Former Lawrence Public Schools transition specialist, mother of two files for Lawrence school board

Gretchen Lister

Gretchen Lister wants to be a voice for underserved students and families in her run for the Lawrence school board.

The Lawrence resident, mother of two and longtime social worker may be an “unorthodox” political candidate, she admits. But Lister also said it’s time for the board to consider new perspectives and approaches, 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,” says Lister, 63. “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.”

Gretchen Lister

Lister says she may have some unique insight into that area. Five years ago, she joined the Lawrence school district as a paraprofessional when her two sons, now students at West Middle School, were just entering the district. She eventually became a transition specialist for the district’s Community Transition Program, a position she held up until this summer.

Now currently employed at The Willow Domestic Violence Center, Lister says she’s just started her new job as an outreach coordinator for the center’s programming in rural Douglas County.

Originally from the East Coast, Lister says she moved to Lawrence when she was 11 years old, attending public schools throughout her childhood and graduating from Lawrence High School in 1973. Lister says she eventually attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., graduating in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. After spending a few years living in Arizona and New York, Lister returned to Lawrence in 1989, graduating with a master’s degree in social work from the University of Kansas in 1991.

After several years working “behind the scenes” for various school districts, hospitals and other community organizations locally and out-of-state, Lister says she’s finally ready to start “working in front of the scenes” as a school board member. If elected to the board, Lister says she’d work to create more equitable learning environments through community outreach.

That includes building relationships with underserved students, she says, including kids who have been identified as emotionally disturbed, for example, or kids living in a shelter or with relatives. She also wants to serve as an advocate for school staff, including teachers and paras who work with high-needs students.

“Are our teachers feeling adequately supported? We’ve got teachers working with kids who have significant developmental challenges who don’t have the ability to communicate, but they sure have the ability to pick things up and throw them. And sometimes, those things are people,” Lister says of her concerns with safety training and working conditions. “I don’t think there’s always an awareness in our community of the kids we’re serving, and what we do take on.”

As a candidate, Lister also says she’d like to see board members spending more time in classrooms. She’d also like to see the district’s administrators of color making outreach trips to schools, she says, so students of color can have the chance to interact with leaders who look like them.

“I just want teachers to feel supported. I want parents to feel welcomed and supported and understood,” she says. “That’s what I would like to do — get in there and learn and see what I can do to be helpful. I’m a pretty resourceful gal, and I want to listen to people’s concerns and make a difference.”

After the noon filing deadline on Thursday, seven candidates had filed for the school board. They are James Alan Hollinger, Kelly Jones, Gretchen Lister, Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross, Jill Hayhurst, Steve Wallace and Melissa Johnson, who is currently serving on the board through January 2018.

Johnson was appointed to the school board after the resignation of Kris Adair in February. Hers is one of three seats up for election this year, along with those of board president Marcel Harmon and longtime board member Vanessa Sanburn. Neither Harmon nor Sanburn is seeking re-election.

The general election is slated for Nov. 7.