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Interview with Kurt Thurmaier

Kurt Thurmaier is a community activist in Lawrence, Kansas. In the spring of 1997, Thurmaier was involved in the "Save Our Schools" campaign. One of the things he did while working with SOS was write a guest editorial in the Lawrence Daily Journal-World about the campaign. Thurmaier spoke with the Community Tool Box about how the guest editorial helped the SOS campaign.

CTB: Can you tell me a little bit about what the "Save Our Schools" campaign was about?

Thurmaier: Well, the Lawrence School Board had on its decision agenda the closure of four elementary schools in Eastern Lawrence, which is a less affluent side of town, and we organized a steering committee made up of representatives of each of the targeted schools and came up with a combined campaign to try and convince the school board not to close the schools. But immediately I saw this as running right into the spring school board elections, because they were talking in the fall, but the school board election [campaign] would start in January. And their vote was going to take place in January/February; just in time for the primary vote for the school board elections in the spring, and there were three seats open. So we started in a campaign mode to keep the schools open and to come up with information, etc; share information about what the superintendent was telling one school to make sure it was consistent with what they were saying to the other schools, and that kind of thing. And the organization was fairly fluid in terms of participation. Because I was the unofficial spokesperson, there was no actual head, so to speak, of the organization. There was the mouthpiece, and that was me.

CTB: How did the guest editorial come about?

Thurmaier: That was basically a case where we had outlined our issues. What we needed to do was present them in a cogent, coherent, concise format rather than piecemeal through lots and lots of letters to the editor. Which we were also doing as a way to show popular support, but what we needed to do was articulate our argument in a 1-2-3 point kind of format.

So I approached Ann Gardner, who is the Journal-World newspaper editor, and asked if we could do an op-ed piece. And she said, "Sure, but we have to give equal space for the school board's position." So she contacted the school board president and offered him the opportunity and he said yes. I wrote my spiel and he wrote his spiel, and she did not show us each other's pieces, so they weren't exactly point/counterpoint kind of things. But we were able to get twelve to fourteen column inches, which is a lot of space for a group to get free in a newspaper.

CTB: So what did you decide the main message in the editorial was going to be?

Thurmaier: Well, what we really needed to convince people of was that there was a community compact in Lawrence which says that East-siders [should] support West-siders and the need for their children to have schools, West-siders need to support East-siders in the need for their kids to have neighborhood schools, and that East-siders had voted rather consistently for education and for schools for people on the West side and it would break the social compact for them to turn around and now say, "Well, we can't afford our schools on the West side without closing your schools on the East side." And that if they broke that compact, this would be a very serious political problem for Lawrence for years and years to come. And that was the main message that I think was successfully conveyed. Certainly in the election.

CTB: Do you have a process that you go through to write this sort of thing?

Thurmaier: Well, if you've ever worked in a campaign, you know that the key to most campaigns is to have the candidate focus on three issues that are the reasons for that person to run for office. And we did the same thing in our "Save Our Schools" campaign. We basically kept reiterating the same messages over and over again: A ) there was a social compact; B) the school board or the school district administrator was way overestimating savings; and C) the harm to the children was going to be a lot more than people thought. Then a fourth thing started to emerge as an issue and became important, which was that the process stank. And that the way the school board had gone about targeting these schools was really bad. And so all I had to do was articulate those three or four points that we had been reiterating verbally and in pieces elsewhere into one statement.

CTB: How do you feel the guest editorial affected your work? Do you feel like it had a big impact?

Thurmaier: Well, it's hard to say, but I definitely think it was a useful thing to do, because it laid out the argument in a way that you can't do in a letter to the editor. It also confers more status -- a letter to the editor is just somebody's opinion, and they're often dismissed as just being from some rabble-rouser type of person. But if you can gain standing as a guest editorial, the stature of your comments somehow rises. You might not be William F. Buckley or Leonard Pitts, but you get yourself into that same kind of level that gives you much more authenticity than a letter to the editor. Which, of course, is why newspapers are probably reluctant to allow guest editorials as a rule.

When you can do a point-counterpoint, you have the chance to get your argument out there. Especially if you think your opponent's argument is pretty lame, this is an excellent venue, because you can let them put their lame argument out and then you look even better.

 

Contributor 
Chris Hampton