TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas' top public school administrator was suspended on Friday after attempting to step down over an offensive remark about Native Americans at a recent public conference.
Education Commissioner Randy Watson’s resignation was announced Friday by Jim Porter, the chairman of the State Board of Education. The elected 10-member board appoints the commissioner to run the State Department of Education and called a special meeting to deal with Watson’s remark.
But the board unanimously rejected Watson's resignation and suspended him for 30 days, without pay.
“We looked at the entire history of the commissioner,” Porter said Friday. “We believe in restorative justice.”
The board's decision came a day after Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, three Indigenous state legislators and the chair of one of the state's four Native American nations called on Watson to resign. Kelly, Watson and the Indigenous nations' leaders met Wednesday, the same day the board scheduled its special meeting. Board members said Watson also informed them of the situation.
Porter said Watson had made multiple apologies, but “these apologies have not been accepted by many who were affected.” He chided Kelly and the legislators for getting involved publicly, noting that the board has “sole responsibility” for the Department of Education's leadership.
He also noted that several state lawmakers have faced legal problems of their own over the past year yet “remain in their position with no or limited consequences.”
“It seems ironic to me that Commissioner Watson, who owned and did take responsibility for his statement, which was not illegal, feels obligated or feels forced to resign,” said Porter, a Republican from southeastern Kansas.
Watson was not at the board's meeting when it began, before the board went into a closed session to discuss its response to him stepping down. No letter of resignation was immediately released.
Watson made the offensive remark during a Zoom presentation to a two-day conference on virtual education last week. The department released the video of his presentation Thursday.
Watson made an extended metaphor that compared responding to the coronavirus pandemic to dealing with both a tornado and a hurricane. He joked about how cousins from California used to visit him in Kansas during the summer and were “petrified” of tornadoes.
“They’re like, ‘Are we going to get killed by a tornado?’” Watson said. “And I’d say, ‘Don’t worry about that, but you got to worry about the Indians raiding the town at any time.’”
Northeast Kansas is home to four Native American nations: the Iowa, the Kickapoo, the Prairie Band Potawatomi and the Sac and Fox. Haskell Indian Nations University, founded in 1884 as a school for indigenous children, is in Lawrence, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Kansas City.
Watson became education commissioner in November 2014 after serving as superintendent of McPherson’s public schools. As commissioner, Watson pushed for a redesign of the state’s public schools to place more emphasis on personalized learning and better preparing students for adult work.
Before the meeting, state Senate Education Committee Chair Molly Baumgardner, a conservative Kansas City-area Republican, said Kelly should have left dealing with Watson's remark to the board. She also said lawmakers have “always had open, honest communication” with Watson.
“I think his compassion for learning and for kids is without question,” she said Thursday evening.
But the Legislature's three Native American lawmakers, all Democrats in the state House, had strongly criticized Watson's remark as perpetuating harmful stereotypes and reopening traumas that Native American students face regularly.
One of them, Democratic state Rep. Ponka-We Victors-Cozad, of Wichita, called the remark “racist.” And Prairie Band Potawatomi Chair Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick said Watson showed that he “is not suited for a leadership role.”