Kirk Penner said last week that he represents “Nebraska values” and will uphold them as a new member of the Nebraska Board of Education.
Penner, who served 16 years on the Aurora school board, now represents District 5, which encompasses much of southeastern Nebraska and rural Lancaster County. He has described himself as a “conservative first, Republican second” who wants to restore local control of public school districts. But his nomination last month drew criticism for his Twitter posts.
The comments he posted and retweeted reflect skepticism about the government’s response to the pandemic, the effectiveness of masks and the safety of vaccines, as well as concern about the legality of mandating masking and vaccines.
For example, Penner retweeted a post criticizing police in Europe checking if people had the necessary health papers to be on the streets during the pandemic. The post likened these checks to police in Nazi Germany checking papers.
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Asked about the posts and whether he regretted retweeting the post referencing Nazi Germany, Penner said, “I love my country. And I love the Constitution. And I love our freedom. And I love our freedom. And when I see things that challenge that, it’s not going well.
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Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, described Penner as an “extremist” and conspiracy theorist.
“Penner compared COVID mask mandates to the Holocaust and repeatedly pushed conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election results,” she said. “Penner is not the kind of person we want to help set state education policy.”
Penner said he was not against vaccines or masks, but opposed the government forcing them or requiring passports for vaccines.
“What’s happening is just not fair, whether it’s in the United States or anywhere else,” he said.
Penner said he favors local control and parental involvement. Government mandates cost local districts time and money, he said.
“When you spend 16 years on the school board, you learn that you’ve essentially lost local control of your school district,” he said.
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Much of what the districts do is mandated by the state, he said.
“When the State Board of Education or the Legislature tells us as a local school district what to do, we either have to cut something that we like to do, that we think is good locally, to absorb the mandate, or we have to raise taxes on local voters,” Penner said.
Sometimes mandates just result in more paperwork, but other times what’s mandated isn’t needed or wanted in a district, he said.
He said his first priority would be to push for a permanent end to the board’s development of health education standards for public schools — he’s only one of eight board members, so it will not happen without the support of others.
The board voted to postpone the development of the standards indefinitely in September after a wave of public opposition, but members could restart the process.
Penner wanted to make a motion to end the standards at its first meeting on Jan. 7, but council bylaws prohibited it. He said he would try again on February 4.
“Why make a motion at the first board meeting? Penner said. “Well, why should I wait for the second? Or a third? Sometimes it’s enough to rip off the bandage and say, “Let’s go. It got worse. It hurts the board that it has been festering for so long.
Penner said he will run for the seat this year. The political action committee Protect Nebraska Children, which has fought against health standards, supported him.
Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts announced Penner’s nomination on Dec. 23, triggering a few odd days in which Penner’s Twitter account was suspended for a goose chase photo, then restored by the social media company, which said the suspension was a mistake.
Penner said Twitter suspended her account a day after she was nominated.
The official reason given by Twitter was a photo he posted two years earlier of himself and some high school buddies with the geese they killed while hunting near Ogallala, he said. .
He said Twitter informed him that the photo violated company policy.
Penner said he objected to the suspension but removed the photo and replaced it with one of him with friends at the Ryder Cup. Twitter then restored his account, he said.
He suspects politics played a part in the suspension but admits he has no evidence to prove it.
“I am a 52 year old male from Aurora, Nebraska. And they’re going to take a chase picture after a Republican governor nominates me,” he said. “But we have to follow the official explanation.”
He said he was unsure whether his motion to permanently suspend health standards would be supported.
“He can die,” he said.
Supporters of the standards have argued that Nebraska needs inclusive standards that recognize and respect gay, lesbian, and transgender people, because otherwise the state marginalizes them. They said the standards would save lives by preventing suicides.
Asked to respond to that argument, Penner said those decisions should be up to local councils.
“We don’t need some government agency going out of their way…and trying to dictate what local school districts want to teach their kids,” he said.
State officials said the standards would only be recommended for local adoption. But Penner suggested at his first board meeting that optional government policy “always becomes mandatory.”
Board member Deb Neary, who advocated for the standards, said the board had no intention of imposing the standards and local districts could have adopted only the parts they liked.
“We have always stood for local control and parental control when it comes to health standards,” she said.
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