KANSAS CITY, Mo. — What otherwise would have been a routine election has gained national attention.
NBC News reports the contention of political action committees and outside special interest groups endorsing candidates and involving themselves in the Blue Valley School Board election has not gone unnoticed.
Community members and parents have utilized public comment at recent board meetings to discuss issues from critical race theory to masking.
A middle school student even filed a lawsuit on behalf of the district against the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners’ mask mandate for kindergarten through sixth-grade students.
Ultimately, the lawsuit was dismissed, which the student’s attorney, Ryan Kriegshauser, told KSHB 41 News was for the best.
“In coordination with the plaintiff’s parents, we have decided that dismissal of this case is ultimately in the best interest of their minor child given the risk of being subjected to vitriol, rumors and innuendo from bad actors for simply standing up to challenge a nearly yearlong order,” Kriegshauser said in a statement.
While Blue Valley started the school year without a mask mandate, cries from the community, including nearly 200 physician-parents, and updated mandates from the county influenced the board to reverse its decision.
On Aug. 5, the district announced it was requiring kindergarten through eighth-grade students, including staff and building visitors, to mask starting Aug. 9.
And by the end of the Aug. 9 board meeting, members voted 6-1 to extend the mandate to additionally include ninth through 12th-grade students along with those in the 18- to 21-year-old program.
The mask mandate is to be viewed at least quarterly.
Despite the district’s decision to mask, groups including Mask Choice 4 Kids have argued this decision impedes allowing families the “freedom to choose.”
Mask Choice 4 Kids says its mission is to “give children and their parents a voice to Choose or NOT to Choose to wear a mask in school.”
Tana Goertz, an Iowa native, took over as the leader of Mask Choice 4 Kids when the group grew larger than the college student who started it could manage. Goertz told NBC News the group plans to endorse school board candidates this week.
The 1776 Project PAC has already announced it endorses the slate of candidates —Jim McMullen, Kaety Bowers and Christine White — running against Andrew Van Der Laan, Gina Knapp and Lindsay Weiss.
While Blue Valley’s student population is 70% white out of 22,000 students, with critical race theory not part of the district-approved curriculum, The 1776 Project PAC made its stance clear to NBC News that it believes critical race theory is “being taught in classrooms in nearly every state across the country.”
However, the slate The 1776 Project PAC supports includes White, who plans to withdraw from the election.
While it is too late for her to remove her name from the ballot, she said she will resign if she is elected.
Initially, she did not support masking in school, but with the emergence of new variants, her views changed.
“How to live in a pandemic has also divided communities,” White wrote on Facebook. “But we need to work together to rid COVID-19 and it’s [sic] variants from our society. And that starts with education. It is extremely important that our kids get to attend school in person, and wearing masks can ensure that occurs. That is why, with the arrival of new variants, my views on masks have changed.”
In opposition to The 1776 Project PAC, Stand Up Blue Valley is endorsing Van Der Laan, Knapp and Weiss, all candidates who have “expressed support for masking initiatives that follow public health officials’ recommendations,” according to NBC News.
Van Der Laan told NBC News that his experience has included prospective voters being kind, “combative” Facebook comments and being asked what political party he aligns with.
Just over two weeks remain until the Nov. 2 election.
Vladimir Kogan, Ohio State University associate professor of political science, told NBC News that school board ideological clashes are nothing new, but if the elections favor politically charged, motivated candidates, that could encourage more “PACs, extremists and political operatives to set their sights on school boards.”
"You have adults basically arguing over national partisan issues because that's what they're angry about," Kogan told NBC News. "But you have to wonder: Are the kids going to be collateral damage from these polarizing debates?"