Olathe school board candidates
Top row from left: Olathe school board Member 1 candidates Dan Adera-Odhiambo, Stacey Yurkovich and Mark Wingren. Bottom row from left: Olathe school board Member 4 candidates Claire Reagan and Holly Palacio and Member 7 at-large candidates Jennifer Gilmore and Will Babbit. (Provided photos)

Candidates for the Olathe school board say they want to end the division, incivility and conflict among current board members. 

In response to a Kansas City Beacon questionnaire, candidates staked out their positions on school funding, book bans and how the school board currently operates. Four of the seats on the seven-member board are up for election this Nov. 7. 

Incumbent Stacey Yurkovich faces two challengers, Dan Adera-Odhiambo and Mark Wingren, to serve as school board Member 1, representing the southern part of the district. Two newcomers, Claire Reagan and Holly Palacio, are competing for the Member 4 position that represents the same subdistrict. 

In the northeastern subdistrict, incumbent Brad Boyd is running against challenger Jesse Gillam for the Member 2 position. Neither candidate responded to the questionnaire.

The final position up for a vote is the Member 7 at-large position representing the entire Olathe district. Jennifer Gilmore, who narrowly lost a school board race in 2021, is running against Will Babbit, who would be a newcomer to the board.

Meet the candidates

Member 1

Dan Adera-Odhiambo

Occupation: Aviation product support 

Favorite school event: High school football

Favorite subject in school: Chemistry 

Mark Wingren

Occupation: Heating and air conditioning (owner)

Background and qualifications: I was a civilian department of defense contractor for many years. Now, as I work in about 700 homes per year, I have a great understanding of people. I see and hear firsthand the specific needs of people from all walks of life.

Favorite school event: Being a car and truck enthusiast and collector, I love the car show that Olathe West puts on every year. 

Favorite subject in school: My favorite subject was history. I still love learning about local and U.S. history. I can’t get enough!

Stacey Yurkovich

Occupation: Retired educator

Background and qualifications: I worked at all levels of public education: elementary, middle school, high school. I worked as either a building-level or district-level administrator for 31 years. Twenty-six years of my career were in Olathe, two as a teacher and 24 as an administrator.

Favorite school event: Opening the school year is my favorite event/time of the year. There is such excitement and enthusiasm from students, teachers and parents. It is contagious!

Favorite subject in school: Math

Member 2

Brad Boyd

Boyd, a current school board member, did not respond to the questionnaire. According to his school board bio, he has four children in Olathe Public Schools, is involved in the School Counseling Advisory Council and coaches youth baseball. He joined the Kansas House of Representatives as a Democrat from District 49 in 2023. 

In a recent candidate interview with the Johnson County Public Policy Council, he said his top three policy issues are academic excellence, safety and security, and defending public education and teachers. Boyd would like the board to be more forward-looking rather than reacting to crises. He has advocated for the state to fully fund special education and said local schools need more funding. 

Jesse Gillam

Gillam, who works in the restaurant industry, did not respond to the questionnaire. According to his campaign website, he is a graduate of Olathe North High School who joined the Kansas Army National Guard and served overseas in Operation Enduring Freedom. He expects his daughter to be a future Olathe School District student. 

Gillam’s priorities listed on his website are: 

  • Student safety and security, including improving staff screening to prevent sexual misconduct and working with law enforcement to address substance abuse. 
  • Promoting academic excellence by focusing on reading, writing and math and keeping politics out of schools. 
  • Transparency, including better communication with parents and livestreaming and posting board meetings and public comments. 
  • Workforce development including promoting college readiness and offering career certifications in high school. 

Member 4

Claire Reagan

Occupation: Substitute teacher and staff in special needs ministry

Background and qualifications: I’ve seen public education from many angles: former high school English teacher, current substitute, parent and advocate. I can wear different hats and look beyond my own point of view. 

Favorite school event: When we recognize and celebrate our student and staff achievements — and elementary school field days!

Favorite subject in school: English and choir

Holly Palacio

Occupation: Education advocate

Background and qualifications: My advocacy began for my own children’s education due to learning difficulties and special needs diagnosis and now extends across the county to our local  and state Board of Education and state Legislature until every student receives a quality public education.

