Wichita school board donations don't match mayoral candidates
A Wichita Public Schools board meeting. (Courtesy image/USD 259)

Although Wichita Public Schools consume nearly double the tax dollars that go through City Hall, candidates for school board have drawn far less campaign money than local government candidates in this year’s races. 

In the mayoral primary, candidate Lily Wu notably raised $207,000 during the first campaign reporting period, which ran Jan. 1 through July 20, 2023. That was more than the eight other candidates combined. After Wu, the next top four money-raising candidates brought in $166,000 combined. 

In contrast, no one running for school board brought in even $10,000 during the same period — a pattern on track with previous school board races.

Yet Wichita schools spend nearly $1 billion a year and employ more than 5,600 people to educate 47,500 students — numbers that dwarf the Wichita city government with its $600 million annual budget and 3,900 employees. 

Why the discrepancy? 

Because the city affects more people in more ways, said Russell Arben Fox, a political science professor at Friends University. 

Wichita school board members are unpaid. Members of the Wichita City Council get paid about $52,000 annually, The mayor makes $116,000. 

“The majority of money in politics comes from interest groups … individuals or firms or organizations that have a shared interest in a particular policy outcome,” Fox said. “But a school board election simply can’t attract the same attention from interest groups that a city council or a mayor race might.” 

He said school board races can turn on cultural or social justice issues. But people funding campaigns for City Hall are seen as having clout over the awarding of construction and other contracts — things that tend to draw donations from people or businesses hoping to land government projects.

“In the end,” Fox said, “there is just more reason for more groups to get more involved in what happens at the Wichita City Council than at the Wichita Public Schools board.” 

How many school board donations did each candidate raise? 

Here’s a rundown on what Wichita school board candidates raised between Jan. 1 and July 20, the most recent reporting period:

In the at-large race — the only one to draw enough candidates for a primary — Melody McCray-Miller reported about $6,800 in donations. The open seat is being vacated by long-term school board member Sheril Logan. McCray-Miller is a former Sedgwick County commissioner and state lawmaker. Her top supporters include Democratic Party activists, other former elected officials and labor unions.

Among donors giving the maximum allowed — $500 — were the Kansas Association of Public Employees; Wichita Hutchinson Labor Federation; Kelly Johnston, an attorney and former Sedgwick County Democratic chair; Mary Cole and Leigh Aaron-Leary. 

McCray-Miller also received $100 each from Kathy Busch, a former state school board member and former assistant superintendent of Wichita Public Schools, and Lavonta Williams, a former vice mayor of Wichita and longtime WPS educator.

McCray-Miller’s opponent in the general election is Brent T. Davis, who ran unsuccessfully for the District 2 seat in 2021. Davis raised about half as much: roughly $3,600 with $2,600 coming from his own pocket. He had one $500 donation from retired physician Ronald Davis. 

The school board candidate raising the most money during the first part of the year was an incumbent who did not have to compete in the primary. Stan Reeser, the District 4 incumbent since his election in 2017, reported $7,815 in contributions. Reeser was also a Wichita City Council member from 1991-1995. 

Reeser’s biggest supporters include the unions. American Federation of Teachers and the Wichita Hutchinson Labor Federation both made $500 contributions. Others giving the maximum include Leonard Reeser, Eric Tyson and Patrick Cantwell.

Reeser’s District 4 opponent, Jason Carmichael, reported only $300 in donations — most notably $100 from the recently deceased anti-abortion activist Mark Gietzen. Last year, Gietzen challenged the result of the Aug. 2 vote against an amendment to remove Kansas’ constitutional right to abortion. 

Gietzen put the $120,000 cost of the recount on credit cards. He died in an airplane crash in May while piloting his Cessna. The other $100 came from Vail Fruechting, who ran unsuccessfully against Mary Ware in the 2020 state Senate race for District 25.

District 3 is another open seat, held by Ernestine Krehbiel, a retired educator representing that district since 2017.

Ngoc Vuong reported $4,155 in donations. His largest support came from Nilda and James Paschal, who gave the $500 maximum, and two unions — Kansas Association of Public Employees and Wichita Hutchinson Labor Federation. They each gave $500.

Ken Carpenter, who’s running for the same seat, reported raising $2,835. His largest donation,  $500, came from Eric Yost, a longtime former district court judge and later Sedgwick County counselor who was ousted for violating attorney-client privilege for sharing information about a county commissioner during an FBI investigation in 2017. 

He also received $300 from Susan Humphries, a Republican state lawmaker for District 99 since 2017, and $300 from Carl Nelson. Nelson spoke last year before the Wichita school board in opposition to a ballot initiative that would allow voters to only vote on their own district’s school board representative. The ballot initiative passed last November.

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Polly Basore Wenzl is the editor of The Wichita Beacon. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, she worked as a reporter in Washington, D.C., before coming to Wichita in 1998. She is the author...