Jennifer Howerton felt nervous as she walked into the Matt Ross Community Center on a cold evening last winter.
A month before, Donald Trump had won the presidency, and a renewed interest in civic engagement had emerged among friends and acquaintances. News from Topeka indicated that state lawmakers were again divided over how best to support schools.
And in the Shawnee Mission School District, some parents had become frustrated with an administration that had banned the wearing of safety pins to show support for marginalized groups after the election.
That was one of a series of controversial incidents during now former Superintendent Jim Hinson’s tenure, and parents began to share concerns about other issues.
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How the district serves and supports minority populations. School cuts, staff salaries, teacher morale. Educators who felt scared to question the administration.
And what some saw as an administrative and school board culture that had become insular and unchecked.
“It’s, ‘How are decisions made? Why did you decide to do this? This comes from out of the blue,’ kind of thing,” Howerton said. The school board “could be making their decisions after thorough, thoughtful analysis, and we would just have no idea.”
And so the mother of three decided to host a meeting with a broad goal: forming a bipartisan parent group that would bring attention to areas where the district could improve and work to elect pro-education school board leaders and state politicians willing to make those changes.
Howerton had never been involved in advocacy before, let alone launched an official group. So she followed her instincts.
She posted on online messaging forums, collecting feedback from others paying attention to the Shawnee Mission School District.
She quietly compiled a list of speakers at board meetings she thought seemed particularly passionate about schools issues and reached out.
She booked a conference room and picked a time.
Now, on this December evening, she waited for others to arrive. She worried she would look like she did not know what she was doing.
“I was nervous. I was new to this,” Howerton said. “At that time, I didn’t feel like I had a lot of information. I was hoping to get more information” from everyone else.
It didn’t take long for more than two dozen people to file into the small conference room. And after Howerton introduced herself, issues many had with the way Shawnee Mission School District administrators and state lawmakers approached education issues came pouring out as attendees sat together in a circle.
“The general consensus was that the missing piece was a parent group that would advocate only for education and only for the Shawnee Mission School District,” Howerton said.
Above all, the group decided, it wanted to be able to endorse school board candidates. After that first roundtable meeting, the group settled on a direction.
The parents would form a political action committee.
A hyperlocal focus
This summer, Education First Shawnee Mission, the parent group that emerged out of the December meeting, will announce endorsements for three school board seats up for grabs in a November election. An August primary is planned for two of those seats.
Education First leaders say their first mission will be to apply a hyperlocal focus to a model that has already been used by groups such as Stand Up Blue Valley, a political action committee that formed in 2015 to elect moderate state legislators willing to push back against tax policies that have left Kansas schools underfunded.
The local school board races mark a significant election, one that some parents see as instrumental to changing an administrative culture.
After the presidential election, “there was people who wanted to do something nationally and people who thought we should do more locally.” said Stacy Hetz, an Education First board member. “This is hyperlocal. It’s not someone going off to Topeka. It’s in your community.”
Problems with Hinson’s leadership seemed to unite the parents in the midst of a renaissance of engagement.
Last fall, when everyone from professional athletes to schoolteachers across the country began wearing safety pins to show support for marginalized groups, Hinson banned school staff from wearing the pins during the school day, calling the display a political symbol that disrupted the learning environment.
More than a dozen speakers railed against the decision at the next school board meeting, an occurrence that would repeat itself this spring when school leaders came under the fire of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas for allegedly mishandling a deportation incident that involved a child, and when the district created more administrative positions during a time when teacher pay has been stunted.
Parents had found their voice, Howerton said, and “people started looking around and saying, ‘There are a lot of us.’ ”
“That was a really big, hot-button, are-you-kidding-me, wait-a-minute-I-must-clue-in-now issue,” Education First board member Liz Benditt said of the safety pin mandate.
At the first December meeting and in feedback collected since, Education First board members say some of the same parent concerns kept popping up, including a lack of transparency when it came to administrative decisions, particularly from the school board.
That’s a theme that has been voiced by groups and individuals who have come to school board meetings in higher numbers to ask for explanations for school board choices. And it’s one that has been confusing for the school board, said President Sara Goodburn, who stressed that transparency is a “high priority” for Shawnee Mission elected school officials and any public board.
“I think there’s a different perception out there about how we do business,” Goodburn said. “How we do business is what you see in public.”
The disconnect at times has seemed to provoke an us-versus-them dynamic at board meetings, such as when several public commenters appeared visibly frustrated earlier this year when board members did not respond to questions during the public comments section of the meeting — a common and long-standing practice used by most school boards.
Others criticized the board for rarely discussing school projects before voting on them. Written responses to questions sometimes did not address the original question at all or responded in abstract terms to specific questions, parents told The Star.
According to Goodburn, who reviewed board minutes and her own notes to provide context to a rise in public speakers at board meetings, 67 people addressed the board during the 57 meetings between August 2013 and October 2016. Of those comments, 17 were generally positive, while 50 included comments of concern.
