Kansas school board member tutors Zoom hostages on dangerous voting

July 24, 2020 7:00 am

Illustration by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector

Here’s a textbook case, Kansas, on what happens when people don’t pay enough attention to down-ballot elections.

It happened a little after an hour into Wednesday’s meeting of the Kansas State Board of Education, whose members were deciding whether to approve Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order delaying the start of public and private school instruction for three weeks to try to get a handle on out-of-control coronavirus cases.

Board members had heard from Lee Norman, head of the state’s health department. They’d (hopefully) read the thousand pages of comments from teachers, parents, superintendents and others. When it was time for each member to explain how they’d vote, a couple gave thoughtful explanations about how a three-week delay didn’t make sense for a small school district in a county with few cases. A few spoke forcefully about why they supported the delay. Much of it felt political.

In between them was the performance by Steve Roberts.

“Fix American education starting in Kansas, March 2017 AD. Begin with the state Board of Education’s vision: Kansas leads the world in the success of each student,” he began, oddly.

“The following ideas could be implemented in any state by its board or governing structure,” he continued. “Any community can provide an excellent education for any student who wants it. The last three words in the previous sentence are essential: who wants it.

Roberts proceeded to say nothing about the pandemic. Instead, he read, almost word-for-word, from a manifesto he’d written in 2017.

It began with just enough common sense — “Stop treating teachers as clerks. Expect professionalism and pay teachers as professionals” — that it took a moment for those of us unfamiliar with Roberts’ particular brand of hokum to get sucked into his frontier gibberish.

Then, for almost seven excruciating minutes in which reality was suspended, Roberts held his fellow board members, everyone who was watching the live stream and essentially the entire state hostage.

Roberts represents more than 91,000 students in Johnson County’s Blue Valley, DeSoto, Olathe and Shawnee Mission school districts and Wyandotte County’s Turner district.

He was first elected to the state Board of Education in 2012. More than 75,000 Johnson Countians voted for him:

The number of Johnson Countians supporting him rose when he ran for reelection in 2016:

I’m not a betting woman but I’d lay money on the possibility that most of those voters knew nothing about Roberts (a lot of us didn’t until Wednesday). Most of us just vote for the person with our party’s letter next to it.

All of which led to a pathetic display of ridiculousness during a serious life-or-death discussion on Wednesday, followed by an extraordinary statement from Norman:

The good news is that when Roberts’ term expires next year, some of the biggest school districts in Kansas will no longer be stuck with him.

Chances are also high that he stands no chance of winning his Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, which seems to exist on his website only, though he does face the Kansas classics Kris Kobach, Roger Marshall and Bob Hamilton (among others).

Three candidates are running for the state Board of Education seat Roberts will mercifully vacate. The Democrat is Melanie Haas. The two Republicans are David Krug, who has provided thoughtful answers to the Shawnee Mission Post’s candidate surveys, and Benjamin Hodge, who did not respond to the Post’s efforts to educate its community, and whose website proudly displays his photo with Andrew Breitbart and boasts that Bill O’Reilly once said nice things about him.

The best news is that plenty of Johnson County voters have learned their lessons since 2016. Here’s to electing serious and skilled public servants.

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C.J. Janovy
C.J. Janovy

C.J. Janovy is a veteran journalist with deep roots in the Midwest. She was the Opinion Editor for the Kansas Reflector from launch unit l June 2021. Before joining the Reflector, she was an editor and reporter at Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR. Before that, she edited the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, The Pitch, where Janovy and her writers won numerous local, regional and national awards. Her book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas” was among the Kansas Notable Books of 2019.