Lawrence school board candidates discuss district’s recently passed budget, administrator-to-teacher ratio
photo by: Journal-World
Ahead of the Nov. 7 general election, the Journal-World asked the candidates running for five positions on the Lawrence school board for their thoughts on the district’s budget and the ratio of administrators to teachers.
Nine of the 11 candidates in the election are competing for a set of four four-year terms on the board. They are current board members Carole Cadue-Blackwood and Ronald “G.R.” Gordon-Ross and newcomers Kevin Coronado, Anne Costello, Yolanda Franklin, Edward “E.J.” Gonzales, Jody Meyer, Brandon Moore and Rachel Stumblingbear. The other two candidates, Ariel Miner and current board member Shannon Kimball, are competing for a single two-year term that was originally vacated when former school board member Andrew Nussbaum resigned from his seat in 2021. The Journal-World was able to contact all of the candidates except Meyer.
The district’s 2023-24 budget, which was approved on a 6-1 vote, totals $193.09 million after budget transfers, and it came months after the district decided to close Pinckney and Broken Arrow elementary schools and cut nearly 50 full-time teaching positions. The budget includes $6.6 million in raises for classified and certified staff, as well as a 5.5% increase to the administrative salary pool, and it also slightly increased the district’s property tax rate.
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.
In the budget vote on Sept. 11, Cadue-Blackwood was the only board member to vote against the plan. She also voted against the closure of the two elementary schools, as well as a tax incentive for a project that would redevelop a long-vacant building in downtown Lawrence into a construction and property management company’s headquarters. When asked how she felt about the district’s budget, Cadue-Blackwood told the Journal-World that “we need budget accountability.”
“This includes reducing consultants, travel expenses, and out-of-state vendors,” she said. “Inequitable economic development practices combined with tax incentives can further reinforce revenues away from the schools and areas of town that need them the most.”
Cadue-Blackwood, who is a social worker, also said that the school closures, which were pitched as a cost-saving measure, have caused the community to lose some of its trust in the board.
“We have been asked at great cost to close schools that were portrayed to have conditions that called for closure,” she said. “Pinckney Elementary and Broken Arrow were schools that needed more resources and support.”
Kimball, who has served three terms on the board and was elected three times as board president, told the Journal-World she was “concerned” by the fact that the budget was not passed with a unanimous vote. She said that voting against the budget would be like backing out of the promise that the district’s leaders made to raise teacher and staff pay. Kimball called that component of the budget the “hardest work she has ever undertaken.”
“Because in order to fund those teacher contracts, the budget that was presented to us at the Sept. 11 meeting needed to be approved,” Kimball said. “I made a promise to our staff when I approved the contracts that were negotiated, and there is no way that I would have gone back on that promise.”
Gordon-Ross, who works as a software developer, reaffirmed his support for the budget and, like Kimball, said he was concerned that the vote wasn’t unanimous.
“I was surprised by it and would share the sentiment that we had made the commitment to fund certain things,” he said. “So then to turn around and say ‘never mind,’ I’ve never seen that done before. And I don’t know what would have happened had the budget not been approved.”
Miner, a member of a grassroots campaign advocating for fully funded public education in Kansas, said she supports budgets that “ensure our public dollars stay close to the students, staff, and teachers,” but she said she needed more information on the 2023-2024 budget before she could say whether she supported it.
“I would need a more detailed breakdown to support the recently approved budget,” she said. “The documents available to the public prior to the vote were inadequate. The process is complex, and the information needs to be transparent and easily accessible.”
Miner also said the school closures didn’t make much budgetary sense.
“Taxpayers will be paying off school bonds until 2030 for renovations of their neighborhood schools that are now closed,” she said. “The recently approved budget includes further increases for taxpayers, while major corporations get tax breaks. This simply isn’t fair.”
Coronado, a Lawrence pastor and Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health Board member, told the Journal-World that the staff raises were necessary, but also that there was not enough transparency in the budget process itself.
“The budget process is very complicated and opaque, and it is important that we educate the public on this process,” he said.
Coronado added that if elected, he would “always vote to keep money in our classrooms, and work to keep the burden off the public as much as possible” and that he would “ensure that corporations are paying their fair share into helping to build up our students and support our teachers and staff.”
Stumblingbear, a Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health clinic assistant, said it’s clear that the school closures played a pivotal role in shaping the district’s budget.
“I also understand that accepting this budget means historic raises for our district’s classified staff, as well as much needed raises for our teachers,” she said. “I think accepting this budget is important so that our district can operate.”
Franklin, the leader of a local nonprofit dedicated to feeding the homeless and low-income families, said the district needed “a budget that makes commitments to our classified staff union and our teachers.”
“Our educators and staff are under-resourced and underpaid,” she said, “and our classified staff have yet to be paid a living wage.”
Franklin, too, said that the budget process needed to be easier to understand.
