The Kansas Board of Education District 1 seat, which includes the entirety of Jefferson County, is an open race after the Kansas State Legislature redrew the district’s boundaries and no longer includes Democratic incumbent Janet Waugh’s home in the district. Waugh has been serving on the Board of Education since 1999. To fill the open seat, Democrat Jeffrey Howards and Republican Danny Zeck are running against each other on the Nov. 8 ballot. Both candidates ran unopposed in the primaries.
Jeffrey Howards is a twice retired veteran from Leavenworth with 20 years of experience between the Marines and Army National Guard. Howards is also the chairman for the Leavenworth Democratic Party.
For his pitch to Jefferson County, Howards said, “I’m a progressive educator. I believe in supporting the students, the teachers, education, and also the invisible people behind the curtain. The administrators and the support personnel that everybody forgets about, they’re the ones who make the schools run. The ones who answer the phone when you call in with “my child is sick,” and ones who do the attendance and the ones who maintain all the records and the registration, the forgotten people. But primarily, I want to support education, the students as a whole. We need to be preparing the students to be successful in the future.”
Howards compared the technology of today to the science fiction he grew up with. “Dick Tracy had a watch with a telephone and a TV built in it. I mean, impossible. Impossible. But now, every kid’s got an iPhone and they’re getting phone calls on their watch. And they’re watching videos on their watch, and things that we never imagined a generation ago. So where are we going to be a generation from now? So we have to have the step training to prepare the kids incrementally, so that when they graduate, they’re ready to be successful.”
As for why Howards is running, he said, “There are ultra-conservative extremists who are trying to take over local school boards, and state board of education. It’s the responsibility of individuals such as myself to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Howards said ultraconservatives want to ban books and ignore technological advancements. “You can’t ignore it. Like I say, you can’t teach kids how to maintain an Edsel when they’re living in a Tesla world. And who knows what’s going to be in the next world. And that’s the thing, that the ultraconservatives want to control. They want to control the teachers. They want to ban books, control curriculums; they want to control the message. It’s almost as if they read George Orwell’s ‘1984’ before they burned it. And they know that if we control the message, we control the masses.”
Teaching real history is important, Howards said. “We need to not just learn of history, we need to learn from history and so we don’t repeat it.”
Students need to know about how Kansas is the free state, and how the Native American code talkers in World War II saved tens of thousands of lives, Howards said. “And on the other hand, we need to know about the Cherokee Trail of Tears.”
“I’m coming out of retirement, retired twice. I’m a disabled veteran. I’d be much happier sitting at home watching Oprah and Jerry Springer. But instead it’s time to step up because somebody’s got to do something. It’s my turn to be somebody.”
For qualifications, Howards emphasized his experience with the military. “I’m an old Marine, which guided my entire life. Duty, Honor, Country, Integrity.” Howards said he has 20 years of experience in the military, 20 years of civil service, and 14 years in Fort Leavenworth as an instructor training soldiers, which also had him travel around the world. “That’s why I earned my white-collar merit badge.”
Howards said he earned his blue-collar merit badge as an apprentice asbestos worker in Pearl Harbor removing radioactive asbestos from inside the nuclear reactor departments on submarines. “We all know how dangerous asbestos is. And they would tell us, don’t worry about the asbestos because the radiation is going to kill you.”
On transgender students in school, Howards said, “I say it’s not a new issue. I say, Yeah, gay students, bi students, transvestites, whoever it was, have existed since the beginning of time. Let’s say coming out of the closet, well, they’ve been there. Now, they feel empowered, rightfully, to come out of the closet. And it’s their right to be called and addressed.”
Schools should be teaching Science, Technology, Education, and Mathematics incrementally to prepare students for their careers after high school, such as with the Desoto battery plant or Tonganoxie dog food plant, Howards said. “It properly starts in kindergarten. Kindergartners are not being taught computer design. They’ve been taught the basics of how to operate. Here’s a tablet, on, off, maneuver stuff. The basics, and then we’ll move on incrementally. You have to be to the point that when the students are in high school, they’re being taught absolute latest technology of what is at that point, and what is projected to be coming up. So they’re ready to meet the needs of that battery plant.”
On rural schools, Howards said he has been meeting with rural school superintendents to address issues, such as getting teachers to move to rural areas. When teachers move, they consider what opportunities there are for their spouse and their kids, which makes it difficult for rural districts to compete due to their funding.
Howards said it is also important to address the needs of every type of school, rural, urban, and suburban. “You’ve got Topeka, you’ve got Manhattan, and you’ve got Oskaloosa. So they’re totally different.”
