The Lower Fox Creek School at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve stands near Strong City, Kansas. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)
The Lower Fox Creek School at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is a stout building of native limestone. Completed in 1882, on land given by local rancher Stephen F. Jones, it was the heart of School District 14, meant to advance the common good by providing an education for area children. It taught all grades, according to the National Park Service website, and its students never numbered more than 19. It closed in 1930. Now largely restored, the original blackboards remain inside, leaving one to ponder the number of lessons chalked there over the decades.
Situated on a hill overlooking Kansas Highway 177 in Chase County, the school is a favorite location of mine because of the beauty of the surrounding prairie. I’m also moved by the gravity of the stone building, its seriousness of purpose, and the number of lives it has touched.
The school represents the New England idea of a common school, as articulated by 19th Century educational reformer Horace Mann. Mann believed education should be universal, non-sectarian, and free. The notion proved the bedrock of American education and contributed to our shared ideals of equality, advancement and civic duty. In Kansas, according to the National Park Service, the common school provided a single model for the development and organization of the state’s schools.
While schools have changed in Kansas — most notably with the unification of schools in 1963 and the state’s high court taking control of school funding for a decade — it seemed to me there was always an emphasis among local boards of quiet but competent public service. This is based on those I’ve known who were school board members, but it doesn’t excuse the historic failures of public education, here and elsewhere. In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, a case originating from Topeka, the Supreme Court ruled that school racial segregation, no matter how “equal” the education, was unconstitutional.
But in recent years, school meetings in Kansas have been sleepy affairs in which seven elected officials went about the business necessary to keep our local schools running. These board members were typically civic-minded individuals with a desire to perform a vital but unsung role for our communities. They were elected in nonpartisan elections in which there was little campaigning, other than a few yard signs. They met to do things like hire the superintendent, contemplate bond issues and set school policy. Generally the toughest issue they had to face was terminating a district employee for cause.
School board meetings in Kansas, as elsewhere in the country, have become the arena for newly elected, hyper-partisan members fueled by misinformation and narrow agendas. These barefaced culture warriors claim vaccines are hoaxes, masks are ineffective, and a secret leftist plot to make white kids feel bad about themselves by teaching unpleasant facts about American history.
In last November’s elections, some of these radical candidates were backed by the 1776 Project PAC, which touts itself as “Promoting Patriotism and Pride in American History.” As Kansas Reflector’s Tim Carpenter reported just after the 2021 election, seven of 10 candidates backed by 1776 won election to local school board in eastern Kansas.
One of those winning candidates, Amy Cawvey of Lansing, said during her campaign that students were “being taught to hate their country.” It was happening in Lansing, she claimed, by way of an unofficial curriculum that promotes critical race theory.
The fear of CRT caused some parents, beginning last year, to grill school boards about curricula and go on witch hunts to local school libraries, seeking books they thought might make their kids feel uncomfortable. School board meetings were often filled with those angry about mask mandates. Above it all, there was a lot of chatter about freedom — freedom of parental choice, freedom from masks, freedom from disturbing facts. Somehow, our civic-minded neighbors on local school boards represented the enemy, and no spittle was spared on them during opportunities for public comment. Never mind the fixation on CRT had little relevance to what is actually taught in local schools, or that time and again studies showed masks were a safe way to protect children from the coronavirus. The activists are out for political blood, and video streams of school board meetings went from something you might watch if you have trouble falling asleep to a kind of unhinged reality show, with no thought too outrageous or hurtful to hurl like a chair at Jerry Springer.
Earlier this month, it was time for some of those who had been slinging the brickbats to take their seats on the boards they had once demonized. The result, as predictable as a thrown chair, was chaos.
The first meeting of the new Wichita USD 259 Board of Education was abruptly canceled after three newly elected members, and much of the audience, refused to comply with district policy and wear masks. The new members — Diane Albert, Kathy Bond and Hazel Stabler — gave various reasons for not donning masks, from saying face coverings were unhealthy to gaining courage from the unmasked crowd. The trio were sworn in a week later, Jan. 18, after agreeing to wear masks.
The first meeting of the newly constituted Gardner Edgerton USD 231 board, in Johnson County, which swung hard to the right after last November’s election, was even wilder. It followed earlier action by a lame duck board approving a $425,000 exit payment to an outgoing administrator. After three new members were sworn in Jan. 10, the board split, with accusations of unethical conduct being hurled by both sides, and the new conservative majority violating policy by forcing a new agenda. The three new members, and one incumbent, had waged an aggressive campaign to end the school’s mask policy and promote the ability of parents to challenge curricula. By last week, the total number of old board members who had resigned in the past year came to three, some citing concerns about legal exposure and the inability of the board to work together.
There’s quite a bit to unpack about that Gardner Edgerton meeting. For some fine student reporting, check out The Blazer, the district’s student news platform. The student journalists did a better job of keeping their cool and handling events fairly than the school board.
The Kansas Association of School Boards, in a nifty little guide for candidates, has some advice. Consider your reasons for running. Good reasons might be “a passion for public education” or a desire to “use your skills, knowledge, and insight in collaboration with others to make your schools stronger.” Not-so-good reasons include “there is a specific issue you want to change,” or you want to get rid of a specific employee or a policy.
But there’s more to the story of our current dysfunction.
While it's easy to blame the balkanization of local school boards on the supercharged political atmosphere, that's just too easy. It's letting us — you, me, and our neighbors — off the hook for not taking school boards and other political elections seriously enough to show up and vote.
– Max McCoy
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While it’s easy to blame the balkanization of local school boards on the supercharged political atmosphere, that’s just too easy. It’s letting us — you, me, and our neighbors — off the hook for not taking school boards and other political elections seriously enough to show up and vote. In 2015, the Legislature attempted a remedy, moving local elections to November of odd-numbered years. Previously, they had been in the spring. The turnout, however, is still low.
In the 2020 presidential election, voter turnout in Kansas was 71%, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. That is somewhat higher than the national average of 67%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But in counties across Kansas, the turnout for municipal and school board elections is far lower. Voter turnout in Sedgwick County, according to the elections office there, was just 15%. The turnout was higher in Johnson County, where 25% of eligible voters went to the polls. The national average for municipal elections, according to the National Civic League, is 15 to 27%.
As local elections become referendums on the existential ideas that shape our country, our participation becomes ever more important. We must urge our friends and neighbors to become engaged and keep school board elections nonpartisan. We must elect those who have the talent, dedication, and expertise to offer real service, with no chair throwing.
If you are a current school board member who ran because you have a passion for higher education, don’t resign. It must be tough dealing with all of the hate that has been heaped upon you, from all sides, but fight the urge to give up. We need you. The teachers need you. Most of all, the students need you.
Now is the time to consider what kind of lessons we are chalking for future generations.
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