COVID-19 restrictions fuel political, legal feuds in Johnson and Shawnee counties
TOPEKA — Shawnee Heights school board candidate Christina Flaming compared COVID-19 mask mandates to Nazi persecution of Jews, referred in a campaign fundraising appeal to “so-called vaccinations” for coronavirus and accused physicians and news media of being complicit in an effort to stoke public fear with bad science.
Flaming, a member of the board of directors of the Kansas Association of Nurse Anesthetists and the clinical director of the nurse anesthesia program at the University of Kansas Health System St. Francis Campus in Topeka, urged voters to use the November election to install people such as herself dedicated to ending reliance on unscientific ideas and media distortions to subvert the educational process and undermine individual freedom.
The Shawnee Heights school board adopted a mask mandate for students in pre-kindergarten through high school. It’s scheduled to be reviewed later in October.
“What kind of psychological warfare is being played on everyone right now?” Flaming told school board members. “We’re all here in masks. Where’s our yellow stars? This is very much about psychological manipulation.”
She said the death of Kansas children who succumb to COVID-19 was concerning, but the total didn’t surpass the annual fatality figure for the flu.
Flaming alleged use of critical race theory in Shawnee Heights classrooms and charged that pornographic books were available in the library, but her candidacy has been anchored by rejection of health directives tied to COVID-19, especially requirements that students wear masks or quarantine.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported COVID-19 has been a factor in the death of 6,217 and hospitalization of 14,164 in Kansas since March 2020.
Intense school board races
Coronavirus-inspired campaigns for school board have played out most prominently in Johnson County, where well-funded candidates have transformed typically sleepy school board races in the Olathe, Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley districts into contests resembling legislative races. Mass mailings on behalf of school board candidates have been dropped into mailboxes in Shawnee and Johnson counties.
The Olathe law firm operated by attorneys Ryan Kriegshauser and Josh Ney has taken the lead in Johnson and Shawnee counties in lawsuits designed to limit authority of local government to require compliance with masking orders crafted to mitigate spread of COVID-19.
Their law firm also filed suit in Morris County on behalf of an individual to challenge a public mask mandate.
The firm sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Gardner Edgerton school district requesting amendment of “discriminatory” COVID-19 protocols.
Kriegshauser said a separate legal action challenging a mask mandate in Blue Valley schools was dismissed because parents financing the legal battle couldn’t compete against firepower of school district lawyers.
“The plaintiffs are a whole bunch of parents that kind of came together to try and fund this thing,” he said during a speech to the conservative Wichita Pachyderm Club. “They just couldn’t sustain it.”
Ney served the Brownback administration as securities commissioner, while Kriegshauser worked in the securities commission office and as a deputy to former Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Neither responded to a request for comment about their work on COVID-19 cases.
Kim Borchers, national committeewoman for the Kansas Republican Party and a former appointments secretary for Gov. Sam Brownback, has helped organize opposition to school board directives amid the pandemic.
She urged Jill Foster-Koch, a Shawnee Heights employee who complained that her daughters were placed in quarantine, to run for the school board. On a Facebook Live event hosted by Borchers, school board candidate Tim Watts solicited financial support from people who objected to the Shawnee Heights school board’s approach.
Lauren Tice Miller, who is on the Shawnee Heights school board, said voters ought to have benefit of transparency about financial backers of school board candidates and legal actions filed against school boards.
“Voters deserve to know that these candidates have been recruited by extremely partisan people who have a long history of working to destroy public schools in Kansas,” said Miller, who works in the office of the state’s Democratic state treasurer. “They are taking full advantage of making COVID a wedge issue and spreading misinformation to create division in our communities and chaos for our school districts. They don’t have the best interests of our kids, our teachers, our staff, our schools in mind.”
Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin, a Leawood Democrat, said the reality of political action committees endorsing candidates in nonpartisan school board races warranted revision of campaign disclosure statute. Current Kansas law doesn’t require political advertising to include the name of the responsible organization or the candidate’s treasurer in school district races.
Some school board members in Johnson County have responded to the rise in “vitriol and harassment” at meetings by declining to run for re-election, said Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park. The open school board seats have proven attractive to extremists eager to damage K-12 public education, she said.
“Topeka is already overloaded with extremists who have worked to undermine funding to public schools,” Holscher said. “Getting ‘their people’ elected to local school board positions is the final step of their agenda We are seeing an unprecedented amount of far-right PACs, who do not support public education, pouring money into these races to help them reach their goal of electing their candidates to join in their fight to privatize our schools for profit.”
In a Shawnee Heights school board campaign appeal, Flaming touted her credential as a health care professional and concluded that politicization of health care policy in wake of COVID-19 was baffling.
The school board is testing the patience of students and parents, she said, because they’ve relied on “a very narrow thought process” and were imposing restrictions that didn’t match the rate of death among people five to 18 years of age due to COVID-19.
Flaming said advice of Erin Locke, the Shawnee County health officer, and reporting by compliant mainstream media outlets focused on “fear and control.” It is a dystopian attempt to stomp out voices raising questions about “masking, testing, distancing, quarantining of exposed but healthy students, and the so-called vaccinations,” Flaming said.
“I have a problem in a place of education that someone uses the term ‘misinformation’ to snuff out freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of ideas,” Flaming said.
Watts, who is campaigning for a seat on the Shawnee Heights school board, said students and educators who were vaccinated or had contracted COVID-19 shouldn’t be held to mask or quarantine mandates.
He said natural immunity brought about by being infected by the virus was superior to the vaccine, and that his family’s experience was proof of that idea.
“We have been through the virus. We are trying to live a safe but normal life,” said Watts, who has used the public comment portion of Shawnee Heights board meetings to remind voters of his candidacy. “There’s no need to turn our teachers and staff into mask police.”
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More coverage: COVID-19 in K-12
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