Lawrence school board candidates outline district’s biggest challenges, budget priorities
photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World
Candidates for the Lawrence school board on Saturday outlined what they think the biggest challenges are for the school district, and many of those challenges related to money.
During a candidate forum hosted by the Douglas County Democratic Party, 11 of the 12 candidates running for the three seats gave their takes on the district’s budget and how funds are appropriated. Several candidates said the biggest challenge was finding ways to increase pay for faculty and staff, including paraeducators, who formed a labor union to bargain for better wages and benefits for classified staff.
Elizabeth Stephens said paraeducators, who are nonlicensed teaching assistants and often work with students with special needs, deserved better pay. She said the board needed to take a “hard look” at the current structure to find ways to improve it.
“Our paraeducators touch the lives of some of our most vulnerable youth,” she said. “We have an obligation to better compensate our paras and show them we value their contributions to our youth.”
Melissa Clissold, who helped form the paraeducator labor union that has since expanded to include all classified staff, said the district had a faculty and staff shortage because it did not pay them comparable wages to nearby school districts. She said a divide existed between administration and faculty that needed to be addressed.
Douglas Redding said the district’s educators needed help. Although he did not provide a specific way to address that issue, he said the district needed to involve students’ parents in the conversation.
Current board member G.R. Gordon-Ross, who is running for reelection, said the district needed to work with both the teachers union and the classified staff union to improve wages for those workers, but he said it may take a few years.
He said the district’s current budget situation — which saw a decrease in state funding because of a student enrollment decline fueled by the coronavirus pandemic — could make that difficult and would be the biggest challenge.
“We have to figure out how to address (the unions’) concerns and the pay gap that we have and at the same time deal with the loss of students,” he said, adding that it would be done through negotiations with the unions.
Travis Tozer also said the budget would be the biggest issue. He said the board was responsible for coming up with creative ways to use the funds effectively, and that board members should also work to find ways to increase funding by looking for local partnerships with businesses and lobbying for education funding from the state government.
Kay Emerson likewise said the budget would be a major challenge, but she said she also wanted to focus on providing students with choices on how they received their education and how they demonstrated they have learned rather than just relying on test scores.
Others said equity was the biggest challenge.
Andrew Nussbaum said student outcomes in areas like discipline and graduation rates have remained predictably disproportionate, despite the district’s years of work on equity issues. He said the district’s strategic plan, which aimed to address some of those issues, needed to be bolstered and board members needed to continue to critique the district’s methods.
Current board member Kelly Jones, who is also running for reelection, said improving equity was not only the biggest challenge, but also the greatest opportunity for the district.
Jones helped craft the school board’s recently adopted equity policy and board governance manual, which calls for the board to make decisions with equity in mind. She said following that policy and manual and monitoring progress would help the district improve in that area.
There were a few other issues that candidates said were the biggest challenges.
Myranda Zarlengo said the district’s communication with parents was a major issue. She said parents must have trust with the schools their children attend, and it is difficult to achieve that when communication is lacking.
Markus Logan said the district needed to do a better job of making sure students were prepared to be successful after high school. He said he thought some students graduated without really learning much and suggested that the district may be allowing students to graduate before they are ready in order to “pad the graduation numbers.”
Nate Morsches, who is a registered nurse, said student mental health was a major issue for him. He said that during the pandemic he saw a significant increase in the number of young people attempting suicide.
He said he has begun discussing ideas with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center to come up with more ways to help Lawrence students with mental health issues. He mentioned helping improve the mental health of teachers as well.
“The mental well-being of our teachers and students is extremely important,” he said. “I have seen far too many children attempt suicide this year, and it’s unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, how the district adjusts its budget will likely affect how some of those challenges are addressed.
Many of the candidates said paying better wages to faculty and staff was their priority for the budget.
Nussbaum said funds put toward administrative costs needed to be reallocated to faculty and staff, which he called the “front lines.” Clissold agreed, saying the district is “top heavy.”
Stephens said the district may be unintentionally heavy on administration. She called it a systemic issue and said the district had an opportunity to be a state leader and to “flip that narrative” by making sure faculty and staff were properly compensated.
Zarlengo said the board’s energy needed to be in protecting faculty and staff, and she suggested that some issues existed in this area before the pandemic. She said addressing those issues would be challenging but critically important.
Logan also called educators front-line workers and said it was important to better support them because of their crucial role in education.
Tozer said he wanted to help address the issue by approaching it with an open mind and a commitment to finding solutions.
Morsches also said faculty and staff should be better compensated, specifically with a living wage. He said that could be achieved by getting creative in finding ways to increase funding for the district by bringing in more students. He said he had some ideas on how to do that, such as expanding some student programs, but that he was still researching them. Emerson said she also wanted to look into creative ways to find more funding and resources, such as exploring partnerships with businesses in the community.
Jones said increasing pay would come with making cuts elsewhere in the budget. She said along with the decrease in state funding because of the enrollment drop, the district’s contingency funds have mostly been depleted. She said the board would need to work with groups, including the district’s parents of color committee, to make sure the cuts were not causing harm in other areas.
Gordon-Ross also said the board would need to make budget cuts because of the enrollment decrease, which he said about half the school districts in Kansas had experienced.
Redding said he needed to learn more about how district budgeting worked, but he said funding issues might be caused by the pandemic and the federal government would need to help the district.
Board candidate 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. Tuesday is the last day to register to vote in the primary.
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