A nine-page letter the Gardner Edgerton School District sent to the Kansas Senate Education Committee about in-person learning sparked a series of heated exchanges Monday night between some school board members and Sen. Molly Baumgardner, the committee’s chair.

During a Senate committee meeting last week, Baumgardner noted that information provided to the committee by the Kansas State Department of Education was inaccurate. The information showed whether public school students in each district were in remote, hybrid, or in-person learning modes the first semester. It said Gardner Edgerton middle and high school students attended school in-person, though those students continue to learn virtually to this day. Baumgardner noted as much during the committee hearing.

USD 231 officials later corrected the data it provided the state. KSDE forwarded the amended information to the Senate and House education chairs. However, the board sent a nine-page letter documenting the steps it is taking to educate during the pandemic and accusing Baumgardner of not calling the district personally to gather information and not visiting the district, which she represents.

The Gardner Edgerton district attributed the incorrect information to “confusing” survey questions asked by the Department of Education.  At last contact, KSDE says Gardner Edgerton was the only district that submitted corrected information.

“We believe it is essential that the committee understand the lengths our district has gone to during the pandemic to ensure the needs of our students, employees, and families have not gone unmet,” the letter to the Senate committee reads. “After reading this report, we are confident that committee members will understand Senator Baumgardner’s comments were inaccurate and lacked context.”

Baumgardner addressed the board on Monday to refute the charges in the board’s letter.

Board spends time drafting letter instead of correcting error

“I’m here tonight because my constituents and my committee members deserve to know why this district spent precious time on the taxpayer dime to write a nine-page email condemning me rather than correcting the error,” she said.

She explained that she and the Chair of the House Education Committee requested from the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) information related to educational learning modes across the state. They sent a survey to the 286 Kansas school districts and reported the findings to the committee. Baumgardner asked KSDE to double-check the information on Gardner Edgerton because she knew from constituents that the district was not in-person for middle school and high school; KSDE confirmed the report accurately represented information received from the district.  During the committee meeting, Baumgardner noted that the data on USD 231 was incorrect. The school board’s letter accused Baumgardner of “emotional bias” in naming the district in a public meeting. 

Baumgardner said it is “profoundly unfortunate” for the students, teachers, parents, and families of the Gardner-Edgerton district that middle school and high school students have yet to attend school on site since the start of the school year.

“Is this statement emotionally biased, as alleged in the letter? Absolutely not,” Baumgardner told the board. “My frank assessment is rooted in having been a high school teacher and knowing how vital interpersonal communication is to these age groups. It’s rooted in the knowledge that Gardner Edgerton is one of only three school districts throughout the state that have experienced this lack of face-to-face. Again, this is not bias on my part. This is fact.”

Letter attempts to chill speech, Baumgardner says

Sen. Baumgardner said First Amendment scholars would view the letter as a government entity attempting to exercise speech control. It included personal attacks questioning Baumgardner’s motives.

“And quite frankly, it coincides directly with what I’ve heard from your employees. They’re fearful of voicing their opinions. When you have a government body such as a school district restricting free speech, making ad hominem attacks on individuals as they were willing to do in a public letter, attacking me, accusing me of retaliation for attending a town hall meeting, for talking to someone that lobbies in the Capitol and that testifies in hearings, that is a very dark shadow that they are casting, and it is impacting their employees,” she told Sentinel.

As if to prove her point, board members attacked a constituent who addressed the board moments before Baumgardner arrived. 

Andrew Thomas, a Gardner pastor, asked the board about the educational mode information the district provided to the state legislature. He said at worst, the board purposefully misled parents and students. 

“Accountability is not only wanted but needed,” he said. “I know that representatives from both the House and Senate will be looking further into this situation this week. I would hope and pray that our administration here tonight would be straightforward and honest about what’s going on about USD 231.”

Board president Shawn Carlisle interjected.

