Jul. 9—Five of the nine candidates in the Manhattan-Ogden school board election discussed diversity education, vaccines and pronouns at a candidate forum hosted by the Riley County Republican Party Thursday.
Kevin Harms, Betty Mattingly-Ebert, Steven Ruzzin, Christine Weixelman, and Carl Treece answered questions sourced from the audience of about 100 people in Pottorf Hall. The other four candidates — Teresa Parks, Jen Chua, Jayme Morris-Hardeman, and incumbent Karla Hagemeister — had prior commitments scheduled for Thursday evening, and were not present for this forum.
Riley County Republican Party chairman John Ball moderated the forum. Although school board elections are nonpartisan, Ball said the local Republican party hosts forums for city commission and school board elections to allow the public to pose questions to candidates more directly.
The candidates had two minutes to introduce themselves, two minutes to answer questions, and one minute for closing statements. The first question for the group revolved around the "top three or four USD 383 issues" that the next school board will deal with over the next four years.
Mattingly-Ebert, owner of Paradoxx Design in Manhattan, said "front and center in everyone's mind" is the topic of diversity. She said she believes in diversity, but also wants to have "diversity of thought."
"I want to have the children get back to a great education," Mattingly-Ebert said. "I believe the social and economic issues need to be handled by family, by counselors, and let teachers start teaching — what they've been hired to do."
Mattingly-Ebert said transparency of finances and curriculum, as well as school board and administrative processes, would be another important issue for her. She said fiscal responsibility is another area she would focus on.
Ruzzin, who works as a data engineer, said improving access and proficiency in district technology would be one of his focuses. He agreed with Mattingly-Ebert that financial responsibility is needed, especially as district officials work to finalize the budget for fiscal year 2022.
Weixelman, a registered nurse, said she recently "took a crash course" on how the district budgeting process works with director of business services Lew Faust.
"It is a complicated beast," Weixelman said. "I personally didn't understand that there are a lot of facets involved, so I think the board should play a role in being that translator piece to explain to the public how (the budget) works."
Treece, a retired science teacher and Army medical services officer, said he would focus on bullying and finding ways to stop bullying before it happens. Harms, who is soon to be a retired Apache helicopter pilot, said he would seek ways to "identify struggling students and get them resourced to teachers" for better support.
Another question asked of the candidates centered on whether teachers should respect the preferred pronouns of transgender students "even if their parents don't." Weixelman said she thinks transgender students should be called what they want to be called. Treece agreed and said there is "no point in making them feel worse than they possibly do already."
Harms said he felt the teacher should set the standard for respect in their classroom, and Mattingly-Ebert agreed that "it's all about respect, to the child and the parents." Ruzzin said he would prefer to use parents' preference for pronouns over their child's.
On the question of whether to require children be vaccinated against COVID-19 before attending school this fall, Ruzzin said he would like that decision to be left to parents. Harms agreed with him, while Mattingly-Ebert expressed concern that requiring vaccines could be a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Weixelman said she does not think people should be forced into decisions on vaccinations. Treece concurred with her.
"It's hard to get people to do something they don't want to do," Treece said.
About teaching of critical race theory — something USD 383 officials said they are not implementing and is not approved by the Kansas State Department of Education — Treece previously told The Mercury he does not support the theory. At the forum, he said he appreciates diversity but does not want to inadvertently "indoctrinate" children into practicing racism simply by talking about it.
Ruzzin said he is also against critical race theory and would like for the concept to be banned from being taught. Both Weixelman and Mattingly-Ebert said they do not support promotion or teaching of critical race theory. Harms said he would seek alternative evidence-based trainings for teachers.
Harms' wife is a special education teacher, and he said he believes teachers are underpaid. He said the cost of living in Manhattan is rising and the increased costs can push valuable educators out of the community.
"I think we need to take a look at the cost of living per the education level across the board for the district, so we can make sure teachers are paid appropriately, so they want to stay here," Harms said.
Ruzzin said he agrees on the importance of retaining teachers, and that "it's not exactly easy to bring people out" to Kansas.
"Kansas is kind of in the middle of nowhere, and if you're from a different place you're going to look at Manhattan and be like, 'Why would I want to go there?'" Ruzzin said. "I think it's incredibly important to retain the good teachers we have for that reason."
In his closing remarks, Ruzzin reminded the audience of the primary election Aug. 3, which will whittle the field of candidates down from nine to six. He said he "would like the opportunity" to serve on the school board. Mattingly-Ebert said Manhattan is her "adopted hometown" and that she is "willing to give back."
Harms said he is a positive person and that he would be "a listening ear" as a board member. Weixelman said she "is a citizen like any of you" and decided "to do something about what was going on in the community."
Treece said he ran for the school board to give back after working in education for more than 30 years.
"You'd have to be a fool to vote for an 82-year-old person," Treece said in jest, garnering laughs from the audience. "I like this community... it won't hurt me if you don't vote for me, but I'd appreciate it if you do."
People who live in the Manhattan-Ogden district and wish to vote in the primary election must sign up by July 13. Advance voting begins by mail and in-person July 14.
The general election is Nov. 2.