However, inner city schools and rural schools do share some issues, Howards said. Like similar low income tax bases which leads to schools that are not as well funded as schools in suburban Kansas City.
Cuts to food assistance like the end of the free school meal program harm the education of low income students, Howards said. “A kid that’s hungry, can’t learn.”
“And so the small towns, the inner cities, everything seems to come back around in funding. And then we go back to the legislature, why aren’t the schools funded properly?”
Zeck is a 72-year-old retired businessman also from Leavenworth and spent 16 years on his local school board. Zeck’s business, Zeck Ford Lincoln, filed for bankruptcy in October 2007, just before the Great Recession began in December of that year.
On his pitch to voters, Zeck said, “I want to get education back to academics, focus on academics. And when I’m saying academics, I mean reading, math, science, civics, social studies, all those things, and be 100% on that, and get the students up to grade level. Because right now, 60% of the students are below grade level. And that’s nothing on the teachers, but we have all this other stuff that we’re teaching that I don’t think needs to be taught.”
On what should be removed from the classroom, Zeck pointed to Social and Emotional Learning. Zeck began by saying that SEL encroaches on instruction time, which Oskaloosa, McLouth, and Jefferson County North schools dispute.
To remove SEL from schools would defund Kansas schools of federal funds. “Federal funds on the normal stuff is only about 10%. So we can find probably ways to do that,” Zeck said. As for funds for school lunch assistance, Zeck said abolishing the Federal Department of Education and giving states the freedom to do what they want with the funds would be best. Though doing an audit of school spending to reduce waste would be the way to move forward.
There are other topics Zeck said he would like to remove from classrooms, such as teaching negative views of American history. “I don’t want to say that this is a racist country. You know, does everybody have prejudice? Yes, you have prejudice about certain things. I have prejudice about certain things, but that our country was founded on good stuff. Not bad stuff.”
“And I think we’ve gone past that. Is there still racism and stuff out there? Absolutely. Absolutely. There is. Will it ever go away? I don’t know. But I don’t think it’s where it’s that bad that we need to be talking about every day.”
Zeck said the reason he ran was because the support he had from parents following his challenge to “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” being used in schools. Zeck said parents came to him asking him to read the book, and that it made his blood boil. After going to a Leavenworth school board meeting to get the book removed from local schools, a lady told him that a spot was open on the state board. “And I’m one of those people, I believe there’s a reason why things fall into place.”
Zeck said the school board pointing out that he approved the book as a part of the curriculum during his time as a board member was good because it made him think about things. “It’s sad that now, you can trust, but you have to verify everything. And I think that’s where we are unfortunately today. Then I started drilling down on everything. I go talk to a couple people. I have 12 counties now that I go to, and it’s going on in all 12 counties, what I think is craziness. And so, you know, we want to try to change that and get back to teaching the kids the core things that they need to teach.”
As for how transgender students should be handled by schools, Zeck said only a student’s legal name and gender at birth should be allowed. “I don’t believe that you should be called by something else. Now when you get out of school, when you’re of age, if you want to change your name, to Danielle Sweetie Pie, that’s okay. But when we’re asking those types of things, we’re pushing an agenda that I don’t believe we should push.”
On why he should be elected over Howards, Zeck said, “I’ve been in Leavenworth my whole life. Born in Leavenworth, raised in Leavenworth, went to school in Leavenworth, my kids went to school in Leavenworth. Three of my grandkids went to school in Leavenworth and two of my great-grandkids go to Lansing, which is the same area.”
“In my education, I went to KU one year, didn’t do the best. I got an A plus in the social part of it in Lawrence. But my qualifications are, I’ve been through up, but I’ve been through down. And am I educated like other people? No, but I’m educated on a daily basis and from past experience, the right and the wrong.”
On rural schools, Zeck said giving ultimate authority to local school boards is the best way forward. “Because it’s completely different than Leavenworth, completely different than Topeka.”
As for preparing students for jobs, like the ones coming with the new battery plant in Desoto, Zeck said schools should instead focus on making sure students can read and do math. “I’ll use me as an example. In today’s type of thing that they’re wanting to do these tests, where by eighth grade, now, they’re going to give your path of education based on what they think you should be. Well, if they did that to me, because I was a dummy, I wasn’t a smart guy, then I would have never been a business owner.”
This article originally ran in the Nov. 3, 2022 edition of The Oskaloosa Independent and The Valley Falls Vindicator.