Gardner Edgerton school board candidates
Gardner Edgerton school board candidate Aleksandra Nokes, left, is running for the Member 2 position. Candidate Threasa Lang is running for the member 7 at-large position. (Provided photos)

A school board election in the Gardner Edgerton district comes two years after conservatives gained a majority on the board. 

The fallout from that change led to the superintendent departing before incoming board members could fire her and controversy over how the outgoing board members handled her severance package. 

Two board members resigned in early 2021, one accusing her fellow board members of unethical behavior and another saying they were dismissive and unsupportive after she was allegedly harassed by district residents while at dinner. 

In 2022, the board discussed a proposal from member Jeff Miller, who is running for reelection this year, to bar transgender students from using bathrooms and pronouns that don’t match their gender assigned at birth. It approved a scaled-down version of the proposal, affecting bathroom use and sports teams, several months later. 

This year, it’s possible control of the board could shift again with four seats out of seven up for grabs. 

Three incumbents are trying to hold onto their seats in Subdistricts 1, 2 and 3. Two newcomers are also vying for the board’s at-large seat. 

The Beacon sent a candidate questionnaire to all eight school board candidates. Member 2 candidate Aleksandra Nokes and Member 7 at-large candidate Threasa Lang responded. Member 7 at-large candidate Heath Freeman declined to respond. The other candidates either did not reply to multiple requests or did not complete the questionnaire before publication. 

Meet the candidates

Member 1

Emma Jones

Emma Jones, who did not respond to the questionnaire, is a hairstylist and parent of two district students. She has lived in Johnson County for most of her life and in Edgerton for 10 years. She began speaking at board meetings and advocating for public education about three years ago. Priorities she described on her campaign website include improving special education, supporting teachers and building trust between educators and parents. ‘

Jones is endorsed by several labor unions, Run for Something, Johnson County Democratic Women, Mainstream Coalition, Game On for Kansas Schools and the Greater Kansas City Women’s Political Caucus. The Johnson County Democrats voter guide lists her as a Democrat running for office. 

Russell Ellis

Russell Ellis, an appointed school board member, did not respond to the questionnaire. A 2022 article said he was a microbiology lab analyst for Procter & Gamble and had five children, including four district students. He did not appear to have a campaign website and blocked a Beacon reporter from his campaign Facebook page after receiving a message asking him to fill out the questionnaire. On the page, he described himself as a “Pro Life Christian working to provide a healthy learning environment.”

Last year, after a fellow board member proposed barring transgender students from using bathrooms and pronouns that don’t match their gender assigned at birth, he called the bathroom issue a problem and said that “gender identification is a distraction in the schools.” He is recommended in the Johnson County Republican Voter Guide

Member 2

Aleksandra Nokes

Occupation: Business owner — video production

Background and qualifications: I’ve lived in my community for over 20 years and raised my kids in the school district.

Favorite school related event: Orchestra concerts

Favorite subject in school: English 

Jeff Miller

Jeff Miller, a current school board member, did not respond to the questionnaire. On his campaign website, he says he has been a member of the community for 40 years and has four children who graduated from the district and three grandchildren currently enrolled. Miller’s priorities include bringing back a “responsive” school board, “putting students first and parental control.” 

Miller said he wants to take politics out of the classroom and focus on academics. “Focusing on things like social-emotional learning have left students confused, depressed, bored and unchallenged, which leads to discipline and behavior issues in the classroom,” he wrote. 

Last year, Miller proposed barring transgender students from using bathrooms or pronouns that don’t match their gender assigned at birth. He is recommended in the Johnson County Republican Voter Guide

Member 3

Allen Vonderschmidt 

Allen Vonderschmidt, who did not respond to the questionnaire, is a retired military officer. On his campaign website, he describes himself as a father and grandfather who served in the National Guard for 33 years. He said he wants to harness the momentum of the current school board and build on it, prioritizing steady improvement over radical change. 

