Sex Ed, staffing problems define the Nebraska Board of Education elections

Oct. 18, 2022, 5 a.m. ·

Ruth Raun gives a lesson about rounding large numbers.
Ruth Raun teaches her fourth grade students about rounding five-digit numbers to the nearest thousand. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media)

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Over the past few years, the Nebraska State Board of Education has been a target of criticism from the left and the right.

Although the board is officially nonpartisan, it has come under fire for a proposed comprehensive health education standard and for supposedly pushing the teaching of critical race theory.

On Nov. 8, Nebraskans will vote to fill four board seats, setting the table for what the priorities will be for schools over the next few years.

The first draft of the health standards was released for public opinion in March 2021. It proposed that starting in kindergarten through high school, students would learn the “characteristics relating to identity, sexuality, and healthy relationships.”

A revised draft was published a few months later. Only one mention of “identity” remained in this draft. Still, it received an outpouring of criticism. In late August 2021, the standards were indefinitely postponed. One year later, parents continue to sound off at meetings.

Gwyn Easter of Omaha voiced her disapproval of the standards, at last month’s board meeting.

“I’m still asking you all to stop with the health standards and pushing transgender and homosexuality issues upon our young children,” Easter said.

A political action committee called Protect Nebraska’s Children is behind the effort to get parents to speak out against the proposal.

PNC representatives speak at the board meetings, too. They’ve echoed similar messages – saying state board members and teachers aim to “groom” and “indoctrinate” students to become homosexuals. PNC didn’t respond to requests to an interview or comment for this story.

For the full map and exact boundaries for each district, visit this Nebraska Legislature page.

One of the candidates PNC endorses is incumbent Kirk Penner of Aurora. Penner was appointed by Gov. Pete Ricketts to the position last year. Penner previously served on the Aurora school board. He’s running to represent District 5, which covers most of southeast Nebraska and parts of south Lincoln.

Helen Raikes of Ashland is Penner's challenger in District 5. She’s a former professor of early childhood education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

At a pro-life meet and greet in Lincoln this fall, Penner said gender identity and critical race theory education need to end.

Kirk Penner poses in front of a U.S. flag and Nebraska state flag.
Kirk Penner has been outspoken against the writing of comprehensive sex-ed standards in Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of Nebraska State Board of Education)

“Preferred pronouns are the gateway to the radical gender ideology and we’ve got to stop it,” he said.

PNC has endorsed candidates in the other three races as well, including newcomer Sherry Jones of Grand Island. The former Grand Island teacher and counselor is running for the seat in District 6, which encompasses central and northeast Nebraska. Jones didn’t respond to multiple requests to interview for this story.

Facing off against Jones is another newcomer, Danielle Helzer, of Grand Island. Helzer is endorsed by the Nebraska State Education Association. Helzer has taught high school in Grant, Ogallala, Gretna, and Omaha. There is no incumbent for this district.

In western Nebraska, incumbent Robin Stevens of Gothenburg has represented District 7 over the past four years. Stevens is a former teacher, coach, administrator, and superintendent in a number of districts from North Platte to Schuyler.

Stevens’ challenger is Elizabeth Tegtmeier who has been endorsed by PNC. Tegtmeier has been a teacher on and off, as well as a stay-at-home mom. Her son was appointed by Ricketts as a student trustee to represent Chadron State on the State College Board of Trustees. But this spring, the appointment was revoked when a judge granted two women a protection order against him for sexual misconduct. Tegtmeier didn’t respond to multiple requests to interview for this story.

Not everyone is opposed to the proposed comprehensive health education standards. Parent Kris Kinzie of Wayne said she talked her daughter through identifying as asexual. Kinize said some parents wouldn’t be as open to that conversation.

“There are kids that can't talk to their parents,” Kinzie said. “She could talk to me, and we embrace that, but there's not enough resources for [LGBTQ students].”

Kinzie said some teens turn to the internet seeking information on their sexual identity.

District 8 incumbent Deborah Neary supports the health standards. Her district represents most of central and west Omaha. Neary was voted in during the 2018 election, after directing a youth mentor non-profit for 10 years. She’s also endorsed by NSEA.

Deborah Neary poses for a photo in front of a U.S. flag and Nebraska state flag.
Deborah Neary of Omaha has been caught in the crosshairs of many upset parents over sex-ed standards. (Photo courtesy of Nebraska Department of Education)

Marni Hodgen of Omaha, endorsed by PNC, is a massage therapist. She’ll be challenging Neary in the metro-area district.

