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Kansas state school board on ballots amid COVID-19 scrutiny

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansans are electing two state Board of Education members this fall as the panel has gained attention amid the coronavirus pandemic for its decision not to mandate a delay in the start of school.

In the Kansas City area, Democrat Melanie Haas, an information technology consultant, is running against Republican Benjamin Hodge, a former state lawmaker and former community college trustee, to represent northern Johnson County. They’re seeking the seat left vacant by Republican Steve Roberts, who ran for U.S. senate and lost in the GOP primary.

Republican incumbent Kathy Busch and Democrat Betty Arnold are running for the board’s 8th District seat, which covers Wichita, home to the state’s largest school district.

University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller said both districts voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly in 2018.

“Republicans are holding these Clinton-Kelly districts that might be a challenge for them to hold this year,” Miller said.

The board’s work drew extra attention over the summer when it rejected Kelly’s proposal to delay the restart of K-12 classes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Of the two candidates vying to win the Kansas Board of Education’s Kansas City-area seat, one has campaigned by hosting online discussions, while the other isn’t campaigning publicly at all.

Haas said she was disappointed with the board’s rejection of Kelly’s proposal to delay the start of school, and that the board needs to trust the governor. She said she plans to rely mostly on advice from public health officials and epidemiologists on proposals related to COVID-19.

She has noted her background as a software engineer, saying she supports bringing technology into the classroom to improve tech literacy.

Hodge didn’t respond to media requests for interviews and didn’t attend the Shawnee Mission Post’s candidate forum. He hasn’t updated his campaign website since he ran for a different office in a previous election.

The Johnson County Republican Party’s chairman, Fabian Shepard, also said he doesn’t know what Hodge hopes to accomplish on the board.

Although Shepard plans to support Hodge, he said “it’s tough to work with someone when you don’t know what their goals are.”

Busch has represented Wichita on the board since 2013. She said she’s proud that she helped make sure that a document guiding school districts on how to operate during the pandemic included standards for school districts to assess students’ social and emotional character development.

Busch, a former science teacher and adjunct professor at Wichita State University, voted in 2014 for schools to develop “Individual Plans of Study,” which include career planning with students starting in 7th grade.

Arnold said the existing career plan process is a “band-aid” that doesn’t motivate students. She said students should also take a career aptitude test to help them determine what career best suits their skills, interests and personalities.

Busch voted to delay the reopening of schools in response to the pandemic. Most GOP state board of education members wanted local school boards to decide when to reopen, but Busch said a statewide pandemic measure was appropriate because the “virus knows no boundaries.”

Arnold said she also would have voted to delay opening, but she thinks board members should have, as early as March, considered models to recommend to school districts on how to safely reopen schools.

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