Vonderschmidt wants to focus on academics, including ensuring that special education is fully staffed. He said the school system should reflect the community and be transparent. Without clarifying his position on the issue, he alluded to uncertainty over which bathrooms transgender students can use as a distraction to learning. “Our staff has to balance including all of our children while not distracting from the primary role of education,” he said. 

He is recommended in the Johnson County Republican Voter Guide

Katie Williams

Katie Williams, an appointed board member since 2021, did not respond to the questionnaire. According to her campaign website, she is a former educator with a child in the district and has lived in Johnson County for 13 years, including 8 1/2 years in Gardner. Williams’ vision includes improving opportunities for students in the special education program, bringing art classes back to elementary schools and ensuring all students feel safe and supported. She wants to address teacher workload, compensation and professional development to reduce turnover. 

Last year, she called a proposal to ban students from using bathrooms or pronouns that don’t match their gender assigned at birth “infuriating” and said it could endanger LGBTQ children. She was one of two board members to vote against a scaled-back version of the proposal several months later. The Johnson County Democrats voter guide lists her as a Democrat running for office. 

Member 7 at large

Heath Freeman

Heath Freeman, who declined to respond to the questionnaire, works for publishing and communications company Uhlig. According to his campaign website, he has lived in Gardner since 2006, is married to a district high school teacher and has a son who is a junior in the district. He has served on the Gardner City Council and Planning Commission. 

Freeman said he wants to reduce the division in the community. His policy priorities include improving teacher and other staff retention by listening to teachers, displaying faith in their professional skills and keeping pay competitive. He also wants to improve student success with work-based learning, college credits in high school and more exhaustive data collection. He advocates for fully staffing special education and pushing the state to fully fund it. 

The Johnson County Democrats voter guide lists him as a Democrat running for office. 

Threasa Lang

Occupation: Real estate: Realtor since 2009, title insurance 25 years, mortgage banking five years.

Background and qualifications: I have been a resident of Gardner since 1989. I have six children, 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, so I know a thing or two about children. I have a passion and commitment to give back to my community and feel this is how I can do that.

Favorite school-related event: I love seeing students perform their musical and theatrical talents.

Favorite subject in school: Mathematics

Multiple-choice questions

School funding

Member 2

Nokes: I believe public schools are what keep communities thriving. We should always make sure that schools have the resources they need.

Member 7 at large

Lang: I honestly feel at the moment that USD 231 is working hard to be a good steward of the funds available to the district. I do want to see a higher priority placed on the needs of our special education department and teachers to the full benefit of the students. 

School board member compensation

Member 2

Nokes: I believe that this is up to each board of education. I can see where this might be helpful in some communities to attract more candidates who may not have the opportunity to run otherwise.

Member 7 at large

Lang: I believe board members should be reimbursed for travel and educational event expenses, but these positions should remain an elected volunteer position so that it attracts truly committed individuals. 

Book removals 

Member 2

Nokes: Parents have every right to decide what their children do or do not read. They do not have the right to impose their beliefs on all parents and students. Our school district has pulled books prematurely based on a small group of parents.

Member 7 at large

Lang: I do not believe in banning books. However, the books that have been removed had no educational value or knowledge that would benefit the students’ educational future. Inappropriate sexualization of children should be banned from our schools. 

Including LGBTQ students

Member 2

Nokes: Our school district has the responsibility to support all students and give them a safe environment in school. LGTBQ+ students should always be treated with dignity.

Member 7 at large

Lang: All children should be called by their legal name in school and have the right to do otherwise outside of school. The bathroom situation has been resolved in our district and I agree with the resolution. 

Open-ended questions

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

Member 2

Nokes: As a school board member, I’ll focus on equity, teacher support and strong community partnerships to enhance student outcomes.

Member 7 at large

Lang: My goals would be to help achieve a better support system for the teachers and students in the special education classroom, to improve all students’ comprehension in core classes and establish improved policies for a safe and secure learning environment. 

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

Member 2

Nokes: My biggest concern about recent school board decisions is the lack of transparency and input from the community. 

Member 7 at large

Lang: I do not have any concerns at the moment regarding the current school board’s actions.

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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.