During a debate in Millard late last month, Neary said the argument over sex-ed ignores more important topics.

“Anyone who is up here talking about indoctrinating or grooming is fear-mongering,” she said. “They’re not talking about the real issues.”

In the future, she hopes parents and board members can be more thoughtful of families grappling with gender identity struggles. She also said the next state school board needs to focus more on the good work already going on in Nebraska schools.

At Longfellow Elementary School in Hastings, Ruth Raun teaches fourth graders.

Raun has been a teacher for more than 25 years. She said it’s always been hard to retain teachers. In recent times, pandemic-related stress ignited a nationwide teacher shortage. A shortage the Cornhusker state caught badly.

Since 2016, the number of unfilled teacher positions in Nebraska grew from 232 to 482, according to a report from the Nebraska Department of Education. That 107% increase doesn't include the schools that didn't respond to the department’s survey.

Raun said she knows what encourages new teachers to stick around.

“Teacher retention is huge, because this job is not easy,” Raun said. “This job is sometimes not rewarding, depending on the day. But in the long term it is, in my mind, the best job ever. But the state can help retain teachers by really creating a climate of respect for teachers.”

Feeling trusted and heard goes a long way, Raun said. The school board candidates agree with Raun and have a few ideas for how to make that happen.

“Give [teachers] a seat at the policy making table,” said Danelle Helzer of central Nebraska.

Helzer said she would hold regular Zoom meetings at convenient times for teachers and constituents to attend. Along with this, she hopes to appoint more teachers to Department of Education committees while making decisions.

Other candidates have heard that Nebraska’s certification process is a hindrance to entering the teaching profession. Robin Stevens of western Nebraska said the current system, which evaluates teachers using the “Praxis” exams, isn’t effective anymore.

“I want to do everything I can, to streamline the certification process,” Stevens said.

He said committing more department staff to certifying full-time and substitute teachers will make the process less stressful for prospective teachers.

Teacher pay has been a hotly debated topic for years. Helen Raikes of southeast Nebraska said increasing teacher pay would be the best way to keep people from finding other, more lucrative jobs.

“I believe that it's the ongoing salaries that matter the most,” Raikes said.

She also said ensuring teachers have time for planning will help them.

Time for planning and time to listen to students are important considerations. Raun said academics are important, as is the time necessary for talking students through anything they’re facing.

“We have to have the time to just be with our students to just listen to them, to support them emotionally.”

Giving teachers more grace and flexibility in their daily schedules goes a long way, Raun said.

What the State Board of Education can do to retain teachers is somewhat limited because raising salaries costs money and that is something the board doesn’t have much influence on.

Nebraska ranks 46th nationally in state funding per student, according to 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data. Federal COVID funds helped fill some gaps, but those dollars will soon run dry. Nebraska’s school districts rely on local property taxes.

Jeff Schneider poses for a photo in a suit and tie.
Jeff Schneider, superintendent at Hastings Public Schools. (Photo courtesy of Hastings Public Schools)

Hastings Public Schools’ Superintendent Jeff Schneider said funding is always a challenge. He hopes an increase in resources would help with complex issues.

“Behavioral health and mental health – we don't have the resources to deal with everything we're facing,” Schneider said. “We don't have the expertise to deal with everything we're facing.”

Schneider said non-English-language learners, special education programs, and students in poverty pose unique challenges that only staffing can address.

Danielle Helzer said federal COVID relief money has funded mental health support in Nebraska, but she worries how that support will be sustained.

“I'm really concerned that these dollars are eventually going to go away,” Helzer said. “But the impact of COVID, the impact of the economic hardships – it's not going to go away. We have to figure out how do we get more resources?.”

Mental health support should be accessible for families and school staff, Helzer said.

The challenge for the state board is they don't control the amount of money schools get. The Nebraska Legislature’s funding formula determines state aid for each school district.

The Commissioner of Education advocates for the board in unicameral hearings. Current commissioner, Matt Blomstedt, announced last month that his final day will be in early January.

Much is at stake in this Nebraska State Board of Education election. This could include the appointment of the next commissioner of education, addressing teacher retention, or any future health standards.

Editor's note: Robin Stevens has donated to Nebraska Public Media in the past.