Two first-time candidates for the Shawnee Mission school board emerged as frontrunners in a Tuesday primary that showcased the voting power of parent groups that have advocated for new blood on the school district’s governing board.
In complete but unofficial results, longtime board member and Kansas state Rep. Cindy Neighbor appeared to have lost her at-large seat on the school board by seven votes.
The new board, which will be determined in November elections and formed by next January, will be tasked with choosing a new superintendent to lead the district in the wake of former Superintendent Jim Hinson’s retirement in June.
Civil rights attorney Heather Ousley won the strongest voter support in the at-large primary race in which four first-time candidates challenged Neighbor, who is finishing her fifth term on the school board, for two spots in the November general election.
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Ousley received 42.4 percent of the vote. Attorney Mandi Serrone Hunter narrowly defeated Neighbor, receiving 20.71 percent of the vote, or 3,666 votes, to Neighbor’s 3,659 votes.
Reached Tuesday night, Neighbor said she would wait for the votes to become finalized but respected “what has come before us.”
“I’m happy with what I have done and where I’ve been,” Neighbor said. “It is about the kids, and any new member will understand what is before them, and I respect that and I know that Shawnee Mission will be the leader in education, and I am proud of what we have done for all children and the future.”
In the Area West primary race, former Olathe School District third-grade teacher Laura Guy received 38.5 percent of the vote over incumbent Craig Denny. Guy and Denny, who received 27.9 percent of the vote, will face off in a November election.
While there were not enough candidates to spark a primary for a third open seat this year, voters will determine this November which candidate will replace longtime board member Donna Bysfield, who is not seeking re-election after more than two decades on the board. Mary Sinclair, a legislative co-chair for the Shawnee Mission Area Council PTA, is opposing James Lockard, a retired Shawnee Mission environmental science teacher.
The Shawnee Mission school board election has received a great deal of attention this year as parents and residents became critical of district and school board decisions and turned their attention to an election process that has not been competitive in recent years.
While Hinson said it was a desire to spend more time with family that prompted his abrupt retirement announcement in April, some parents have said they see the November school board election as crucial to changing a school culture that has suffered under his leadership.
Hinson’s support of Gov. Sam Brownback’s efforts to replace the state’s school funding formula in 2015 with block grant funding disillusioned many parents, teachers and education advocates. The policy was later ruled unconstitutional by the Kansas Supreme Court.
Other school issues, such as stagnant teacher pay, legislative school funding cuts and the cost of various school projects, also seemed to energize parents, some of whom were already unsettled by certain district decisions, such as a Hinson mandate that teachers could not participate in a movement to wear safety pins to show support for marginalized groups.
From using social media groups to share district concerns to starting political action committees to support candidates who reflected their values, a sizable number of parents lent their support to a new crop of contenders, particularly those that promised a renewed commitment to transparency.
Ousley has made headlines for walking from her home in Merriam to Topeka to protest state cuts to education. Guy, the current pastor for Living Water Christian Church in Parkville, told The Star last week she was inspired to run after she became tired of “sitting on the sidelines watching people making decisions about things I care about greatly.”
“You have to be able to trust that the decisions that the school board is making are for the benefit for all children,” Guy said.