At NAACP forum, Lawrence City Commission and school board candidates talk equity, Panasonic, police and more

photo by: Matt Resnick | Journal-World

Shannon Kimball (right) delivers a response during the NAACP-hosted candidate forum, Saturday, July 8 at the Lawrence Public Library. Also pictured are Lawrence school board candidates Ariel Miner (left) and Justine Burton. The forum was held in advance of the Aug. 1 primary.

Candidates for seats on the Lawrence City Commission and Lawrence school board addressed topics as diverse as racial equity, school closures and the upcoming Panasonic battery plant at two forums on Saturday at the Lawrence Public Library.

The forums, hosted by the local branch of the NAACP, were held ahead of the Aug. 1 primary elections for three seats on the Lawrence City Commission and a special two-year term on the Lawrence school board.

Six of the eight City Commission candidates — Chris Flowers, Dustin Stumblingbear, Justine Burton and incumbents Courtney Shipley, Amber Sellers and Brad Finkeldei — were in attendance. Joshua Olafson and Mike Dever were both absent, but a person associated with Dever’s campaign read his answers from a prepared statement. On the school board side, board president Shannon Kimball and Ariel Miner joined Burton, who is also running for school board.

School board

Much of the discussion by the school board candidates centered on equity in Lawrence schools and how the district’s budget decisions had affected that issue. Candidates were asked about the equity aspects of the recent closures of Pinckney and Broken Arrow elementary schools, and were also asked to share their views on how recent budget cuts would impact marginalized students.

Miner said she believed the school closures would have detrimental and lingering effects on students “already struggling the most.”

“The budget cuts will be felt by everyone in some way,” Miner said, adding that she had reviewed data on the harmful effects of school closures and that she thought the decisions were anything but equitable.

“It was not equitable to close Pinckney, (which) had 65.2% of students qualifying for free- and reduced lunch compared to 11% at Langston Hughes,” she said.

She added that Pinckney had the highest percentage of African American students and was the most racially diverse elementary school in the district.

“So we closed schools with families who had the highest needs,” she said. “The consequences of budget cuts should not fall on the back of our most historically marginalized families.”

Burton said that a way to foster racial equity in the district might be to hire a more diverse set of instructors “of all ethnic backgrounds.”

“Being able to see someone that looks like them, I think, is very important for their learning,” Burton said.

With regard to the budget cuts, Burton said she was left with more questions than answers, and that it was unfair that students were caught in the middle. In addition to the effects on kids’ learning, she lamented the potential impacts of budget cuts on extracurricular activities.

“I don’t think the budget cuts should go toward the activities of kids,” Burton said, adding that if elected, she would advocate for parents to be more involved with the board’s decision-making process.

Miner also had concerns about activities — especially about decisions to scale back instructors for fine arts programs, such as music and band. As the Journal-World has reported, several band, orchestra and choir positions have been cut from the district’s secondary schools over the past couple of years.

But Kimball emphasized that these programs still existed and that “we are providing those opportunities to students in both areas.”

“We did not cut music programs; we did not cut art programs,” Kimball said, adding that the district would assign staff to programs in a way that correlated with student enrollment.

On equity, Kimball said public school inequities were intertwined with systemic racism that exists within communities. She also mentioned the district’s efforts to provide pay increases for teachers and other staff, which she said would help the district with hiring and retention.

“Retaining our staff; reducing the number of exits that we have, ultimately better serves our most marginalized students by creating stability,” she said. “Some of the work I have been doing and will continue doing on the board includes passing an equity policy.”

City Commission

photo by: Matt Resnick | Journal World

Lawrence City Commission candidates look on as Chris Flowers (second from left) delivers a response during an NAACP-hosted primary election forum on Saturday, July 8, 2023.

The City Commission candidate forum featured much discussion on homelessness and housing affordability, including whether Lawrence would have enough housing to accommodate the potential impact from the multibillion-dollar Panasonic battery plant that’s being built in nearby De Soto.

Several candidates, including Stumblingbear, Flowers and Dever, wondered whether Lawrence city officials were sufficiently prepared for the potential influx of new residents from the factory, located near De Soto. And Sellers had questions about how high the plant’s wages would be.

Candidates were also asked for their thoughts on the role of the Community Police Review Board. All three incumbents spoke about letting the process of re-evaluating the board’s role play out, with Finkeldei saying it was a process to “reimagine our police review board.” But some of the other candidates were more critical, including Dever, whose statement characterized the board as a “powerless body that lacks resources”; Stumblingbear, who said the board was “toothless”; and Flowers, who said the board needed much more power to review cases on its own.

One other criminal justice topic on Flowers’ mind was drug laws; in his closing remarks, he said he was in favor of decriminalizing psychedelic mushrooms. None of the other candidates spoke about drug-related issues.


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