“We sent a letter to the Senate committee hearing,” Carlisle said. “That’s incorrect and I’m not going to let incorrect information be stated without a rebuttal.”

Board member Rob Shippy demanded that Thomas look at the people in the board room.

“Those are the people you are accusing of filling out documents falsely,” Shippy said. “And you haven’t called up here to research the information yourself either.”

GE board concerned about “continued retaliation” 

The board’s letter says the USD 231 board is concerned about “continued retaliation” from Baumgardner. However, the Louisburg Republican says her committee efforts and votes apply to all 286 school districts across the state. She listed a series of education bills.

“Is Gardner Edgerton excluded from the benefits of these bills? Absolutely not. Because that would be retaliation,” she said.

Baumgardner said USD 231 officials will not dictate her statements, who she talks to, or questions she asks seeking information.

“I was elected to represent, not to cower to bullying and lies,” she said.

Most Kansas districts were in-person

Parents in Johnson and Sedgwick counties, among others, may be surprised to learn that most districts offered in-person learning to all grades during the first quarter.  The summary table was below given to legislators, showing 245 districts (of 286) offered on-site learning in middle school and 243 districts were on-site for high school.  Gardner Edgerton was included as an on-site district in this summary.

The district’s email to committee members says officials “…have actively pursued every effort to restore face-to-face learning opportunities for our students.  Many parents and students, however, disagree with that contention, as evidenced by this sampling of quotes from school board meetings.

Jennifer Whitlow, Gardner-Edgerton parent – “Why is every other (Johnson County) district in school in some form when Gardner is not.”

Carrie Fischer, Gardner-Edgerton parent – “I hope you see the inconsistencies and frustrations (elementary in school, middle and high school not). Who is deciding what is safe and when?”

Nick Robinson, Gardner-Edgerton parent – “The board of education, district, and the district superintendent, Ms. Pam Stranathan, all came to the same conclusion: in-person sports are safe and in-person education is unsafe.”

“Why did you make athletics a priority and education a virtual bust?”

“We are trailblazers; however, you Ms. Stranathan, the district, and the board refuse to blaze any trails. We stand by and let Olathe, Shawnee, and Blue Valley make these difficult decisions, and then we follow suit. This is not what leaders do, and this is not how leaders lead.”

Brie Ogara, Gardner-Edgerton parent – “Gardner needs to get our (gating) criteria friendly to Gardner. The recommendation should be that each district do what is best for them.”

“We did a survey … I have over 700 comments from kids, and you can’t unsee that. Our kids are suffering.”

Quinton Wallian, Gardner-Edgerton student – “I’m the senior class president at GHS. The social aspect is arguably the most important part of school. It allows us to meet new people, have new experiences and most importantly, develop social skills that will help us in the future with things interviews and just normal day to day conversations. Online schooling has made this impossible. Students are not making personal connections with teachers or even with each other.”

“Students are spending more time than ever alone, sitting on screens. I can say from personal experiences, online school has made me feel mentally drained and less motivated than ever.”

“Why don’t we give hybrid on in-person a shot for the betterment of the student body’s mental health and development. Schools all around us have been doing it, and yes, some of them are having to go back to remote, but can we at least give it a shot?”

Tyler Thomas, Gardner-Edgerton student – “As a student, I’m telling you that remote learning is not working and we need to go back to school.”

“Our classes are supposed to be 82 minutes long at the high school level, but because we are online and teachers have to give screen breaks in all but one of my classes, I am in class for a maximum of 30 – 40 minutes. Being in class for only half of the day does not prepare me for the next few years of high school or college.”

Amy Blake, Gardner-Edgerton parent & critical care nurse – “I know COVID well. While all precautions should be utilized, a positive COVID case is not synonymous with hospitalization and death. What honestly clogs up my ER are patients waiting for an in-patient psychiatric bed. When I went into work last night, 35% of my patients were on a psychiatric hold for suicidal thoughts.”

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