Kansas governor: School official 'must' resign after remark

Gov. Laura Kelly is calling on Kansas’ top public school administrator to resign following reports that he made an offensive remark about Native Americans during a recent conference

Kansas Education Commissioner Remark
Kansas Education Commissioner Remark

Gov. Laura Kelly on Thursday called on Kansas’ top public school administrator to resign following reports that he made an offensive remark about Native Americans during a recent conference.

Kelly issued her statement after the State Board of Education called a special meeting for Friday to discuss Education Commissioner Randy Watson’s remark during a two-day conference on virtual education last week. The 10-member elected board appoints the commissioner to run the State Department of Education.

The board’s agenda says it will have a closed session to discuss personnel matters and confer with its attorney. Board Chair Jim Porter said board members expect to review video of Watson’s remarks. Porter said he has not seen the video, but Watson informed him and other board members of the situation.

“Some statements were made that were offensive to a group,” Porter, a Republican from southeast Kansas, said during a telephone interview, later adding: ”“Offensive to the Native American community.”

Watson has not responded to a request for an interview Thursday.

“While Education Commissioner Randy Watson has had a long career in advocating for our children in Kansas, the State and the Kansas Board of Education must take issues of derogatory and discriminatory language seriously,” Kelly, a Democrat, said in her statement. “There is no question that Randy Watson must resign his position immediately.”

Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Byers, of Wichita, one of three Native American state lawmakers, said she saw the video Thursday morning but declined to comment further, saying the three legislators planned to release a joint statement. The Associated Press and other news organizations have filed open records requests to obtain the video showing Watson’s remarks.

State school board member Ann Mah, a Topeka Democrat, said she heard about Watson’s remark from several constituents before Watson informed her about it.

“He was basically retelling a story from childhood, trying to demonstrate how people have stereotypes,” Mah said. “And it involved a story about Indians.”

Northeast Kansas is home to four Native American nations: the Iowa, the Kickapoo, the Prairie Band Potawatomi and the Sac and Fox.

Watson became commissioner in November 2014 after serving as superintendent of McPherson’s public schools. As commissioner, Watson has pushed for a redesign of the state’s public schools to place more emphasis on personalized learning and better preparing students for adult work.

The special meeting comes at a politically tricky time for the board and the state’s public schools. While Republicans hold a 6-4 majority, the board is less conservative than the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Lawmakers are coming off nearly a decade of being forced by the Kansas Supreme Court to increase spending on public schools. Kelly’s shutdown of schools in 2020, in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, prompted criticism of virtual education and restrictions on it.

Meanwhile, GOP conservatives weren’t assuaged by the board’s assurances last summer that the state’s public school curriculum standards didn’t include critical race theory, part of a scholarly movement that developed in the 1970s focusing on the legacy of slavery and racism in American history and society. Republicans are pursuing measures to force schools to post information about classroom materials online and to give parents more power to shape what is taught and in school libraries.

And conservative Republicans are pursuing a measure to allow parents who are unhappy with their local schools to enroll their children in any other district and to use state education funds to help such parents pay for private schooling.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

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