2021 general election forum: Blue Valley school board

Blue Valley School Board

Four Blue Valley school board candidates participated in the Post's general election forum on Wednesday. Seated from left to right: Andrew Van Der Laan, Gina Knapp, Jim McMullen and Lindsay Weiss. Post Editor Kyle Palmer, far left, moderated the event. Photo credit Leah Wankum.

The district’s COVID-19 mask policy, student’s use of technology and diversity and inclusion efforts were just some of the topics discussed at the Post’s forum Wednesday night featuring candidates vying for three seats on the Blue Valley school board.

In the Member 4 area, business consultant Andrew Van Der Laan and tattoo artist Kaety Bowers are competing for the seat currently held by board vice president Michele Benjamin. Bowers did not participate in Wednesday’s forum.

In the Member 5 area, nonprofit executive Gina Knapp is running from the seat being vacated by Stacy Obringer-Varhall.

Pediatrician Christine White’s name will also appear on the ballot in the Member 5 area, but she announced her withdrawal from the race in September and did not participate in Wednesday’s forum.

And in the Member 6 area, investment banker Jim McMullen and small business owner Lindsay Weiss are vying for the seat being vacated by Mike Seitz.

The Post livestreamed the candidate forum on our Facebook page, and the entire event can be viewed in the embedded link below.

  1. Blue Valley is one of the highest performing public school districts in the state of Kansas. It outperforms state and national averages on a variety of achievement metrics, including ACT and SAT scores, AP course enrollment, high school graduation and college acceptance rates. It’s annual state test scores are some of the highest in Kansas. To you, what does this data say about where Blue Valley students are at in terms of being college and career ready? Do you see any challenges or gaps in how the district is pushing students to achieve? [9:33]
    Andrew Van Der Laan.


  2. Currently, Blue Valley — like most other public school districts in Johnson County — requires masking for all students, staff and visitors inside its facilities. Families can request exemptions based on certain medical conditions. There are also situations, like eating lunch or playing sports indoors, where students can take their masks off. There is no specified end date to this mask policy. First part to this question is a simple YES or NO, and then I’ll ask a follow up of each of you. But first: do you support the district’s current universal mask policy? [15:53]
    1. If YES …  Critics, among other things, say the current mask policy is too broad and takes away parents’ power to make choices for their kids. At school board meetings, we’ve heard parents opposed to mandatory masks say mask-wearing is exacerbating academic problems and mental health issues in children. Some opponents to universal masking point to the fact that though kids are getting infected, severe illness and death from COVID-19 in children is rare and that a universal mask rule, therefore, is overreaching in its scope. How do you answer these concerns? Is there room to make more accommodations for parents wanting their children to go unmasked, while also preserving broader collective health? 
    2. If NO … Supporters of mask rules in schools say this is what is needed to protect young people, most of whom are NOT vaccinated yet, or not eligible to be vaccinated. They also point to evidence from the CDC and Kansas state department of health that shows outbreaks are more likely in schools where mask-wearing is optional. More cases at school leads to more students being quarantined at home, missing out on in-person classes. How do you respond to these concerns? Would you advocate for looser mask rules even if it meant potentially more students being exposed to COVID, getting sick and having to be excluded from school at home?
  3. Debates over masks and other COVID-19 mitigation protocols in schools and elsewhere often come down to deeper disagreements over values and what is the proper tradeoff between collective public health and individual freedom. If
    Gina Knapp

    elected, you will likely face pandemic-related decisions that impact thousands of students and their families … and may force you to weigh these competing demands of individuals and the greater community. How do you see this tradeoff between individual freedom and public health? Which way, if either, do you lean? [24:42]

  4. Maybe now more than ever, parents, families and students are aware of the impact technology can have on learning — both good and bad — after the pandemic last school year forced many kids to spend big chunks of time learning at home. Following a 2018 student and community survey, Blue Valley has instituted some form of digital technology in all grade levels. There are iPads for every other student in kindergarten through 2nd grade… and one-to-one devices available for every grade after that. In general, do you think the district’s use of digital technology has advanced student learning or harmed it or fallen somewhere in between? What, if anything, could be improved about technology’s implementation in classrooms? [28:33]
  5. Like many districts in recent years, Blue Valley has been accelerating its efforts at diversity, equity and inclusion. A district-wide committee  made up of staff, students and community members has recommended a number of things including
    Jim McMullen

    hiring a district diversity leader, establishing a system for reporting and responding to incidents and establishing DEI groups at every school to come up with ways each campus can be more inclusive. Do you support the district’s current approach to diversity, equity and inclusion? If so, can you give examples of how it supports student learning? If not, explain what you would want to see done differently and how that would impact student learning? [35:33]

  6. A term that many of our readers wanted us to ask about is “critical race theory.” Now, I’m going to ask you in a moment to define what that term — “critical race theory” — means to you. But here is what some other people are saying about it. Earlier this summer, the Kansas Association of School Boards issued a statement saying “critical race theory” is not part of any Kansas state academic standards, calling it a “theoretical approach to material generally discussed in higher education.” Likewise, the Kansas State Board of Education said critical race theory has been “unfortunately conflated with educational equity.” Still, there are many prominent political leaders and conservative commentators, most notably former President Trump, who liken “critical race theory” to indoctrination and propaganda and insist students need to be shielded from it. So how do you define “critical race theory” and do you think it poses a challenge to Blue Valley? [42:03]
  7. Last year, the school board adopted a new five-year strategic plan called Reimagine Blue Valley. Among other things, it emphasized giving students “voice and choice” in their learning and helping them lead “healthy and well-balanced” lives
    Lindsay Weiss

    both physically and emotionally. Reimagine Blue Valley also mentions the importance of giving students “high quality literacy” instruction as well as lessons in “digital literacy” and also gives a nod to training young people on issues like “unconscious bias” and inequality. What do you think is the most important aspect of the district’s current strategic plan? And does Reimagine Blue Valley lack any goal or priority you consider vital? [48:35]

  8. Students have shared they are often times uncomfortable speaking with their parents about social or mental health issues. If elected to the school board, how would you support mental health initiatives currently in place for students of all grades levels? [54:46]