An election for Kansas State Board of Education is the biggest race you don't know about
In the race for the District 3 seat on the Kansas Board of Education, voters will choose between two candidates who diverge on curriculum, how schools discuss mental health and other hot-button issues.
It’s hard to find an issue that has divided people the way education has over the last few years – fights over COVID-protocols in schools pitted parents against each other and school administrators.
Those conflicts reached a fever pitch when debates began over how race and LGBTQ issues are handled in schools, and what role parents and the government should have in school curriculums.
Suddenly, school boards – once relatively anonymous governing bodies – are at the center of heated controversy. The Kansas State Board of Education is no exception. Two contested seats are on this year’s ballot – District 1 and District 3 – and could see the board solidify a Republican majority or split evenly with Democrats.
District 3 covers parts of Johnson County, including schools in Overland Park, Olathe and Gardner. The two candidates disagree on hot-button issues like who controls school curriculums and how to discuss mental health in schools.
Political newcomer Sheila Albers is better known for her activism after her son, John Albers, was killed by an Overland Park police officer in 2018. However, the Democratic candidate has an education background.
She spent 25 years as a teacher and administrator at public schools, serving as principal at Harmony Middle School in Overland Park for her last 13 years in education.
In 2019, Albers resigned from her position as a principal to do advocacy work related to her son's case. But that wasn’t the only thing she wanted to pursue.
“I also took a break from education, because I had it in me at some point to potentially run,” said Albers. “I wanted to choose a race where I could make the biggest difference.”
Albers’ opponent, Republican Michelle Dombrosky, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. According to her campaign site, Dombrosky has two children who attended Blue Valley School District and spends time working with local church charities. She lists her priorities as supporting local control of schools, parents’ rights in their child’s education and parental “opt-in'' for student data.
Albers said she wants to address the national teacher shortage at the state level by finding innovative ways to recruit teachers into the field and increase compensation.
At the start of the 2022-2023 school year, Kansas had more than 1,400 open teaching positions.
“We are essentially hurting students when we don't take the national teacher shortage seriously,” said Albers. “That is the biggest crisis facing public education right now.”
Albers’ other priorities include focusing on school safety in the wake of the Uvalde shooting and expanding early childhood education.
According to a 2019 report from ChildCareAware Kansas and the Kansas Department for Children and Families, 70 percent of the state’s children live in households where all available parents are working.
Dombrosky has abstained or voted against approving money for the Kansas Preschool Pilot and parent education program.
“We don't even have enough placements for families who want their child to receive early childhood education. So clearly there's a need as a community, we're not meeting,” Albers said. “Her vote no on expanding funding for early childhood education, to me, is a sign that she's pushing her own personal agenda rather than meeting the needs of this community.”
Dombrosky wants local control and funding for schools
Dombrosky touched on several campaign issues with a slate of other conservative candidates at a September event called the “Kansas First Rally” in Kansas City, Kansas.
“That's where a lot of our problems are happening, is at the federal level coming into our schools,” Dombrosky. “And then our local schools, which we should get back to, need to be locally funded and locally controlled.”
On the state board, Dombrosky has consistently abstained from or voted against requests or recommendations on federal dollars for schools called Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds. Those ESSER funds are federal dollars used to address COVID learning loss, mental health needs and COVID-19 mitigation.
At that same rally in September, she voiced concerns about school officials and the government violating privacy laws for students needing mental or physical health care.
“I am not against mental health, I think that people need to be served and need that help,” Dombrosky said.“But our schools are not medical facilities, they are not covered by HIPAA, they certainly aren't covered by FERPA anymore, so I think it needs to be referred out.”
Students’ medical and educational information is still protected under federal law.
According to an online survey she filled out on iVoterGuide, Dombrosky is against curriculum that “emphasizes slavery and racism as the foundation of American history.” The site is a division of the American Family Association Action, whose parent group is designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Dombrosky also agreed that teachers who are licensed should be allowed to carry guns at school.
"Making schools gun free zones infringes an individual’s right to keep and bear arms as protected by the 2nd Amendment,” Dombrosky wrote on the survey. “Additionally, hasn’t this resulted in the creation of places more susceptible to adults and children being injured or killed?"
She also agreed with a statement that parents must give permission before students are taught sex education or social-emotional learning.
The Kansas Department of Education lists social-emotional growth as one of its five priorities, stating that it teaches students “self-awareness, social awareness, problem solving, and decision making.”
Conservatives are now pushing against the curriculum, linking it with critical race theory.
Albers said schools need local and federal funds to meet students’ needs. And while she thinks schools should have an open dialogue with parents, she said “there is a difference between input and collaboration and micromanagement.”
Albers also says she’s frustrated that social-emotional learning has become a “trigger phrase.”
“Decades ago, when we talked about character education or personal growth, nobody was getting upset about that,” Albers said. “Kids are human beings, their academic growth and their personal growth are intertwined.”
More conservatives winning school board seats
Candidates like Dombrosky are gaining ground on school boards. The state board of education's map was redrawn earlier this year, splitting Wyandotte County into three districts. Johnson County is also now represented by three districts instead of two.
Republican legislators hoped the redistricting would allow more conservatives to win seats.
Two conservative candidates who want to restrict how race is taught also won their primaries in August and secured seats on the board. Conservative candidates have won local school board elections in Blue Valley, Olathe and Gardner Edgerton.
The 10-seat board currently has six Republican and 4 Democratic members. Kansans will also vote for the District 1 seat on the board – which covers northeastern Kansas including part of Wyandotte County – on November 8. The race will see Democrat Jeffrey Howards facing Republican Danny Zeck for the seat currently held by Democrat Janet Waugh.
Albers said she decided to run for a seat now because she feels like public schools are under attack, in part because of extremists in elected positions.
“If we don't put reasonable and moderate people in positions of leadership, we will see a deterioration of the quality of education we're offering students, and we will see the teacher shortage get worse instead of better,” Albers said.