Intense ed board elections expected
Intense ed board elections expected
By Tim Vandenack - The Hutchinson News -, 5/16/2006
Betsy Hineman always has prided herself on a certain level of civic involvement - knowing the candidates and the issues in a given race.

Now, the Dighton woman, a leader in a new group called the Kansas Alliance for Education, finds her participation reaching new heights.

"It's just due to the need," she explained. "Someone needs to do something."

In light of many contentious moves by the conservative majority on the Kansas Board of Education, including the decision allowing for increased classroom criticism of evolution, critics promise a tough fight this electoral season.

Three conservative incumbents are up for election, including Ken Willard of Hutchinson and Connie Morris of St. Francis, and their foes, including the Alliance, are pushing hard to oust them.

A fourth conservative, Iris Van Meter of Thayer, is not seeking re-election, though her son-in-law, Brad Patzer of Neodesha, is vying for the post.

"I think it's maybe as intense as we've seen it, because 2000 was pretty intense," said Joe Aistrup, a Kansas State University political scientist.

Rallying the critics

In a precursor to this year's campaign, strong debate over a board decision to adopt science standards that de-emphasize certain aspects of evolution marked the electoral battle six years ago. Critics of the change won out that year, and the revamped body reversed course, at least for the time being.

Hineman and others, however, suggest the passion this go-around might exceed that of 2000. Aside from last summer's evolution decision, recent contested actions include the selection of Bob Corkins as education commissioner even though he lacked education experience and moves to clamp down on what's taught in sex education classes.

"I'm seeing a lot more energy and a lot more frustration about decisions that have been made," said Sue Gamble, a member of the school board's moderate wing from Shawnee in suburban Kansas City, Kan. She is not up for re-election, but she has campaigned as far west as Dodge City with the Alliance and echoes its call for a more moderate school board.

Similarly, Boo Tyson, executive director of the Prairie Village-based MAINstream coalition, said the controversial moves by school board conservatives are rallying their foes. That organization's top priority is the ouster of the conservatives, she said, while another suburban Kansas City, Kan., group, Kansas Families United for Public Education, plans to send volunteers to Hutchinson and points west as part of the same effort.

"I think the radical nature of the school board and the radical decisions the school board has made have brought us all together," said Tyson, who also traveled to Dodge City last month with the Alliance.

Still, the targeted board members and their backers aren't convinced the tough talk will translate into action as the Aug. 1 primary election and Nov. 7 general election near.

"It's going to be a wait-and-see thing," said Charlotte Esau of the Kansas Republican Assembly, a grouping of socially and fiscally conservative Republicans. The group is endorsing Morris, Willard, Patzer and the other conservative incumbent, John Bacon of Olathe.

For his part, Willard, the school board member from Hutchinson, challenges his critics' view of the campaign. He sees foes like the Alliance as sticklers for the status quo and himself as a seeker of new ways to invigorate public education.

"The choice is going to be between the status quo and progress," Willard said.

Evolution, Morris, Corkins

The decision last year to permit more criticism of evolution - seen by foes as a backdoor attempt to inject creationist-friendly concepts into science classes - stands out as the most controversial move by the 10-member school board. That change, approved by the 6-4 conservative majority, echoed a similar decision, subsequently reversed, by the body in 1999.

But it's not the only factor spurring the critics on.

Broadly, Hineman says the majority is out of touch with mainstream Kansas, which led her and others across the state to form the Kansas Alliance group. "We really don't feel that most Kansans are in agreement with what the current board is doing," she said.

More specifically, Tyson alludes to some of the more controversial statements by Morris, who represents western Kansas.

Among other things, Morris backs immersion education for Spanish-speaking students - that is, providing them with a year of English-language instruction and then putting them into mainstream classes. Others, including many educators in heavily Hispanic southwest Kansas, favor more comprehensive efforts to teach English to such students.

"I have to say the District 5 incumbent, Ms. Morris, in some ways has given that district a big target," Tyson said. "Most everything she says is a red flag for MAINstream members."

Meanwhile, Gamble and Kathy Cook, executive director of Kansas Families United for Public Education, cite the selection of Corkins. Corkins, backed by the conservative majority, has voiced support for charter schools and other measures that foes fear would water down the quality of public schools.

"I think what put us over the top was the appointment of Bob Corkins," said Cook.

As part of their campaign, the Alliance is hoping to raise $200,000 for mailings, advertisements and other get-out-the-vote activities. Cook's group will focus mainly on Bacon's contest, though she says it also will send volunteers to help out in other campaigns.

Whatever the case, the effort won't necessarily stop after the Aug. 1 primary, which is typically a decisive day in electoral politics in this state given the dominance of Republicans over Democrats.

Unusually, Democrats are on the slate in each of the four contested school board races, political scientist Aistrup notes. Thus, even if the conservative candidates win on Aug. 1, he says, they will still face a Democratic foe on Nov. 7, who will likely draw the backing of more moderate Republicans.

"It is going to be an intense election," Hineman said.