Heather Ousley files for at-large Shawnee Mission school board seat; Koon endorses her and suspends campaign, keeping field at 3

Heather Ousley filed for the Shawnee Mission board of education this morning. Submitted photo.
Heather Ousley filed for the Shawnee Mission board of education this morning. Submitted photo.

Heather Ousley, the Shawnee Mission mother who started a movement in 2013 by walking all the way from her Merriam home to Topeka to lobby for better school funding, filed this morning as a candidate for the at-large seat on the school board held by Cindy Neighbor for 20 years.

Ousley and her husband Jarrod, who serves District 24 in the Kansas House of Representatives, have three children currently attending Shawnee Mission Schools, with their eldest set to start middle school next year.

“I have skin in the game right now,” Ousley said. “The selection of a new superintendent directly impacts my children’s education experience, and I know the most effective way to stand up for our kids is by winning a seat at the board.”

The announcement that Ousley would enter the race prompted a shake-up in the at-large candidate rolls. Brian Koon, a lobbyist for Kansas Families for Education and the husband of a district teacher, was the first person to formally file for the seat in late March. Koon issued a statement this morning crediting Ousley with getting him into education advocacy in the first place, and announcing his decision to withdraw.

“I cannot, in good conscience, oppose a better candidate simply because I happened to file for office first,” Koon wrote. “The fact of the matter is, I am a public education advocate because of Heather Ousley.”

With Koon’s exit from the race, the candidate field remains at three — Ousley, Neighbor, and Chris White — short of the four-candidate threshold needed to trigger a primary election in August. The filing deadline for this fall’s elections is noon on June 1.

Ousley attended Shawnee Mission schools from kindergarten through her graduation from Shawnee Mission South. She went on to the University of Kansas for both her undergraduate work and law school, where she was the recipient of the University of Kansas School of Law Rice Scholarship. She is a trial attorney for the United State Department of Housing and Urban Development, focusing primarily on civil rights cases.

She has launched a campaign website.

“I believe the 2017 election is potentially a change election for the Shawnee Mission School District Board, and I have worked to be the change for the last five years,” Ousley said. “As an SMSD graduate, and as an SMSD advocate, my roots and my future are here.”

Koon’s full statement on his decision to exit the race is below:

Yesterday, Heather Ousley called me to talk. She called as a courtesy, one candidate to another, to let me know she would be filing to run against me for the at-large position. I listened to what Heather had to say, to her platform, and her reasons for filing. Heather wished me luck and said she looked forward to having a public conversation on policy and school administration with me. But I had to refuse. I cannot, in good conscience, oppose a better candidate simply because I happened to file for office first.

The fact of the matter is, I am a public education advocate because of Heather Ousley. Back in 2012 my wife and I saw a TV news story about a mother from Merriam who cared so much about her children’s education, that she was willing to walk sixty miles to Topeka to raise awareness about cuts to school funding. When I saw that news story about Heather, and heard what she had to say, all I could do was agree with her values and her actions. I was inspired. My wife Beth and I met her for the first time in Merriam, the morning of the last day of her journey. She was so sore by then, and her feet were so swollen from three hard days of walking, that she could not get out of her husband Jarrod’s truck by herself – Jarrod had to physically help her out of the truck, and in fact carry her part of the way. For me it was a watershed experience: that was the moment in which I became an education advocate.

You see, I’d long been concerned about public education in Kansas, through supreme court decisions and legislative budget wrangling. I already agreed with Heather in principle. What Heather showed in the early hours of that dark morning more than five years ago, was that those of us who are able, have a moral obligation to fight for those of us who are not able, even if it’s very, very, hard.

With that in mind, I have chosen to suspend my campaign, withdrawal from the at-large race, and give my unreserved endorsement to the candidacy of Heather Ousley.

While I am disappointed that it won’t be me campaigning this cycle, my race was never about me, my political aspirations, or stroking my ego: I was running for all of our children, for the incredible hardworking professionals who educate them, and for the parents and patrons of this district whose voices are still not being heard. But when a better candidate comes along, what reasonable, moral, choice, does a person have, but to step aside? Heather Ousley isn’t just a better candidate, she is absolutely the best candidate, with integrity, experience, and dedication to public education.

Today, my campaign for school board ends, but I will never let up in my fight for our childrens’ future; I will continue to hold this board responsible for their decisions, and I will resume my legislative lobbying efforts to help shape public education policy and funding for the better. I will devote the same energy I have given my own campaign, now, to Heather’s, and I hope you all will as well. Thank you for your support.