Education First Shawnee Mission looks to replicate model of Stand Up Blue Valley in SMSD area, will focus on school board races

The board of education seat representing the Shawnee Mission East area is up for election this November.
The board of education seat representing the Shawnee Mission East area is up for election this November.

Last year, a group of Blue Valley School District parents’ efforts to get out the vote for statehouse candidates who would support public education was largely credited with the ouster of several conservative incumbents in southern Johnson County. Now, a group of Shawnee Mission parents are looking to replicate the model used by Stand Up Blue Valley — and they plan to focus their initial efforts on this fall’s school board elections.

Jennifer Howerton, a Shawnee Mission North graduate who now has a kindergartener in the Shawnee Mission South feeder area, is the founding chair of the new group, which is called Education First Shawnee Mission. Howerton said that in the lead up to the November elections, she started looking for a resource like Stand Up Blue Valley focused on the Shawnee Mission School District.

“There wasn’t anything,” she said. “So I started talking to other parents who were interested in lobbying on behalf of Shawnee Mission schools.”

Last month, Howerton and nine other parents representing areas across the district formally founded a political action committee and became its initial board. The group has started social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter and is raising money through its website. And while Education First Shawnee Mission has looked to Stand Up Blue Valley as a model for organizing, Howerton says she anticipates her new group’s focus will differ slightly from that of their peer to the south.

With a more socioeconomically diverse population than Blue Valley, Shawnee Mission faces issues related to educating more students who don’t speak English as a first language and who are in free-and-reduced lunch programs. Howerton said she and the other board members have been confused by the Shawnee Mission district’s support of the block grant bill passed two years ago that locked in the amount of funding the district would receive — regardless of how many special-category students it had to take on.

“One of the big problems SMSD faces is that school funding from state is a big issue, because there are students from all different economic ranges, ethnicities, nationalities,” she said.

Because so many of the school board’s votes are taken as part of a consent agenda, there is generally very little public discussion about potentially controversial issues, Howerton said. As such, she finds it very difficult to tell which board members may be lobbying behind the scenes for different approaches.

“The school board is not very transparent. People aren’t privy to who on the school board is advocating for teachers and staff,” Howerton said. “At those meetings, there’s not really a discourse between public and school board.”

Consequently, Howerton anticipates that the group may be more focused on the upcoming school board elections — an at-large seat as well as the seats for the SM West and SM East areas will be on November’s ballot — than Stand Up Blue Valley would be.

Howerton said the group will be strictly non-partisan.

“We don’t care about anything other than education,” she said. “We don’t care about what letter you have after your name. All we want to do is make sure public education is a primary concern for this community and our elected officials, and that no one is supporting inappropriate funding measures, privatization or vouchers.”