Full slate of 11 Lawrence school board candidates share thoughts on teacher retention, budget challenges at candidate forum

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Eleven candidates vying for seats on the Lawrence school board participated in a candidate forum at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St., on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023.

With nearly a dozen candidates running for seats on the Lawrence school board in the upcoming general election, the first forum featuring all of them Wednesday evening at the Lawrence Public Library was also a first chance to hear where many of them stand on a number of issues.

All 11 candidates — incumbents Shannon Kimball, Carole Cadue-Blackwood and Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross, along with newcomers Edward “E.J.” Gonzales, Ariel Miner, Rachel Stumblingbear, Anne Costello, Yolanda Franklin, Kevin Coronado, Brandon Moore and Jody Meyer — were present at Wednesday’s forum, which was part of a library event series in partnership with the League of Women Voters of Lawrence.

Before Wednesday’s event, the only candidate forums held for 2023 school board candidates had been focused on a smaller group of people, including Miner and Kimball. That’s because those two candidates are running for a special unexpired two-year term that was originally vacated when former school board member Andrew Nussbaum resigned from his seat less than seven months after being elected in 2021. The other nine candidates are vying for four seats with four-year terms.

Candidates were asked a number of questions, including what they view as the greatest challenges in funding the school district. The majority of them pointed to the Kansas Legislature, which has routinely failed to fully fund Kansas’ public schools without the intervention of Gov. Laura Kelly. Some candidates noted that the Legislature is required by state law to fund 92% of special education costs, but that the requirement hasn’t been met in more than a decade.

Some candidates, like Gonzales and Moore, said there’s another contributing factor — the district’s administrative salaries. The Journal-World reported in March that the 21 administrators working in the district’s central office have an average salary of more than $100,000.

“I think there’s something to be said about how top-heavy we actually are in the district,” Gonzales said. “Our administration accounts for a large amount of our budget. We have a superintendent that’s making well over six figures, and he usually gets raises.”

Candidates also discussed their budget priorities, and several, including Cadue-Blackwood, Meyer and Franklin, said they wanted to make the district’s budget information more transparent and easier for community members to access. Costello said the board should encourage responsible budgeting that reduces the district’s achievement gaps, and Miner said the district should consider pausing the implementation of any new programming for a while so it can stabilize financially.

One common theme for the full field of candidates was ensuring that the district maintained competitive wages for teachers and staff.

Some candidates said that while the school board’s recent vote to ratify a pay increase that added more than $6 million to the district’s salary pool was a necessary move, it should only be the start. Gordon-Ross, for example, called for looking beyond only pay and considering steps to improve benefits like starting a buyback program for staff leave.

Others, though, said the district’s retention problems went beyond just pay. Miner said many teachers who exit the district cite administrative leadership as a top reason why, and Coronado said teachers “don’t feel supported” in Lawrence.

Those are notions that Kimball disagreed with.

“I just want to say at the outset that the data that we’ve collected as a board does not support all of the ‘doom and gloom’ comments that I’ve heard across the table today,” Kimball said. “Are there opportunities for growth? Absolutely.”

Other strategies candidates proposed to attract and retain teachers included working to develop workforce housing, an idea from Cadue-Blackwood, and looking toward innovative education models that play to the changes students experienced during the COVID pandemic, a suggestion from Stumblingbear.

Candidates were also asked about what their goals were for improving energy efficiency at school facilities. Some of them — including Meyer, Franklin and Moore — said the district has bigger issues that deserve more focus. Others said the district was already taking some good steps on that front, like approving a bid to install solar arrays at Prairie Park Elementary School as part of a new pilot program to help the district save money through reduced energy consumption.

The whole field of candidates unanimously agreed about one concept asked about at the forum — that teachers and students should be given a voice as stakeholders when it comes to district decision-making.

“Important, understood, energized — that’s when people are the most effective, if they feel those three things,” Moore said. “Absolutely we need to make sure we’re using our teachers and students; that is critical. We’ve got to get rid of the third-party consultants; we need to get in the schools and we need to talk to them.”

Wednesday’s forum was one of several events that will serve as an opportunity for Lawrence residents to learn more about the full slate of school board candidates. This Saturday at noon, members of the PAL-CWA union, which represents the district’s classified staff, will host a candidate forum that will also take place at the library, 707 Vermont St. A joint City Commission and Lawrence school board candidate forum will take place two weeks later 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.


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