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Kirk Penner appointed to Nebraska Board of Education; Critics decry views

One Democratic board member takes another approach: "I'm excited for him to join our conversations."
Posted at 8:02 PM, Dec 27, 2021

LINCOLN, Neb. (KMTV) — Kirk Penner of Aurora was named as Gov. Pete Ricketts choice for the Nebraska State Board of Education last week.

Penner will replace Patricia Timm, who retired in October for health reasons. He will represent District 5 on the board, a rural district that includes Aurora, Beatrice, Seward, Wahoo and York.

Penner served for 16 years on the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education, according to the governor's press release. He's a businessman, distributing bathing systems for health care settings at Penner Manufacturing and Penner Patient Care.

He ran to replace Adrian Smith in Nebraska's 3rd congressional district. He said in a March 2018 debate: "We need to get the federal and state government out of education, period."

He lost that nomination, getting roughly a quarter of the vote in the Republican primary.

“Kirk Penner is an active, well respected member of the Aurora community," Ricketts said in a statement to 3 News Now. "He has 16 years of experience on the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education under his belt. Kirk’s views on education represent the views of the majority in District 5: that Nebraska’s students are best served when parents, local educators, and local school boards are in the driver’s seat."

Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, called Penner "extreme."

"It puts an exclamation point on the reason why Democrats are nervous that Governor Ricketts and a petition out there throughout the state wants the governor to actually appoint the entire State Board of Education," she said.

Kleeb refers to tweets that show Penner comparing "the holocaust to wearing masks and getting the COVID vaccine," and pushing skepticism of the 2020 election results.

"What we have seen the Republican party do over the past year make school boards and the State Board of Education very politically divisive topics," Kleeb said. "Whether that's talking when we were simply talking about sex health ed or whether that's talking about diversity curriculum, the Republicans are using this as a wedge to try to win elections."

Learn more: Nebraska State College System board passes gender identity policy opposed by Ricketts

Seeing Red Nebraska also circulated tweets highlighting anti-transgender views.

Penner declined comment for this story. He said he is not avoiding an interview and would be willing to talk at a later time.

Deborah Neary, a Democrat on the board representing parts of the metro area, took a different tone.

"I'm excited for him to join our conversations," she said. "He's obviously not afraid to have conversations if he's got his views out on Twitter and I find that refreshing."

Neary said she's recently been meeting with people who don't agree with her. She said she's working on understanding on issues that jumped to the forefront when the board considered health and sex education standards earlier this year.

"His constituents are telling him something different than mine are telling me and those conversations are crucial to make sure that we're representing all Nebraskans," she said.

On Penner's 2018 quote that the government should have no role in education, Neary said he stated something many Nebraskans agree with. "It's why we have such strong local control in Nebraska. This state is too large to have statewide mandates about things."

Learn more: State Board of Education votes to postpone new health standards

What others are saying

  • NEGOP Chairman Dan Welch: "Kirk Penner brings broad experience and conservative credentials to the State Board of Education. He will be an asset to the board and the state."
  • Commissioner of Education Matthew Blomstedt: “The Department of Education welcomes Mr. Penner to fill the important role of a state board member. Like each board member, his experiences, perspectives, and representation of District 5 will be a value to the Constitutional work of the Department. I appreciate his willingness to serve in this role and look forward to working with him in this capacity.”
  • State Board of Education President Maureen Nickels: "I welcome Mr. Penner to the State Board of Education. He has many years of experience as a local Board member in Aurora. While being on the State Board is not the same as being on the local level he will bring with him educational experiences that will be of benefit to the work of the State Board. My hope is that he is focused on doing what is best for all students in Nebraska regarding equity and access to resources no matter their zip code or their needs. I look forward to working with Mr. Penner and having him serve alongside me as a State Board colleague."
  • More from Kleeb:
    • "(Nebraska is) one of the few states that doesn't allow private charter schools to come in and diminish the quality of our education. If Ricketts, Penner and the Republican Party had it their way, they would allow corporations to run our schools."
    • "If you look at his...Twitter feed, it is filled with conspiracy theories...He is not somebody who I entrust my kids' public education to. I look forward to Democrats beating him at the ballot box when his seat is up."
  • More from Neary:
    • "I know these conversations are going to help make progress on our board. (People who think differently having conversations) is how we get to the best results, I believe."
    • "I know he's going to be a good board member because he's listening to his constituents...My constituents are telling me something different, and that's where we're going to find progress."