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School board changes can destroy students’ educational opportunities. We’re paying attention.

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School board changes can destroy students’ educational opportunities. We’re paying attention.

Sep 19, 2023 | 4:33 am ET
By JJ Briscoe
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School board changes can destroy students’ educational opportunities. We’re paying attention.
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Watching the Gardner-Edgerton School District be governed by members who adhere to a divisive and derogatory agenda is disheartening, writes JJ Briscoe. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

As a student who attended the Gardner-Edgerton School District from middle school through high school, graduating only four years ago, it breaks my heart to know my 17-year-old sister has not been enjoying the same quality of education that I did.

When I first came to Gardner in the 5th grade, my family worried about how I would perform in a district known to deliver an education that punched above its weight. If it were not for my time in the Gardner-Edgerton district, I do not know if I would have been able to achieve my wildest dreams. Through the support of the school and connection with the community, I was able to study abroad in Brazil for a year, which fortified my perception of the world class education offered by the district.

In Brazil, I saw the reality of when public schools are designated only for the poor, and what a heavy reliance on private school education means for the class divide. I am worried about that becoming the reality for our community’s students, including for my sister.

Through a prep class offered by the high school, I was able to bump my ACT score up to a level that made going to New York University a reality. The education from this school district has opened up passions from music to learning different languages to studying politics and government.

Looking back, I wonder what if our district had been able to offer even more educational opportunities? To my horror, I see it now appearing to offer less. At one point, my sister told me, there was no full-time teacher available to offer Spanish classes at the high school.

Looking back, I wonder what if our district had been able to offer even more educational opportunities. To my horror, I see it now appearing to offer less.

– JJ Briscoe

Our schools help create the future for our students, and watching the Gardner-Edgerton School District be governed by members who adhere to a divisive and derogatory agenda is disheartening, to say the least. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, a slate of extreme ideological candidates were elected to the school board, and their dysfunction quickly pushed multiple board members to resign. Instead of holding an open and transparent process to appoint replacements, they appointed two more members who lacked qualifications but matched their agenda.

Since then, the board has pushed policies that have marginalized trans students, removed books from classroom shelves, opened the door to anti-government extremist groups, stifled public participation in policy discussions, and broken their own policies. Their actions have pushed key staff members out of the district, including the long-tenured high school librarian and the sponsor of the Gay-Straight Alliance club. These essential teachers deserve professional leadership that meets their needs and respects their profession.

It is a pity that current school board members are not up to the task.

Despite unprecedented engagement from the community, with students generating statewide and national coverage, board members refuse to change course. An essential feature of local government has been manipulated to pick on the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable, providing a distraction from meaningful policy solutions that meet the needs of our students, such as my sister.

The Gardner-Edgerton School District has the capacity to continue delivering a world class education. I fear because of continued malpractice from leadership, a city that prided itself on its schools will keep hemorrhaging essential teachers.

The result will diminish the future of our community’s students.

Too often, voters’ lack of familiarity with local elections leaves community governing bodies like school boards susceptible to takeovers from ideologues. We also know this is happening in races across Kansas. Everyone needs to know who is on the ballot and hear why they are even running in the first place.

Students who will be most affected by school board members’ decisions are watching.

JJ Briscoe is an organizer and activist who has worked with organizations such as Get Free, GenVote, and Loud Light. He is an alum of Gardner-Edgerton High School. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.