At forum organized by union, Lawrence school board candidates say there’s still work to do on wages for district staff

photo by: Matt Resnick | Journal-World

Lawrence school board candidates are pictured during a forum at the Lawrence Public Library on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.

At a forum Saturday, nine candidates for the Lawrence school board told members of a staff union that raising wages would be a priority for them, and some of them said they knew firsthand the difference a raise can make for low-income workers.

The forum at the Lawrence Public Library, which was organized by the PAL-CWA staff union, was attended by nine of the 11 candidates for the school board elections: current board members Carole Cadue-Blackwood, Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross and Shannon Kimball, and newcomers Kevin Coronado, Anne Costello, Yolanda Franklin, Edward “E.J.” Gonzales, Rachel Stumblingbear and Ariel Miner. The other two candidates, Jody Meyer and Brandon Moore, were absent.

PAL-CWA represents the district’s “classified staff” — paraeducators, custodians, cafeteria workers and other employees who aren’t licensed teachers. Over the summer, the district approved a pay package that included more than $2.5 million for classified staff raises and increased wages for those positions by $2.12 to $3.33 an hour. One of the big questions posed to the candidates Saturday was whether more work needed to be done to increase pay. All nine candidates agreed that there was, and the current board members were quick to mention the pay package they’d already approved.

“We have made a lot of changes in our district in order to accomplish being able to approve that contract with a $3 hourly raise,” Kimball said. “I know it didn’t get everybody to where we all wanted to be, but I am proud that we made such substantial progress. Getting 68% of our classified workers to $15 an hour, that is more progress than we’ve ever made in this district.”

Gordon-Ross, meanwhile, described the wage increases as “historic,” but said that “It’s just the beginning step.” And Cadue-Blackwood said that if reelected, she would “continue to work to find the $3 million to raise the classified staff to $16 an hour” or at least $34,000 a year.

“And I understand that it’s not just money,” she said. “It’s access to health care and quality education.”

Some candidates mentioned one specific dollar figure — $16.04, which the forum organizers pointed to in their questions as a target for a living wage. But the candidates also said it was important to give classified staff not just more pay, but better quality of life. Costello said that she is “dedicated to advocating for workers’ rights, fair wages, safe working conditions, and child security,” and Coronado said he would want to ensure that the district paid enough that its staff “don’t have to work two, or three, or even four jobs to make ends meet.”

A few candidates even spoke about their personal experience in those kinds of situations.

“I’m living in your shoes right now,” said Franklin, who works in the nonprofit field. “I know what it’s like to hold down three jobs and still not have enough.”

Gonzales, an IT professional, said he’s “been in the trenches before” and “had to scrape and crawl to get where I’m at today.”

“I know what it’s like to live on minimum wage and support a family of six, and how stressful it is to get a payday loan to make ends meet,” he said.

And Stumblingbear, a public health clinic assistant, said she too could directly “testify” about how making a living wage “can relieve burdens on a family.”

Not many of the candidates shared specifics about how they might fund wage increases for staff. But there was some talk about the district’s administration and other expenses. Franklin said that if the district can “justify spending six figures on its new curriculum and another six figures on salary increases for administrative staff,” then it could afford “another $3 million” to give classified staff a living wage.

The forum moderators also asked several questions about policy issues that the school board has little or no control over, such as state-level efforts to use state tax dollars to help families pay for private school or homeschooling. Miner, who is a member of a grassroots campaign advocating for fully funded public education in Kansas, said she would continue to speak out against such measures if she were on the school board.

“If elected, I will call out privatization efforts right here in the district,” she said.

Kimball said she’d previously testified against proposals in the Kansas Legislature that she saw as harmful, and she added that she wasn’t aware of any “privatization efforts of public education happening in Lawrence Public Schools.”

“We are absolutely spending our public tax dollars on services for our students in our public school buildings,” she said.

Nine of the 11 candidates for school board — Cadue-Blackwood, Coronado, Costello, Franklin, Gonzales, Gordon-Ross, Meyer, Moore and Stumblingbear — will be vying for four four-year terms on the board in the November general election. The other two, Kimball and Miner, are competing for a two-year term that was originally vacated when former school board member Andrew Nussbaum resigned from his seat less than a year after being elected in 2021. Voters will have another opportunity to hear from candidates at a joint City Commission and Lawrence school board candidate forum on Saturday, Oct. 7, at 1:15 p.m. at the Lied Center Pavilion, 1600 Stewart Drive, hosted by Lawrence’s NAACP branch, Black:30 and Loud Light.

The deadline to register to vote in the general election is Tuesday, Oct. 17, and advance voting by mail or in person at the Douglas County Elections Office, 711 W. 23rd St., begins the following day. Election Day is Nov. 7.


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