“Our parents and caregivers should be able to look at our budgeting documents and understand what is going on,” she said. “It’s so important that we educate the public on how this works and improve the process.”
Transparency was also a concern for Moore, a district manager for area Little Caesars restaurants. When asked whether he supported the district’s 2023-2024 budget, he replied “yes and no.”
“I always have a problem when we choose to raise taxes on individuals when tax rates are already pretty high,” he said, “and there is no discussion with the public and no forum to have true public input.”
Moore also suggested that the voting record for each individual board member should be publicly viewable on the district’s website.
“With a lot of these votes, you don’t know how each board member voted unless you’re watching, or are at the meeting,” he said. “I have more problems with that end of it than budgets that are being passed.”
Costello, who serves on the Superintendent’s Advisory Board and the Lawrence Schools Foundation board, said that while she has not analyzed the budget “in minute detail,” she thought that “to be against it would be to not fund the teachers.”
“Now, do I think there isn’t any waste in the budget?” Costello asked. “I’m sure that there is, but they have to publish it high so that if they do have extra money they can spend it and not lose it. The whole budget process is excessively complicated, and that is completely the fault of the Legislature.”
Gonzales, an IT professional, said that he is pleased with the personnel wages increases, but that he has not yet had a chance to thoroughly examine the budget.
Administrators and teachers
On the issue of whether the district has an imbalanced ratio of administrators to faculty and staff, Gordon-Ross said that the perception that “we are top-heavy in administration is an easy argument to make.”
“But when you compare us to other districts, you have to make a fair comparison,” he said, adding that both central office and building-level administrators should be counted when making that comparison. “Sometimes we hear that we’re top-heavy because we have more central admin per teacher than, say, Olathe schools,” he said. “While that is a true statement, it’s also true that Olathe has an assistant principal in every building, and we do not. And in their secondary schools they have multiple assistant principals. So they can take some of the central admin work we do and they can push it down to the building-level admin.”
Gordon-Ross said that data from the Kansas State Department of Education for the 2022-2023 school year showed that the Lawrence school district had one administrator for every 205 students, while the Olathe school district had 1 for every 203.
Miner said that “district administrator numbers have remained the same despite school closures and cuts to the teaching staff.”
“The breakdown between building-level administration versus district-level administrators used to be separated in the budget, but in 2014 they combined this information, which makes it difficult to discern specific changes to this ratio,” Miner said, adding that it was “difficult to find job descriptions along with salary information” for administration.
“If we have to close beloved neighborhood schools and cut 50 positions because of low enrollment, it only makes sense that we would also need fewer administrators at the top,” she said.
Costello said that she has “heard from people that there are people in the administrative office that maybe aren’t pulling their full weight” and that “perhaps reorganization would be helpful.”
“I was disappointed that the admin didn’t even make an offer as a gesture of some sort of salary reduction,” Costello said, “while we were going through the budget crisis. I worked for a retail company, and when COVID hit we all took a 20% pay cut at every level.”
Gonzales said that he has seen data showing “that there were 20 administrators making $100,000 or more.”
“I don’t think the ratio outweighs the other staff — I think the numbers outweigh the other staff, and that’s the problem,” he said. “If elected, I would meet with each one of them and see what their day-to-day actually looks like and if there is any consolidation that we can actually do between jobs to save money, and then roll that over into teacher salaries or independent staff salaries with the paras.”
Franklin said that while campaigning, she “has heard over and over that this community values our educators and classified staff.”
“The people on the ground, in the schools doing the work that impacts our students every single day,” she said. “Whether or not there is an imbalance, we have got to support and invest further in the people who do the most for our students and get more resources into our classrooms.”
Moore had concerns with the number of administrative roles in the district.
“We took away the support that our leaders in the building needed and added positions that, while perceived to be important, don’t really add value to the boots on the ground,” he said.
Stumblingbear said she did not believe there was an imbalance between staff and administration, and that district-level administrators had important roles to play.
“If we continue to pare down our administrators any more than we already have, then a lot of their work is going to get placed onto the principals and cause a greater burden for them,” she said.
Kimball, too, said she didn’t think “that the data about our district supports that perception” of administrative top-heaviness.
“In my experience as a board leader, our building staff has been asking us as a board to provide them with greater support in their work,” she said. “The people who do that support work are the administrators in our district.”
Cadue-Blackwood said that she is “hearing voices from the community that our educators feel like they are being spread thin, classrooms are overcrowded” and that teachers “felt unsupported or underpaid.”
“I do believe that there is a great opportunity for the district to evaluate itself, and do an audit to see where there may be excessive spending,” she said. “Losing one teacher for a better-paying job in a neighboring community is one too many.”
And Coronado said the issue of balancing teacher and administrator roles is a “complex question.”
“The fact of the matter is that over and over we have heard the community tell us that the most important priority — after caring for kids, of course — is valuing our front-line staff and teachers, not the administration,” he said.