from district administrators on how to handle the incident and the teacher’s resignation.

“I have felt all along that the legal department has done a poor job of advising our board,” Lister said. “We may need to seek our own legal counsel outside the district in the future.”

She said too much of how the district handled the incident was geared toward protecting the district from a lawsuit rather than really addressing the allegations.

“So much about how the district handled this was in poor taste,” Lister said.

Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross, a health care I.T. professional, agreed that the district didn’t handle the teacher’s resignation well.

“I think not naming him was kind of silly,” Gordon-Ross said. “I think they got some bad advice. I don’t know who they thought they were trying to protect or what they were trying to salvage at that point.”
For the sake of full disclosure, Gordon-Ross told me that he is the parent of a South student who had been taught by the teacher in question, Chris Cobb. Gordon-Ross said he didn’t care for Cobb as a teacher.

“All that being said, I don’t think the board handled that situation correctly,” Gordon-Ross said.

Melissa Johnson, a Kansas City, Kan., elementary teacher who was appointed to the school board in March, said she initially was a “little disappointed” in how the district handled the matter. She said she wants to better understand the legalities of why the district acted the way it did. “But if we can give the information out, we should,” she said.

She said she believes the board is making “a step in the right direction” on improving its communication with the public.

Kelly Jones, who works at KU’s School of Social Welfare, also noted the advice that the board was receiving at the time.

“They did receive some advice from general counsel that appeared to be quite guided to protecting the identity of the teacher,” Jones said. “Even if they were going to refrain from sharing information, there were ways they could have reassured the public.”

Jones said she does believe in due process and is withholding judgment on some of the district’s actions. But she said it was clear the way the district handled the issue left many community members hurt.

James Alan Hollinger, a landscaper and an employee of Douglas County, said “if I understand the law correctly, they could have been a little more open about the situation.” He has been a critic of the district’s reliance on executive sessions.

“Once the Kyle Hayden situation came up,” Hollinger said, referring to Hayden’s abrupt transfer, “I think the board got a wake-up call that the public is tired of the executive sessions and the lack of transparency.”

Issue No. 2: I’ve covered local government for about 25 years, and I can attest that a big part of the process is receiving reports. City, county and school board members receive numerous reports and then take action based on them. The city and the county do a good job of making those reports available at the same time the meeting agenda is released to the public. That way the media, the public and the elected officials themselves can read the reports beforehand, if they wish. Everybody comes to the meeting better informed.

The Lawrence school district rarely makes reports available prior to a meeting. That means not only are the press and the public not seeing the report, board members don’t either. Maybe the issue doesn’t sound that important, but I would argue it is one of the most important, if the district wishes to become more transparent.

The district’s current policy allows a lot of issues to go unquestioned. Most of us simply aren’t quick enough to hear a long report during the course of a meeting and come up with every question that needs to be asked.
I asked all of the candidates what they thought about the job the district does in getting information to the public in advance of school board meetings.

Johnson said she has noticed that issue as a board member since March. She said she has asked about it and plans to continue to seek more information ahead of board meetings.

“That is something I definitely would like to push forth with,” Johnson said. “Certain things it takes me awhile to process. I’m capable of using information on the spot, but there are times that certain content areas do take more time. I would love to have more of that information ahead of time.”

Hollinger said the issue goes to the heart of open government.

“If you are going to talk about transparency, you have to be transparent,” he said. “You have to be more open with your agenda.”

He said, if elected, he would discuss the issue with a new superintendent once the new superintendent had gotten settled into the position.

Lister said there obviously needs to be a change in practice.

“You are singing to the choir here,” she said. “This board has to get together and decide that we are moving forward as an open book.”

She said the district leadership, in general, needs to be more approachable. As a former staff member, she said she knows there are teachers who don’t come forward with concerns because they fear there will be a price to pay. “If I’m elected, that will stop,” she said.

Jones said the lack of information prior to meetings is an issue she has noticed and brought up on the campaign trail. She thinks the district is making an effort to improve its practices, and she also said she understands that sometimes deadline issues make it difficult for staff to complete the work in time to be included with the agenda.

“But I agree that it is much better that everybody knows what is going to be discussed, and have time to ask informed questions,” Jones said. “I know that when we make decisions as a community and the board hires the next superintendent, these are areas that are going to be talked about.”

Gordon-Ross said he wasn’t aware of the differences of how the city and county distribute information prior to a meeting versus the school board. But he said he’ll now review that issue. Gordon-Ross said he instead has noticed how the board treats public comment at its meetings. He said it normally is one of the first items on the agenda, meaning the public doesn’t always have the opportunity to comment about discussions the board has later in the meeting.

“I just think that is weird,” Gordon-Ross said.

Gordon-Ross said how the board interacts with the public is an issue he intends to address.

“We have a great opportunity to challenge the new superintendent to change that culture,” he said.