Since November, about 80 people have addressed the board in 11 meetings. Of those comments, four were positive and 75 included comments of concern.
Earlier this year, Goodburn told The Star that the school board strives to strike a balance “between the public’s right to know and the rights of individual students and employees.”
But striking the balance has occasionally become rocky.
In May, Goodburn tried to stop a parent from mentioning a board member by name during public comments, citing a new board policy in which the public should not mention school employees and students directly. Though she later said her interruption was in error as board members are not school employees, the incident prompted the ACLU to once again criticize the district in another letter for cracking down on protected speech.
“To give them credit, I think (the board) maybe didn’t know what hit them in terms of this parent engagement,” said Tiffany Johnson, an Education First member who frequently attends board meetings. “I don’t think they had the proper mechanisms in place to answer all our questions.”
The parents’ concerns about the district weren’t assuaged when Hinson in April unexpectedly announced he would retire at the end of June. It’s not clear whether their frustrations had anything to do with Hinson’s decision, but now in the upcoming elections they have a chance to influence the hiring of his replacement.
Goodburn recalls the number of members of the public who attended public vetting sessions for the search firm that would eventually assist with the search for Hinson: zero.
New year, new PAC
Endorsing school board candidates at a time when the public seems more clued in than usual is an opportunity that excites the seven founding members of Education First, and one Howerton says the group takes very seriously.
The board — all women and all Shawnee Mission moms who formed as a leadership team after December — say they see the group as an opportunity to harness parents’ energy and interest in schools issues, use it to build better relationships with district leaders and become a platform for parents to have a stronger voice. For many, it’s their first venture into advocacy.
National and state politics, as well as dissatisfaction with the status quo, may have fueled their desire to be more involved, Howerton said. But she stresses that the group is not about political parties or being anti-incumbent. Nor will it be defined by any one agenda other than working with others to find solutions to schools issues.
“Some of us are worried about property values, underrepresented populations, curriculum,” Howerton said. “There’s just a lot of reason to be involved.”
Hetz, whose children attend a Title I school that receives federal funding to support a lower-income population, wanted to be able to advocate for a learning community with different needs, particularly because many parents of kids at her school don’t have the time or ability to be involved.
Johnson, who has long paid attention to school issues and participated in Get Out the Vote campaigns, says she thinks groups like Education First have been helpful in getting information that parents want to know. She’s been encouraged by board members she feels are more often acknowledging community concerns publicly since last fall.
Megan Peters, who heard about Education First on an online Facebook group, sees herself a vehicle for changes parents want to see, especially in terms of support for teachers.
People want to know, “what’s happening with teachers? For such a long time, there’s been a weird animosity between teachers and administrators, the school board and the superintendent,” Peters said. “Parents want our district to be pro-teacher. They want us to get and retain good teachers.”
Education First’s organization approval from the Governmental Ethics Commission was executed Jan. 31 of this year, just after Trump took office and his choice for Department of Education Secretary Betsy Devos — then still a candidate — was being interviewed in Senate hearings.
Benditt felt the timing helped their cause. Education issues were at the forefront of political conversations, and extra attention was being paid to federal issues that could affect schools at a local level.
“If anything, it shed another light on how important it is for us locally to be involved in the school, because federally we’re not going to get the same kind of support,” Benditt said.
And it’s helped inform their next steps. After the election, Education First members plan to focus on influencing who will represent Shawnee Mission communities in the Legislature in 2018. Since January, more than 950 people have liked or followed Education First on Facebook. The group regularly shares information about district news and the upcoming election on its Facebook page.
Earlier this year, Howerton said that a few Education First members met with Hinson to ask questions about his support for block-grant funding and a new “innovative” schools initiative, as well as to deliver a message.
“We wanted them to know that we aren’t anti-incumbent. We’re not anti-school district or administration,” Howerton said. “We just want to know what we can all do together.”
A desire for collaboration is a goal that Goodburn says she and the school board are also on board with.
“I think there are always things we can do to better inform the public,” Goodburn said. “In any business, you can’t communicate enough.”
Since parents began pointing out the number of items passed on the consent agenda — the list of items packaged together to be approved in one vote at board meetings — the board has taken a “harder” look at what it approves without discussion, Goodburn said.
“We are making sure that the things that we put on the consent agenda are noncontroversial, repeat, routine business ... those kinds of things,” Goodburn said, and having school officials more often explain what is on the agenda in presentations to the board.
In early June, Benditt met Howerton for lunch in Overland Park. The group was preparing to finalize a questionnaire-style survey that would be sent to board members to fill out and return. The answers would in part inform the candidates Education First plans to endorse.
Sitting there, Benditt realized she couldn’t describe how current school board members felt about various issues that Education First has decided to champion.
“It will be really interesting to see how they respond to that survey. Because we don’t know where they stand on a lot of this stuff, because of the way things have been.”
“And how did I not clue into that before now? It’s a kick in the pants to me. ... ‘Oh ...we need to engage.’ ”