Candidates who campaigned against critical race theory win school board seats in Blue Valley and Olathe
In Johnson County, the normally nonpartisan school board races were more contentious than years past. Only Shawnee Mission voters selected moderate candidates to their school board.
Five conservative candidates advocating against anti-racism curriculum won their races for three Johnson County school boards Tuesday night, in contests that were largely seen as a local touch point in a national effort by conservatives to politicize school board elections.
Seven races across three of the county’s biggest districts — Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley and Olathe — had at least one candidate running opposed to the idea of “critical race theory,” an academic term used to describe teaching students about anti-racism as well as the idea that racism is systemic within American society. According to the Kansas State School Board, critical race theory is not taught in Kansas public schools.
However, Heather Ousley won one of the most prominent races of the night. Ousley, the current Shawnee Mission School Board president ran against Brian Neilson for her member-at-large seat. Neilson was one of several candidates endorsed by the 1776 Project, a New York-based Political Action Committee aimed at preventing school districts from teaching critical race theory.
The 1776 Project PAC was born in response to a New York Times Magazine project called The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones that explored the legacy and history of Black Americans and slavery. Since its publication in 2019, it has been debated in Congress and state legislatures and held up as an example of critical race theory.
The 1776 Project PAC was founded in May by Ryan Girdusky, a supporter of former President Donald Trump and a conservative writer. At the time, he told news outlet Axios that his goal "is to help raise awareness and campaign on behalf of school board candidates nationwide who reject the divisive philosophy of critical race theory and want to push it out of our public schools.”
According to Axios, the 1776 Project was the first national PAC dedicated to electing candidates that supported conservative ideas to local school boards. Traditionally, school board races are nonpartisan and do not attract widespread media attention.
Shawnee Mission voters elected moderate candidates to the board of education.
In addition to Ousley and Neilson’s race, incumbent Mary Sinclair defeated Zach Roberts for the member two seat. In the race for the member four seat, Sean Claycamp lost to April Boyd-Noronha.
Ousley, who was first elected in 2017, said she’s grateful to the voters for coming out on behalf of incumbents and for the continuity and stability the board will have moving forward. Of the 1776 Project PAC, Ousley said that while she can’t comment on what happened in Olathe or Blue Valley, Shawnee Mission voters weren’t focused on outside groups.
“The voters I interacted with, the people I interact with, they really value Shawnee Mission and they want the district to succeed,” she said. "At least from my perspective, they were less concerned with what outsiders had to say about the race and than what they had experienced with the district.”
In the Blue Valley District, Kaety Bowers defeated Andrew Van Der Laan for the member four seat and Jim McMullen narrowly beat Lindsay Weiss by 165 votes for the member six seat. Bowers and McMullen were endorsed by the 1776 Project PAC.
Gina Knapp defeated Christine White, who had been endorsed by the PAC but withdrew from the race, for the member five seat. If White had won, there would have been an appointment to her seat.
For Knapp, the night was a mixed bag, with Van Der Laan losing and Weiss' race so close. However, she's grateful for the support she received and hope it shows the national PACs becoming involved in school board races how a community can respond.
"I hope it sends the message [to the] 1776 project that we're not here to be ruined by their sort of east coast politics and bringing people in or their money in that's not even from our area," she said. "We're smarter than that. We're better than that here. And I'm extremely grateful that the voters got out to show them that."
In the Olathe races, all three candidates endorsed by the 1776 PAC won their races.
Jennifer Gilmore defeated Julie Steele for the member three seat. Incumbent Kristin Schultz lost to Robert Kuhn for the member five seat and Brian Connell won against incumbent Brian Geary.
Kuhn decided to run after his daughter, then in fourth grade, had to learn from home due to COVID-19. He said that he discovered he disagreed with some policies within his daughter's classes after helping her with her classwork during the pandemic. On the 1776 PAC, Kohn said he signed the organization's pledge to keep critical race theory out of schools, but did not accept money from the group.
“I’m pro history,” he said. “We need to teach history, good or bad. All American history, you know, slavery, everything that’s happened… but we need to see past the color. We’re all people, we’re all friends, and we need to move past the color of someone’s skin.”
For the official results, visit jocoelection.org.