Favorite school-related event: Watching students find their reason for pursuing education is my favorite. Students finding their talent and passion in sports, theater, debate, art, engineering, culinary arts and anything else they find to open doors is my favorite school-related event. 

Favorite subject in school: History and English were my favorite subjects.

Member 7 at-large

Jennifer Gilmore

Occupation: Finance

Background and qualifications: Experience as a planning commissioner, homeowners’ association president and treasurer, emergency substitute teacher, graduate of Olathe East High School, master of science in education from the University of Kansas.

Favorite school event: Project Grad

Favorite subject in school: Debate

Will Babbit

Occupation: Director of business engineering

Background and qualifications: I am the parent of an Olathe Public Schools third grader and have extensive experience managing relationships between teams with differing opinions that I believe will directly apply to being on the school board. 

Favorite school event: Attending Les Arts Culinaires at Olathe North

Favorite subject in school: Computer lab

Multiple-choice questions 

Olathe school board candidates were given a choice between two options for each question and allowed space to explain their responses. Those who skipped a multiple-choice question or indicated in their written response that they did not agree with either choice are marked as “neither.” Those who skipped a question entirely or did not respond to the survey are marked “no response.” 

School funding

Member 1

Adera-Odhiambo: Every resource needs to go toward improving the academics of the district as well as the welfare of the teachers.

Wingren: This is easy. We need to spend less on schools and more on teachers, paras and bus drivers.

Yurkovich: The last five years Kansas has fully funded K-12 education. However, we are still recovering from the years when that was not the case. Special education is not fully funded, which means school districts have to dip into the general fund to make up the difference.

Member 4

Reagan: I support our school funding formula, but it doesn’t do enough. The state and federal governments must fund special education at the statutory level. More funds to increase compensation for classified and certified staff would also help attract and retain staff.

Palacio: Neither of these answers is accurate nor in the control of the school board. The board should prioritize classroom expenses, including teacher salaries, for any increase and protect the classroom first in any budget reduction.

Member 7 at-large

Gilmore: We need performance-based budgets. Olathe currently has declining enrollment in a growing city with a $67 million increase over the past five years with scores trending downward. We need to take a closer look at how dollars are being spent.

Babbit: Our schools need well-paid educators to continue the tradition of academic excellence we’ve seen in Olathe. The students also need vibrant extracurricular programming and technology to ensure they are equipped to succeed in a global society.

School board member compensation

Member 1

Adera-Odhiambo: This should be considered as service back to the community, but the overall call on this will be a board decision.

Wingren: I gladly donate my time to this cause. 

Yurkovich: Board of education members provide a great service, contribute an immense amount of time and of late have been the targets of much discourse. Other municipal roles are compensated. My concern is that compensation would be a distraction from the service.

Member 4

Reagan: I am concerned that paying school board members would take money away from our students.

Palacio: Paying school board members is the last priority for any dollars taxpayers send to our Olathe Public Schools.

Member 7 at-large

Gilmore: School board members should be community advocates who are willing to serve, not to earn an extra buck. I will strongly oppose school board members getting compensated.

Babbit: I think money causes enough trouble in politics without elected school board members being paid. I want folks on the board to run because they are motivated by their passion for public education and community service, not for an extra salary.

Book removals 

Member 1

Adera-Odhiambo: No response. 

Wingren: This is not a one-size-fits-all question. Certain books should be allowed past a certain grade level and not allowed prior. Kindergarten kids need not worry about the human reproductive system, etc.

Yurkovich: Neither of these reflect my district. There is a system in place to review and select books appropriate for acquisition and a system to review concerns and possible removal.

Member 4

Reagan: Neither option fits our district. Olathe has a thorough process when books are challenged. The professionals who handle these situations are diligent and intentional. No book is removed without careful and academically-informed consideration.

Palacio: Books in school libraries and classrooms should enhance and support a robust, diverse, rigorous public education. Books should meet the academic criteria already outlined in board policy and be open to review in compliance with board policy. 

