Kansas Board of Education unanimously rejects resignation of state education commissioner

Watson shared childhood memory of trying to get relatives to fear American Indians

By: - February 25, 2022 10:15 am
The Kansas State Board of Education announced Friday commissioner Randy Watson submitted a letter of resignation. In the board rejected Watson's resignation, choosing to suspend him for 30 days without pay. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas State Board of Education announced Friday commissioner Randy Watson submitted a letter of resignation. In the board rejected Watson’s resignation, choosing to suspend him for 30 days without pay. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas State Board of Education rejected the resignation Friday of the state education commissioner following evidence he said during a video conference that during his youth he tried to persuade children to fear for their safety among American Indians.

The state Board of Education reconvened after a closed executive session to unanimously approve a one-month suspension without pay for commissioner Randy Watson. Board members appointed Craig Neuenswander, the department’s deputy commissioner for fiscal and administrative affairs, to serve as acting commissioner in Watson’s absence. Watson’s suspension is scheduled to begin Monday.

Board of Education chairman Jim Porter said the board decided remarks by Watson weren’t “career ending” and the board was committed to “restorative justice.”

Three state legislators with American Indian heritage and Gov. Laura Kelly had called for Watson to step down from the job. In response, Watson submitted the letter of resignation that was rejected by the 10 elected members of the state board.

Rep. Stephanie Byers, a Wichita Democrat and of the Chickasaw nation, said the suspension would be viewed by some as a slap on the wrist and wouldn’t be considered an appropriate response to an example of the systematic racism confronted by American Indians. She said acceptance of Watson’s resignation by the state Board of Education would have been appropriate, despite Watson’s record as a strong advocate of public education.

“At the same time, it still comes down to human rights are more important than policy,” Byers said. “For our Native American community, is a 30-day suspension without pay … enough? Or, is there more?”


‘Offensive, racist’

Members of the state board conducted a one-hour executive session to discuss the Watson controversy and weigh options. During that meeting, Watson met behind closed doors with board members. Watson didn’t stand for questions with reporters after the board rendered its verdict.

The Board of Education’s general counsel, Mark Ferguson, said the department viewed Watson’s letter of resignation as a personnel record and wouldn’t be released to the public under the Kansas Open Records Act.

Porter said Watson’s letter of resignation was brought on by a statement “that was offensive and even considered racist by many who heard it.”

“We are not here to excuse or justify the statement in any way,” Porter said. “It should not have been said, and that fact was immediately recognized by the commissioner, who has made multiple apologies.”

Porter said he’d known Watson for many years and was aware of no comparable incidents involving Watson. Porter said he would be shocked if there were similar events in Watson’s background.

Board member Janet Waugh, who represents the Kansas City, Kansas, area, she’d not received a previous complaint about Watson’s conduct or leadership.

“I think this was inappropriate and wrong, but I do not believe he will do it again,” she said.

Board member Jim McNiece, of Wichita, said criticism the Board of Education had attempted to sidestep the controversy was inaccurate. He said the board had an obligation to conduct an inquiry to gather facts and work to understand context of that information before acting.


Governor’s involvement

Porter expressed concern people in “positions of state leadership” publicly called for Watson’s resignation despite reality of the state Board of Education holding sole responsibility for personnel decisions related to executive leadership of the Kansas Department of Education. Specifically, he said, the governor shouldn’t have issued a public statement calling for Watson’s immediate resignation.

“There are a number of people in this state in elected and executive positions who have actually been arrested for various illegal activities who have some things in common,” Porter said. “All were given the opportunity to participate in due process and had the opportunity to be heard in the appropriate forum.”

“It seems ironic to me that commissioner Watson, who owned and did take responsibility for his statement, which was not illegal, feels obligated or feels forced to resign by outside forces,” Porter said.

Lauren Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Kelly requested a meeting with Porter and Watson to discuss the suspension action and to talk about “how to move forward.”


Worrying about violence

Video of Watson’s remarks received through an Kansas Open Records Request revealed what he said during a Kansas Virtual Learning Conference in mid-February while speaking to people attending the Andover Center for Advanced Professional Studies.

He was talking about a 1991 tornado when he shifted to his memory of trying to convince relatives they should be more fearful of American Indians than of violent storms.

Here is what he said:  “I had some cousins from California. They were petrified of tornadoes. They’d come visit us, you know, in the summer. They were like, ‘Are we going to get killed by a tornado?’ And I’d say, ‘Don’t worry about that, but you got to worry about the Indians raiding the town at any time.’ And they really thought that. Grow up in California, I guess you don’t know much of the history of Kansas.”

Watson, a former school administrator in McPherson, was hired by the state Board of Education as the commissioner in 2014.

The state’s commissioner of education has responsibility for the Department of Education and oversees agency functions that include communications, legal services and human resources. The office of the commissioner provides leadership to schools and the state Board of Education in complying with all state and federal laws, regulations and requirements.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.