Blue Valley school board candidate Jim McMullen is facing mounting backlash over a series of social media posts that some parents and students argue are transphobic, downplay the risks of COVID-19, and question promotion of equity in schools.
Last year, McMullen posted on social media, “there are no 8 year old transgender kids.” He also shared an ABC News article about a mother of a transgender child asking President Joe Biden what he will do to protect LGBTQ rights. McMullen wrote, “ABC promoting a child abuser.”
“It’s really disgusting,” said Leo Connelly, a 15-year-old transgender Blue Valley Southwest student. “It makes a lot of kids feel unwelcome because we’ve come so far in history to be seen as equal.”
McMullen, 51, of Overland Park, who labels himself a “small government conservative,” is running for office for the first time, against another newcomer, Lindsay Weiss, a Republican, in the Nov. 2 election in Johnson County.
He contended that everyone should be treated equally and with empathy, but that he does not “agree with the idea that a young child has the maturity or understanding to declare that he or she is trans.”
The race is nonpartisan, but McMullen has campaigned as part of a slate alongside Kaety Bowers and Christine White, who have shared many of the same conservative views, including opposing mask mandates. However White, a pediatrician, said her position on masks changed as delta variant cases surged, and then shortly after dropped out of the race.
Signs and campaign mailers still urge residents to “vote BMW,” drawing from each candidate’s initials.
They have all received the endorsement of the 1776 Project PAC, a national political action committee that has been targeting local school board races. The PAC is “committed to abolishing critical race theory” — which is not taught in Kansas K-12 schools — as well as The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which examines the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans.
Critics argue that the PAC’s messaging pulls attention away from important local decisions and shifts it to national, hot topic non-issues.
The other three candidates in the race, Weiss, Andrew Van Der Laan and Gina Knapp, also are campaigning as a slate with shared themes, such as the need to safely operate schools during the pandemic to keep students learning in person, as well as recruiting and retaining a diverse, quality staff. Recent mailers, paid for by their campaigns, encouraged voters to cast ballots for all three of them.
The three of them have all been endorsed by more than 50 area physicians. The endorsement announcement states the doctors support the candidates for protecting “safe in-person learning, students’ physical and mental health,” as well as “teacher and staff well-being.”
White said that while her name will still appear on the ballot, she would resign if elected. But some, including McMullen, have continued to campaign for her.
Recent mailers advocated for residents to vote for White, so if she wins and does not accept the role, the board can appoint a conservative member to fill it.
“She is smart, passionate, and tenacious. She’s also human. She and her family have been mercilessly attacked. Christine’s name will remain on the ballot … and so I’m still voting for her on November 2nd,” McMullen posted on Facebook.
The Blue Valley school board races are among the most controversial in Johnson County this fall, as three of seven incumbents step down. The contests:
▪ McMullen and Weiss in the southern region of the district, to replace incumbent Mike Seitz.
▪ Newcomers Bowers and Van Der Laan in the northeastern area, to replace incumbent Michele Benjamin.
▪ White and Knapp in the northwestern region, to replace incumbent Stacy Obringer-Varhall.
The Nov. 2 election is critical for the school district as it continues to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools and manage its long-term effects — everything from student learning loss, an increased demand in mental health services and the ongoing labor shortage.
The election also comes as Kansas City area districts grapple with several recent incidents of racism, and debates continue over how race and diversity are taught in schools.
Johnson County residents can vote by mail through Oct. 26. Advance in-person voting will begin at eight locations on Oct. 23.
On Nov. 2, polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Find out more at jocoelection.org.
McMullen criticized by LGBTQ community
More parents and students have begun speaking out against McMullen’s social media posts, which they argue are harmful to LGBTQ students.
Connelly said being transgender, “was always something I kind of knew. I definitely knew and started asking questions about it at like 7 or 8. So yeah, people that young can definitely know. If someone that age can know they are straight and they want to get married, someone that young can know they are gay or trans.”
McMullen is a former school teacher and lawyer, who now owns his own business, Royal Blue Capital. He has a senior in the district, as well as three children who already graduated from Blue Valley.
“How families address their children in the privacy of their homes and with their counselors and doctors is just that, their private business,” McMullen said. But he said schools, while being supportive and inclusive, should not have to “embrace a false idea” that young children can know whether they are trans.
A University of Washington study, the largest of its kind, showed in 2019 that gender identity is as strong in transgender children as it is in other children.
At a recent Pride event in Johnson County, several LGBTQ students and allies voiced their concerns about McMullen’s views.
Wendy Connelly, Leo’s mother, said it is offensive for McMullen to refer to a parent of a transgender child as a “child abuser.”
“If he assumes that I’m a child abuser because I have a trans child, it would behoove him to actually get to know me and spend some time with our family, and see what a loving and happy family we are. And what it looks like for parents to support their children and love them exactly the way God made them to be,” she said.
“I feel what he said is very harmful,” she said. “It takes enormous courage for our kids to simply be themselves and show up as who they are, and I’d hate to see a school board leader try to tear them down for being authentically themselves.”
McMullen contended, “All people should be treated with respect, love and empathy. Once somebody is an adult, they can make their own decisions.”
