By John Celock
Saying that graduation should be about students first, Kansas politicos are splitting their views on how best to address a growing controversy in Topeka over First Lady Michelle Obama speaking at the high school graduation.
Over 1200 students have signed a petition to ask that Obama not speak at what would be a combined May 17 graduation for the city’s five high schools. The students have argued that the combined ceremony would allow them limited tickets, along with not having individual ceremonies. Obama was invited by the city school district in order to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.
Students have suggested that Obama speak at a separate ceremony for honor the desegregation ruling and not during a combined high school graduation ceremony. The Topeka school district, also known as USD 501, is promoting being only one of two public school districts to have Obama as a graduation speaker this year.
“Topeka Public Schools is one of only two public school districts in the nation to feature the first lady as its commencement speaker,” a school district statement said. “This will be a once in a lifetime experience for our graduates and their families, and we are looking forward to making it a very special time for everyone.
Topeka City Councilman Chad Manspeaker (D) agreed with the city school district, noting that the students will remember that the first lady was their graduation speaker. Manspeaker has been outspoken on the issue for several days, taking to Twitter to defend the school district and the first lady.
“The bottom line for me is that this is a wonderful gift to the students of USD 501 that they will remember for the rest of the their lives,” Manspeaker told The Celock Report. “Long after disappointed family members, crowded parking lots and long lines.”
Manspeaker also said that he is concerned that some people may be opposing Obama’s presence since she is African-American. The public statements by those organizing against the first lady’s presence have not indicated any racial issues.
Obama has connections to Kansas as her mother-in-law, Ann Dunham, was born and raised in Wichita. A cousin of President Barack Obama, tea party favorite Milton Wolf, is currently opposing U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) in the GOP U.S. Senate primary.
Manspeaker has said on Twitter that the students would always remember Obama but not on which relatives attended the graduation ceremony. The school district has said that each graduate will receive six tickets and that each of the five high schools will hold a school appropriate ceremony on another date.
Manspeaker said the estimate of 1300 students from the five schools attending the ceremony was a good number for a ceremony and they would have “a great day.” As for the suggestion that Obama hold a separate ceremony to remember Brown, he noted that it would not be the same kind of ceremony as the first lady speaking at graduation.
State Rep. Brett Hildabrand (R-Shawnee) disagreed with Manspeaker saying that students will remember who could not attend the ceremony in person rather than who the speaker was. He said that while he supports the right for a local school district to pick a speaker he has concerns over how Obama’s presence changes the graduation ceremonies for five high schools.
“At that point, the graduation ceremony is no longer about the students, but instead the first lady,” Hildabrand said of the invitation limits. “Students shouldn’t be restricted who they can invite to their special day.”
State Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) agreed with the school district having the first lady visit is a memorable event, but that families should be respected for the event.
“It’s an honor to have the first lady visit, but to have family miss a graduation is a difficult trade-off to accept,” Claeys told The Celock Report. “For most of these families I doubt it’s an issue of politics.”
The school district indicated on their website that students may be allowed to have overflow guests watch the ceremony on live television feeds at neighboring locations. The live feed option is common at high schools across the country who put limits in place in case of a rain location.
While Manspeaker said that he believes Obama’s presence will make the ceremony memorable, state Rep. Barbara Bollier (R-Mission Hills) told The Celock Report that graduation should be focused on the students rather than on other people.
“Seems like the kids know what is important and have a solution,” Bollier said. “Graduation is about honoring them and not a political statement.”