TOPEKA (KSNT) – A former Kansas Department of Education employee came forward on Thursday calling for Education Commissioner Dr. Randy Watson to resign after his inflammatory comments during a meeting last week.
Nis Wilbur, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and a resident of Topeka, not only called for Watson to resign but also shed light on other instances that she encountered while working for the KSDE. She said that the majority of her time at the board went well but she says there were times where she felt singled out.
“Other colleagues would come to my office and discuss specifically what a native perspective might be,” Wilbur said. “I had to remind them I don’t speak for tribal people as a whole. I didn’t see it as being malicious, maybe a little passive aggressive and maybe a little bit ignorant but not harmful.”
She didn’t bring these conversations up to human resources at the time but did mention other issues, when she left the KSDE.
“When I did my exit interview with human resources, I did let them know that I had experienced these things, and I wasn’t hired at KSDE to be Indian… I wasn’t a cultural consultant,” Wilbur said.
The former employee left the department in late January. She said it was on a good note, and continued to reflect on the “99%” of her time there that she deeply enjoyed, commending the work that they’ve done to help Kansas kids.
Wilbur said she was shocked when she heard about Watson’s comments during a virtual education conference. Watson made remarks about Indians “raiding” towns in past talks with family members.
“It’s always fascinating, I had some cousins from California, they were petrified of tornadoes,” Watson said. “They’d come visit us, you know, in the summer. They’re like, ‘Are we going to get killed by a tornado?’ I’d say ‘Don’t worry about that, but you got to worry about the Indians raiding the town at any time.’ And they really thought that.”
Wilbur was among some of the first to hear about the comments with posts circulating on social media. She, along with many others, reached out to the Education Commissioner’s about the issue but up until recently there weren’t any responses from the commissioners or Governor Kelly’s office.
Governor Laura Kelly, along with Native American members of the Kansas Legislature, condemned the comments given by Watson during the meeting and called for his resignation.
“There is no question that Randy Watson must resign his position immediately, given his comments last week,” Kelly said on Thursday.
When asked by KSNT how the comments from Watson made her feel, Wilbur made her thoughts clear.
“Furious. I’m furious… Because I really feel like they were trying their best to brush it under the rug, that it was going to be minimized… that it was a single unfortunate comment that was harmful, but we’ll just apologize,” Wilbur said.
Wilbur went on to say that after several email exchanges with board members, she and others who felt similarly planned to discuss Watson’s comments and possible resignation during a March board meeting. However, after meeting with the tribes this plan changed.
“The initial email that I received is it’s unlikely that we will terminate,” Wilbur said.
Wilbur continued by saying that she hopes that something can be done about the situation which may be resolved soon with a special board meeting from the KSDE planned for Friday morning.
“I have to be willing to put myself on the line because that’s what I’m asking them to do,” Wilbur said. “Take a stand for Kansas kids and hold the standard high.”