Some parents also have pushed back against McMullen’s criticism of social-emotional learning, which includes a range of lessons on topics such as empathy, relationship building and resilience.
In the past several years, the Kansas state education department has put more emphasis on the importance of such lessons, arguing that students cannot reach their full potential if their emotional needs are not met. Proponents also believe the lessons can help prevent bullying and better prepare students for the workforce.
Districts have added more school counselors and implemented lessons to, for example, teach about collaboration, self-regulating emotions and the importance of perseverance.
In social media posts, McMullen has written that social-emotional learning, or SEL, is “drivel,” “elevates navel gazing” and “is the most self-absorbed foolish trend in education.”
In an email to The Star, McMullen said the mission of social-emotional learning is in the right place, but he questions how its success can be measured — a challenge educators in Kansas have been facing.
“My criticism of SEL is that, like much of modern American society, it is grounded in an internal focus on one’s emotional state, which is inherently shifting and unreliable. It turns children inward. It views children as fragile and vulnerable, rather than capable and resilient,” he said. Instead, he said, schools should focus solely on intellectual and traditional academic pursuits.
Speaking generally about social-emotional learning and not in the context of the school board race, Tim DeWeese, director of the Johnson County Mental Health Center, said social and emotional support is crucial for helping students succeed.
“Students are going to experience difficult times. They’re going to experience barriers in schools. They’re going to experience failure,” he said. “And all of those things provide an opportunity for learning, growing and changing as a human being. If we don’t provide social-emotional learning, if we don’t provide those skill sets or tools to help young people respond, they won’t be as effective in doing those things as adults. It is an important part of overall education.”
Leo Connelly said the social-emotional lessons he’s had at school are important.
“It teaches kids how to properly manage their emotions, that they’re not alone and don’t have to suppress their emotions or hide away from that,” he said. “They have people to talk to. It makes students feel safer knowing they can open up their emotions to work through them.”
Southern board seat race
McMullen is challenged by Weiss, 46, of Overland Park, a small business owner and mother of three children in the district.
They differ on a wide range of issues, including how the school board should be handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Weiss believes the district should use its “toolbox of mitigation measures” to help curb spread of the virus. Masking, she said, is one of those tools “and it has been incredibly effective for us.”
“Do we want to keep kids in masks forever? Absolutely not. I am hopeful as vaccinations roll out for ages 5-12, COVID numbers decrease and new strategies like Test to Stay & Learn get implemented that we can begin to plan for scaling back our mitigation strategies,” she said, referencing a new policy districts are implementing to allow those exposed to COVID to remain in school if they get tested frequently with negative results. “But keeping kids in school, continuously and uninterrupted, is the most important thing the Board can advocate for.”
McMullen believes the school board has not handled the COVID-19 pandemic well.
“In the 2021-22 school year, I would not have voted to extend the mask mandate to our high schoolers, and I would have advocated for a policy that would have allowed parents to sign an exemption from the mask mandate for younger children,” he said.
The Johnson County Board of Commissioners implemented a mask mandate in schools that serve students as old as sixth grade, who are not yet eligible for the vaccine. But almost every district in the county went beyond that with universal mask mandates, as health experts worried that unmasked and unvaccinated students could lead to school closures.
Earlier this year, McMullen posted on social media that some COVID-19 patients had seen improvements by taking ivermectin, a drug used to get rid of parasites in animals and humans. But the Food and Drug Administration and other health officials have urged the public to ignore misinformation about the drug, which should not be taken for COVID.
Other posts by McMullen argue that COVID-19 is of no risk to children. And some have criticized him for “fat shaming” while talking about the virus. “It’s OK to tell people to stop being fat, eat healthy and exercise regularly,” he wrote in one post.
The two candidates also disagree on how Blue Valley should promote diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, work, to try to combat discrimination in schools.
“We’re early in our efforts but I think we have the right structure in place,” Weiss said. “We have a DEI Board Advisory Committee made up of students, teachers, board members, administrators, thought leaders in diversity from our community and parents from all parts of the district. They laid a general road map last year and already hit the ground running in September for this year. I think, for me, DEI is really just about making sure all kids feel safe, included and a sense of belonging in our school community. Having representation from all of our stakeholders is key to making that happen.”
McMullen said, “I think we are going down the wrong path.”
“A diverse and rich educational offering is an obligation we owe all of the district’s children,” said McMullen, who said his wife is from Argentina. “An inclusive environment where all feel welcome is imperative.”
But McMullen disagrees with the use of the word “equity,” arguing that it “conveys the idea that the government will weigh in to bring about equal outcomes based (on) certain demographic groups.”
Some have argued that McMullen is misrepresenting the meaning of equity in schools. They say it recognizes that each person has different circumstances and privileges, due to economic status, race, gender and other factors, and means that the appropriate resources and opportunities are allocated to reach an equal outcome.
McMullen said if he were elected, his main goals would be to push for advanced literacy and dedicated writing instruction. He is also pushing for smaller class sizes and higher teacher compensation.
If elected, Weiss said her top priorities would be identifying and addressing pandemic learning deficits, attracting and retaining quality teachers and staff, as well as continuing to expand college and career-ready programs.