Coalition of Kansas organizations strives to entice candidates for city, county, school board
TOPEKA — Kansas Association of School Boards executive director Brian Jordan welcomed formation of a diverse coalition of organizations working to inspire people to enter local public service in Kansas.
The effort known as Engaged Kansas was designed to encourage civic-minded folks to enter public life through service on the 6,000 positions on city councils, county commissions and school boards. The group is committed to providing unbiased information and support to demystify the process of campaigning, the duties those jobs entail and, frankly, the toxicity of political dialogue.
“People want to see great things for their kids. People want to see their tax dollars being used in a way that’s efficient,” Jordan said on Kansas Reflector’s podcast. “The only way that happens is by having good people in these roles.”
Jordan was keenly aware of difficulty recruiting people to run for school board, which is more of a volunteer position with no salary, great responsibility and guaranteed controversy. There are pockets in the state where there might be a contested race with 10 people fighting for two seats on a school board, but most districts were longing to have people run and to step forward to fill vacancies.
The nonpartisan, nonpolicy coalition involved with www.EngagedKansas.org also includes Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas Association of Counties, League of Kansas Municipalities, Kansas Chamber and Kansas Leadership Center. More organizations could be added to the roster, said Joel Leftwich, who worked 20 years in Washington, D.C., and was hired in 2021 as KFB’s chief strategy officer.
Leftwich said the mission of Farm Bureau has been to strengthen agriculture and enhance lives of Kansans through advocacy, education and service.
An element of that, perhaps not appreciated in the past, was nurturing a cadre of people dedicated to their communities and inspired to carry that commitment into local government, he said.
“Coming out of COVID, you know, we started asking around,” Leftwich said. “Are people running? Do they feel that call to serve their communities? We really heard some stories that, frankly, worried us. There’s high turnover on city councils. There’s a lack of good people in the communities who are willing to step up. And, who could blame them?”
Kansas Association of School Boards, Kansas Chamber, Kansas Association of Counties, Kansas Leadership Center, League of Kansas Municipalities, Kansas Farm Bureau.
Leftwich said preliminary research to determine why people were reluctant to seek city, county or school board office revealed lack of familiarity with details of those jobs. The other issue that came up repeatedly was anxiety about campaigning for public office, he said.
“That’s an educational opportunity. How can we provide the information to address at least those two very common reasons for saying no?” Leftwich said. “And that’s why we came up with Engaged Kansas to really focus on, ‘Let’s educate people about what these responsibilities are.’ So it’s not so daunting. And, frankly, campaigning is not that hard.”
Brenden Wirth, a school board member in the 350-student Rock Hills district and director of political affairs for Kansas Farm Bureau, said Engaged Kansas pulled together a website to make easily accessible the advice, training resources and leadership development programs useful to anyone curious about working in local government.
“You got to raise the whole boat. You can’t leave anybody behind, literally, in this system,” Wirth said. “The kids that are in my kids’ class, they have to learn together, they have to live in a community together, they have to develop together. It’s the same way for everybody else in my community across Main Street.
“I come from a very rural part of Kansas. We have to find a way to work together, build our communities as a coalition, as a group,” he said.
Leftwich said Engaged Kansas was the start of conversations to build communities that embraced public service. It’s not about getting people to agree on policy, he said.
“All of us agree that local leadership is important,” he said. “Local leadership is important, not just for rural communities, but it’s important for larger communities as well. It’s important for our government, and it’s important for the other institutions that impact our lives on a daily basis. This effort is another arrow in the quiver of how we ensure that our state and our communities remain strong.”