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Kansas Board of Education rejects resignation of state education commissioner

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Watson shared childhood memory of trying to get relatives to fear American Indians

TOPEKA — The Kansas State Board of Education rejected the resignation Friday of the state education commissioner following evidence he said during a video conference that during his youth he tried to persuade children to fear for their safety among American Indians.

The state Board of Education reconvened after a closed executive session to unanimously approve a one-month suspension without pay of commissioner Randy Watson. Board members appointed Craig Neuenswander, the department’s deputy commissioner for fiscal and administrative affairs, to serve as acting commissioner in Watson’s absence.

Board of Education chairman Jim Porter said the board decided remarks by Watson weren’t “career ending” and the board was committed to “restorative justice.”

Three state legislators with American Indian heritage and Gov. Laura Kelly had called for Watson to step down from the administrative job. In response, Watson submitted the letter of resignation that was rejected by the 10 elected members of the state board. The boards general counsel, Mark Ferguson, said the department viewed Watson’s letter as a personnel record and wouldn’t be subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.

Members of the state Board of Education adjourned for a one-hour executive session to discuss the Watson controversy and weigh options. During that meeting, Watson went behind closed doors with the board members.

Porter said Watson’s letter of resignation was brought on by a statement “that was offensive and even considered racist by many who heard it.”

“We are not here to excuse or justify the statement in any way,” Porter said. “It should not have been said, and that fact was immediately recognized by the commissioner, who has made multiple apologies.”

Porter expressed concern that people in “positions of state leadership” publicly called for Watson’s resignation despite reality of the state Board of Education holding sole responsibility for personnel decisions related to executive leadership of the Kansas Department of Education.

“There are a number of people in this state in elected and executive positions who have actually been arrested for various illegal activities who have some things in common,” Porter said. “All were given the opportunity to participate in due process and had the opportunity to be heard in the appropriate forum.”

“It seems ironic to me that commissioner Watson, who owned and did take responsibility for his statement, which was not illegal, feels obligated or feels forced to resign by outside forces,” Porter said.

Video of Watson’s remarks received through an Kansas Open Records Request showed what he said during a Kansas Virtual Learning Conference in mid-February while speaking to people attending the Andover Center for Advanced Professional Studies.

He was talking about a 1991 tornado when he shifted to his memory of trying to convince relatives they should be more fearful of American Indians than of violent storms.

Here is what he said: “I had some cousins from California. They were petrified of tornadoes. They’d come visit us, you know, in the summer. They were like, ‘Are we going to get killed by a tornado?’ And I’d say, ‘Don’t worry about that, but you got to worry about the Indians raiding the town at any time.’ And they really thought that. Grow up in California, I guess you don’t know much of the history of Kansas.”

Watson, a former school administrator in McPherson, was hired by the state Board of Education as the commissioner in 2014.

The state’s commissioner of education has responsibility for the Department of Education and oversees agency functions that include communications, legal services and human resources. The office of the commissioner provides leadership to schools and the state Board of Education in complying with all state and federal laws, regulations and requirements.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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