If you need any more indication of the fever pitch of this year’s school board elections, look no further than the Wichita suburb of Andover.
It’s there you will find two Kansas political heavyweights – Republican Congressman Ron Estes and former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – taking up opposite sides in a school board race.
Pompeo, who only a year ago was immersed in world affairs, entered the school board race last week, backing a former aide who is seeking reelection.
His endorsement put him opposite of Estes as well as Senate President Ty Masterson, Sen. Renee Erickson and Republican Rep. Kristey Williams – all conservatives.
Pompeo is supporting Josh Wells for the District 1, position 4 seat while his traditional conservative allies are supporting challenger Audra Bell.
“It is quite unusual for major politicians like Pompeo and Estes to endorse competing candidates in local races, especially nonpartisan races,” Wichita State political scientist Neal Allen said.
“This unique situation seems to result from personal connections to the two candidates, and to Estes signaling support for the anti ‘critical race theory’ movement that is dominating the conversation in conservative politics,” Allen said.
The Andover School District covers the city of Andover and an eastern portion of Wichita.
The district has about 5,800 students with six elementary, two middle and two high schools.
Political observers suggested that Pompeo’s and Estes’ endorsements have more to do with personal connections than any particular ideological bent.
Bell is a private chef who teaches culinary and hospitality management for Butler Community College. She is the sister-in-law of Estes’ chief of staff.
Wells is a communication specialist at Spirit AeroSystems has been on the school board since 2013.
He worked for then-Congressman Pompeo as a communications and systems specialist from 2010 to 2012.
Those endorsements “are built on relationships with the candidates, not necessarily policy issues and differences and that kind of thing,” said former Kansas Republican Party chairman Kelly Arnold.
“There’s direct personal relationships with those candidates,” Arnold said.
Pompeo’s remarks seemed to reflect as much when he made the endorsement last Thursday.
“I’ve worked closely with Josh and witnessed his integrity, character and commitment to excellence,” Pompeo said in a statement.
“At gatherings across the country, I’ve talked with Americans who agree we’ve learned the hard way that who sits on our local boards impacts our lives.
“Get out and vote in your local elections. And, in Andover, Kansas—vote for Josh Wells.”
Meanwhile, Estes is backing a slate of candidates in Andover that includes Bell and two others. The same slate is backed by Masterson, Erickson and Williams.
“As the father of three children who recently attended public schools, I’ve followed the same issues as Kansans who have shared their concerns about the direction of several area schools, especially regarding COVID-19 protocols, critical race theory, and a return to focusing on academics,” Estes said in a statement.
“During the last few years, many parents have recognized the importance of electing quality candidates at all levels of government, including our local city councils and school boards.
“At the end of the day, parents are the best advocates for their children’s education, and this election provides voters the opportunity to choose candidates who will work with them to achieve success,” he said.
Masterson said he was a little surprised by Pompeo’s decision to endorse in the school board race, but added, “we do that for friends sometimes.”
“Mike’s a friend of Josh’s and doesn’t understand the issues in Andover,” Masterson said in an interview.
“That’s nothing against the guy he endorsed. I think he’s a good guy,” he said.
“It’s just we’ve been disappointed in some of the things happening in the Andover School District, and we want a change.”
Erickson, the assistant majority leader in the Senate, welcomed Pompeo’s endorsement in the race.
She said that shows the importance of local school board races.
“I am encouraged that more people are tuned into school board elections,” Erickson said.
“Obviously when you’ve got good candidates, there’s going to be disagreement as to who is endorsing whom,” she said.
“I’m encouraged that officials at that level are involved and paying attention to these important local races,” she said.
Williams said she had not talked to Pompeo about his endorsement but still stood by her slate of candidates.
“He may have been misinformed on Audra’s stance and the stance of the other individuals running alongside her,” Williams said. “That’s a disappointment.”
“We stand by our candidates. I’m not sure what Mike is thinking.”