Kansas education commissioner’s offensive joke followed animated, rambling remarks

February 25, 2022 12:46 pm

Kansas education commissioner Randy Watson appears during his keynote presentation at the Kansas Virtual Learning Conference. (Kansas Reflector screen Capture from Kansas State Department of Education video)

Randy Watson is taking a timeout.

The Kansas education commissioner, on the job since 2014, has been suspended for 30 days after making an ill-conceived joke about American Indians during the Kansas Virtual Learning Conference in mid-February. But what struck me most watching the video of Watson wasn’t the joke — it was his peculiar manner.

He rocked back and forth in his chair, at times coming jarringly close to the webcam. At other points he raised his voice to a near shout. As Kansas Reflector’s Sherman Smith pointed out while describing the video, Watson also rambles during his remarks.

He recalled his college days in Manhattan fondly:

“It took me a long time. I went to Kansas State. My fraternity and campus were separated by this great parcel of land called Aggieville, all right. Unfortunately, sometimes I didn’t navigate going to class as well as I navigated going to Aggieville, and I had to figure out that Aggieville wasn’t going to get me to any goals, other than I got to meet a lot of people that were very happy in Aggieville and a lot of different places.”

He later turned to tornados:

“You guys know what do you do when there is a tornado in Kansas? Not if you’re born in Massachusetts, OK, or you’re Canadian — hey, hey, you hoser. You’re a Kansan, and the tornado sirens go off. What do you do? We run outside, right? Where’s it at?”

He adds, “There’s sirens going off. There’s warnings. There’s danger Will Robinson.”

Beyond the question of whether his joke was appropriate, those watching the video might well ask: Is this really the person leading Kansas schools? Should Kansas children really run out into the street during a tornado? Do we really need to hear college nightlife memories?

Watch Watson’s monologue from 38 minutes to 43 minutes into the video. See what you think.

Perhaps this is how Watson regularly acts during online conferences. Keeping a group’s attention can be difficult in such situations. But he still feels comfortable enough to digress, exhort and say things he shouldn’t.

I also need to clarify a point made by the education commissioner. Watson displays great excitement about post-secondary effectiveness increasing by 6% in five years. His slide shows that a five-year effective average went from 44% to 50%.

But that’s not a 6% increase. It’s a 6 percentage point increase, or a 13.6% increase.

One would hope that, beyond restraining himself while on camera and refraining from making racially insensitive jokes, our state’s education commissioner could get the math right. Both personal impressions and accuracy make a difference.

Watson has led Kansas schools through waves of difficulty. He took the job during the dark days of Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax “experiment,” and he held on as legislators finally funded schools adequately. He then piloted the ship through the COVID-19 pandemic and the fantastical accusations of critical race theory.

Given that context, the state board of education’s decision not to accept his resignation letter on Friday makes sense. But after eight years on the job, one might expect Watson to behave more conscientiously.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.