Member 7 at-large

Gilmore: We need to protect our children’s innocence especially in a school setting. Sexually explicit books will be available for them later in life when they are more mature. The books can remain available for parents to purchase for their homes.

Babbit: I am adamantly opposed to any book-banning effort in schools. We must trust teachers, librarians and school leaders to make knowledgeable and appropriate decisions regarding curriculum and literacy instruction.

LGBTQ students

Member 1

Adera-Odhiambo: No response. 

Wingren: No response. 

Yurkovich: Olathe Public Schools have established guidelines which adhere to state laws in Kansas. LGBTQ+ individuals and their families are included and supported in our schools by teachers, administrators and counselors.

Member 4

Reagan: Students must feel seen and welcome in our schools in order to best learn in them. Affirming their identity is most supportive.

Palacio: Our LGBTQ+ students and staff should expect to be treated with the same dignity and respect in our classrooms, school buildings and during school activities as every student in Olathe Public Schools. The safety of every student is the first priority.

Member 7 at-large

Gilmore: This question is very poorly worded.

Babbit: I think our schools are doing a good job, and I want to ensure our educators continue to be empowered to create a safe environment for students to express their identity. We can’t have a safe and inclusive school unless every student feels safe.

Open-ended questions

If elected to the Olathe school board, what would you do to improve outcomes for students in your district? 

Member 1

Adera-Odhiambo: Interrogate our budget priorities to ensure teachers get the help they need so badly now, retain and attract more teachers, reduce class sizes and get students the tools they need to prepare for the future.

Wingren: We need to get serious about hiring quality teachers and paras. We need to consider owning our own school buses. All of these jobs need to be paid more money. We need to make administrators accountable for not filling these roles in a timely manner.

Yurkovich: Olathe students as a whole perform very well. However, when the data is disaggregated by ethnicity, special education and socioeconomic status factors there are discrepancies. We need to continue to focus on these groups through additional resources and support to increase their academic success.

Member 4

Reagan: Working to attract, retain and support educators and classified staff is the most important piece of the puzzle. Without skilled professionals who care, our children cannot be guided toward their own unique success. As a former teacher and current substitute, I am prepared to help in this effort.

Palacio: Because I believe that students have a right to their public education, we need to be fiscally responsible with resources and prioritize the quality of the education that our students need for their success in a global economy.

Member 7 at-large

Gilmore: We need to get back to the basics in education. We need to work together to help students be successful in the classroom. I will start by simply listening to our community, expand transparency and communication in our leadership and start having honest conversations.

Babbit: My priorities would be expanding the 21st Century initiative, investing in new technology for our students and teacher empowerment. I believe the outcomes of our students are directly related to their teachers feeling supported as the experts in their field best equipped to educate their students.

What is your biggest concern about the school board’s recent decisions or actions? 

Member 1

Adera-Odhiambo: School boards should never have the sole power to restrict an elected official from the right to represent his/her constituents in board committees. This is tantamount to denying those who elected that official representation.

Wingren: Today’s woke ideology has our teachers worried about being fired if they call a student by the wrong pronoun. No wonder why teacher jobs are unfilled. We need to get back to the basics of education and stop the distractions.

Yurkovich: My concern with the current status of the Olathe Board of Education is the polarization of viewpoints and decision-making. We need to work collaboratively, strive for consensus and model civil discourse regarding issues that impact the students of Olathe and our community.

Member 4

Reagan: I’m most concerned about the divisive public discourse aimed at our schools. The anger and half-truths mounting over the last three years have impacted our staff and cast unfair doubt on public education. We must have leaders who conduct themselves with civility, compassion and intention.

Palacio: The continued distraction of the interpersonal conflict between board members needs to end. The board should return as quickly as possible to prioritizing its role as a policymaking board and ambassador to the community through professional behavior and solid leadership.

Member 7 at-large

Gilmore: The school board has overstepped its power by censuring my elected representative. They publicly have stated they govern themselves and forget they are really beholden to “We the People.”

Babbit: I’m concerned about the effect that delaying a decision about changing the bell schedule is having on our school community. I understand why the decision to delay was made, but the impacts of the driver shortage are being felt districtwide and must be addressed quickly and decisively.

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.