Nebraskans elect 3 conservatives to the state Board of Education in midterms

Nov. 9, 2022, midnight ·

Three PNC candidates.
The three PNC-backed candidates who took home a victory during the 2022 midterms from left to right: Kirk Penner, Sherry Jones, and Elizabeth Tegtmeier. (Courtesy photos)

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Nebraska’s State Board of Education makeup has undergone a facelift following Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Three Republicans and one Democrat won their district races for the officially nonpartisan Nebraska State Board of Education. The Republicans were each endorsed by Protect Nebraska Children, a conservative political action committee that was formed to stop a comprehensive sex education proposal. Prior to last year, there were no conservative members on the board.

The lone Democrat winner, Deborah Neary, was endorsed by the Nebraska State Education Association, a teacher advocacy group. Neary won the 8th District in central Douglas County with 51% of the vote. Neary defeated challenger Marni Hodgen, a Republican who received 49% of the vote.

In other portions of the state, incumbent board member Robin Stevens was toppled by newcomer Elizabeth Tegtmeier in the 7th District which covers western and central Nebraska. Tegtmeier received 71% of the vote. Stevens collected 29%.

In the 6th District, which includes parts of central and northeast Nebraska, there was no incumbent. Sherry Jones defeated Danielle Hezler 66% to 34%.

The 5th District represents parts of south Lincoln and several counties around southeast Nebraska. Incumbent Kirk Penner won in the district with 55% of the vote. Penner was appointed to the position in December 2021 by Gov. Pete Ricketts. Penner defeated Helen Raikes, an independent, who received 45% of the vote.

On Wednesday morning, Penner said he was happy with the results.

“About a year ago, it was 8-0, with no conservative votes on that board. And to move it to 5-3, in a year, is a success on our part,” he said.

He said this election will be remembered as the time Nebraska parents and grandparents got more involved in education. Penner said controversial sex education standards drafted by the board last year ignited the change.

Todd Watson is the political director for the Nebraska GOP. At a party gathering Wednesday, Watson said the state’s Republican party will better prepare kids for college and the trades.

“We don't need the endless social agendas against our children,” he said. “We believe in our parents, so we will be the party that leads on education.”

With the new, more conservative board, Penner said he still believes there’s plenty the board will agree on. Penner said reexamining teacher certification, teacher retention and special education could be common ground issues.

The Nebraska State Education Association president, Jenni Benson, echoed the need to work together to solve major issues. In a statement, she pointed specifically to the teacher shortage issue.

“For the sake of our children and our state’s future, we have to solve the teacher shortage. And the solution must include showing respect for teachers and providing the resources and tools our public schools need to ensure students can be successful,” she wrote.

One of the board's first priorities will be filling the Commissioner of Education role that will be left vacant when Matt Blomstedt leaves the post in January.

With more conservative board members than in the past, the entire board will have to work hard to find common ground on selecting a new commissioner, as well as other policy decisions moving forward, said Roger Breed, former Commissioner of Education from 2009 to 2013.

“I think all of the new board members are going to find — what all new board members eventually find out — is that governing and policymaking is a whole lot more difficult than criticizing and campaigning,” Breed said.

He said a search committee will meet with members of the board in January to outline the criteria they all want in the next commissioner.

As far as the sex ed health standards that started the conservative movement in this election, Breed said he doesn’t believe a consensus on sex education will be found in the near future. He echoed much of what Penner said, predicting the board will likely shift its focus to refining other standards and statewide testing, while also fixing the teacher shortage and school funding problems.

Commissioner Blomstedt departs on January 3rd. The first meeting of the new board is scheduled for January 6th.