TOPEKA, Kan. — Gov. Laura Kelly and indigenous leaders on Thursday called on Kansas’ top public school administrator to resign over an offensive public remark about Native Americans.
Kelly was joined by three Native American lawmakers and the chair of one of Kansas’ four Native American nations in demanding that Randy Watson step down as state education commissioner. They all reviewed a video of remarks Watson delivered by Zoom during a two-day conference last week on virtual learning.
Kelly, Watson and leaders of the four Native American nations met about Watson’s comments Wednesday, the same day the State Board of Education scheduled a special meeting for Friday to deal with the situation. The 10-member elected board appoints the commissioner to run the State Department of Education.
The department released the video of Watson’s 51-minute presentation during the conference. The offensive remark came about 42 minutes into his comments, during an extended metaphor that compared responding to the coronavirus pandemic to dealing with both a tornado and a hurricane. He joked about how cousins from California used to visit him in Kansas during the summer and were “petrified” of tornadoes.
“They’re like, ‘Are we going to get killed by a tornado?’” Watson said. “And I’d say, ‘Don’t worry about that, but you got to worry about the Indians raiding the town at any time.’”
One of the Native lawmakers, Democratic state Rep. Ponka-We Victors-Cozad, of Wichita, called the remark “racist.” Prairie Band Potawatomi Chair Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick said Watson showed that he “is not suited for a leadership role.”
“Commissioner Watson is responsible for guiding our future generation forward, but that cannot happen when he’s ignorant to the diverse history of our youth,” Rupnick said.
The board’s agenda says it will have a closed session to discuss personnel matters and confer with its attorney. Board Chair Jim Porter said board members expect to review video of Watson’s remarks. Porter said he has not seen the video, but Watson informed him and other board members of the situation.
Watson has not responded to a request for an interview Thursday.
“While Education Commissioner Randy Watson has had a long career in advocating for our children in Kansas, the State and the Kansas Board of Education must take issues of derogatory and discriminatory language seriously,” Kelly, a Democrat, said in her statement. “There is no question that Randy Watson must resign his position immediately.”
The two other Native American lawmakers calling on Watson to resign were Democratic state Reps. Stephanie Byers, of Wichita, and Christina Haswood, of Lawrence.
Haskell Indian Nations University is in Lawrence. Northeast Kansas is home to four Native American nations: the Iowa, the Kickapoo, the Prairie Band Potawatomi and the Sac and Fox.
“This situation has reopened a trauma that many Indigenous youth experience in the classroom and contributes to the mental health crises that are faced by Indigenous youths at a disproportionate rate,” Haswood said.
Watson became commissioner in November 2014 after serving as superintendent of McPherson’s public schools. As commissioner, Watson has pushed for a redesign of the state’s public schools to place more emphasis on personalized learning and better preparing students for adult work.
The special meeting comes at a politically tricky time for the board and the state’s public schools. While Republicans hold a 6-4 majority, the board is less conservative than the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Lawmakers are coming off nearly a decade of being forced by the Kansas Supreme Court to increase spending on public schools. Kelly’s shutdown of schools in 2020, in the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, prompted criticism of virtual education and restrictions on it.
Conservative Republicans are pursuing a measure to allow parents who are unhappy with their local schools to enroll their children in any other district and to use state education funds to help such parents pay for private schooling.
Also, GOP conservatives weren’t assuaged by the board’s assurances last summer that the public school curriculum standards didn’t include critical race theory, part of a scholarly movement that developed in the 1970s focusing on the legacy of slavery and racism in American history and society.
Republicans are pursuing measures to force schools to post information about classroom materials online and to give parents more power to shape what is taught and in school libraries. They have said they are promoting transparency in education.
But Byers said: “The current assault on teaching history truthfully highlights the need for a more thorough teaching of the history of Native Americans in Kansas.”