In Kansas school board races, voters reject candidates pushing culture war issues

By: - November 12, 2023 11:34 am

In many school board races across the state, voters turned away from candidates who railed about parental rights and DEI training. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas communities rejected multiple far-right candidates for school boards in what a national education group has characterized as a U.S.-wide trend of demanding “real solutions” on the local level.

In many of last week’s statewide school board races, conservative candidates who campaigned on culture war issues, backed by national right-wing groups, were defeated by their more moderate opponents.

Candidates with connections to Moms for Liberty failed to gain much traction in the state. The extremist group platforms against LGBTQ and racially inclusive school curriculum and has advocated for book bans. MFL was started by Florida women who opposed pandemic-era school closures and mask mandates.

The American Federation of Teachers said school board elections across the U.S. reflected a pushback against outside conservative influences.

“These results underline what families have been telling us for the last two years: They don’t want culture wars; they want safe and welcoming public schools where their kids can recover and thrive,” said AFT president Randi Weingarten. “Where extremists peddled fear, voters wanted hope. Where extremists tried to smear and divide, voters demanded real solutions.”

Shawnee Mission

In the Shawnee Mission district, where four of the board’s seven seats were up for election this fall, none of the candidates who campaigned on shutting down DEI in the district won a seat.

Diversity, equity and inclusion is a practice meant to make all students feel safe and welcomed in their learning environment. For the past six months, the Shawnee Mission district has been defending the district’s DEI training against a small but vocal group of parents and community members who say the training is “indoctrination” and a product of the “woke agenda.”

The renewed discussion began after a district teacher wrote an op-ed condemning DEI, which led to a student protest against the teacher, along with a Republican counter-protest meant to “fight the evil” of DEI practices.

Conservative candidates Lynn McLarty, Logan Austin and Ronald Occhiogrosso failed to sway voters with an anti-DEI stance in the district, which serves a diverse community of students from 14 cities in northeast Johnson County.

Two incumbent board members and proponents of DEI, Jessica Hembree and Jamie Borgman, won re-election, and newcomers David Westbrook and Mario Garcia III were elected to fill vacant positions.

Unofficial final results last Tuesday night from the Johnson County Election Office show they all won with more than 60% of the vote.

All of the November election results are unofficial until a final canvass on Nov. 14.

Shawnee Heights

In Shawnee Heights, the “Dads 4 Heights” coalition of three conservative candidates, Damon Shore, Troy Showalter and Michael Cichowicz, failed to secure any seats. The three were endorsed by Moms for America Action, a national far-right group.

Showalter, who garnered about 38% of the vote, had previously defended an antisemitic post he shared on social media alleging Jewish people are controlling global media, the Topeka-Capital Journal reported.

Blue Valley

In Blue Valley, a pro-public education coalition, the “A+ Team,” composed of candidates Jodie Dietz, Patrick Hurley and Jan Kessinger and current Blue Valley Recreation Commission Chairman Clay Norkey, defeated an opposing conservative coalition. The A+ coalition was formed in response to a conservative opponent group, “Blue Valley Excellence.”

The conservative coalition, composed of candidates Christine Vasquez, Mike Huebner, Rachel Faagutu and Trisha Hamilton, fought against “using gender ideology, critical race theory, and other divisive non-academic concepts” in schools. The 1776 Project PAC, a national conservative group targeting local school board races, sent out mailers in support of the conservative candidates.

“A+Team” candidates all secured more than 50% of the vote on a platform of upholding and supporting Blue Valley’s academic and athletic programs.

Baldwin and Wichita

In the Baldwin City district, three conservative candidates supported by the 1776 Project PAC all failed to secure seats.

Ken Synder, Michael Kennedy and Buck Bradley each garnered 40% or less of the vote. The race heated up in the weeks before the election as the 1776 PAC allegedly sent out texts to voters asking them to stop the “far-left candidates.”

In Wichita, candidate for Wichita School Board USD259 Jason Carmichael, who signed a Moms for Liberty pledge, lost to his opponent.


The Johnson County chapter of Moms for Liberty has denied there are any candidates in Johnson County supported by the group but has posted multiple Facebook posts publicizing Olathe conservative candidate Jennifer Gilmore’s campaign.

Newcomer Will Babbit, endorsed by the teachers union, won against Gilmore by 15,550 votes to 11,988 votes.

Gilmore, who ran unsuccessfully for the second time, had sued the district following her removal from a board meeting after disrupting the meeting. The district lost the lawsuit just ahead of the vote.

Conservative Olathe school board candidates Holly Palacio, Dan Adera-Odhiambo and Jesse Gillam also lost to moderate candidates.

This article first appeared in the Kansas Reflector, a sister site of the Nebraska Examiner in the States Newsroom network.

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.