Lawrence school board candidates discuss ways to address district inequities during NAACP forum

photo by: Forum screenshot/Lawrence Kansas NAACP

Candidates for the Lawrence school board appear during a public forum hosted by the Lawrence branch of the NAACP on Thursday, July 8, 2021.

Candidates for the Lawrence school board on Thursday pitched several ideas for improving equity in the school district, including following the district’s strategic plan, reconsidering funding choices and hiring more diverse faculty and staff.

Nine of the 12 candidates running for the three open seats on the school board participated in a virtual candidate forum held by the Lawrence branch of the NAACP on Thursday. They discussed racial, economic and other equity issues that they saw in the district and how they would like the school board to address them.

Kelly Jones and G.R. Gordon-Ross, who are both incumbents running for reelection, said they thought the district’s current leadership and its planning were already focused on making the district more equitable.

Jones said she thought the board members often needed to “get out of the way of the experts,” including Superintendent Anthony Lewis and Cynthia Johnson, who recently became the district’s executive director of inclusion, engagement and belonging. But Jones also pointed to the equity policy that the current board approved. She said it involved looking for clear accountability metrics to make sure the district makes progress on equity.

“I’m proud of that policy and I believe in it,” she said. “If the board practices it with fidelity, we will see the kind of outcomes we want to see for students.”

Gordon-Ross, meanwhile, highlighted the district’s strategic plan. He said the plan, which was installed in 2019, includes action plans that are currently in progress to address academic achievement gaps and other inequities. He said he also wants to continue working to reduce class sizes through his role on the district boundary committee.

One of the newcomers in the race, Nate Morsches, also advocated for sticking to the current strategic plan. He also said that the district should look at how it teaches history and ensure that nothing in its classes is sugarcoated.

Kay Emerson said a major part of solving equity issues would be finding local partnerships to expand the district’s resources. She said the district needed to be proactive on that front.

“My goal as a school board member is to … find solutions by accessing what already exists in our great city through building out partnerships not yet explored,” she said.

Andrew Nussbaum, who is a former special education teacher for the district, said inequity should more accurately be called “injustice.” He claimed that the district was historically and currently complicit in perpetuating inequity, and he called for the district to acknowledge that. He also advocated for increasing wages for staff and redistributing more resources from administration to classrooms.

Elizabeth Stephens said the district needed to focus on recruiting and retaining a diverse faculty and staff. She said hiring more people of color could help students of color do better in school.

“Kids do wonderfully when they see people like themselves in positions of authority,” she said.

Melissa Clissold said she thought the district should reconsider how it uses Title I funding from the federal government, which is meant to support students from low-income households. She said the district only used those funds for elementary schools, but it should be distributing them to middle schools as well.

Douglas Redding said he thought economic inequities in the district had historically been rooted in real estate. He said he thought students on the west side of town had received more benefits than students in other areas, and that part of the reason he was running for school board was to be a voice for the central and eastern parts of Lawrence. He also said the district needed to consider more ways to lower class sizes, suggesting classes as small as seven students per teacher.

Myranda Zarlengo said her understanding of equity issues was based on her own experience as a single mother to a second grader in the district. She said she realized that other people had different perspectives, and that she would value hearing others’ viewpoints.

“Moving forward, I want to ask the questions and get real actions in place,” she said.

One of the candidates — Travis Tozer, who identified himself a white man from western Lawrence — ceded his speaking time to the other candidates, saying he wanted to do more listening before speaking on the topic of equity himself. Two other candidates, Markus Logan and Leticia Gradington, did not appear at the forum.

Because of the number of candidates, a primary election is required. The primary will be Aug. 3, and the general election will be Nov. 2.

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