The down ballot election contests for school boards, city council and county commission don't always get the attention they deserve. And regretfully, recruiting people to campaign for those elective offices can be a real slog. There's a new coalition of organizations in Kansas, it's called engaged Kansas, that they're attempting to encourage and support civic minded folks to consider local public service. The players here include the Kansas farm bureau, the Kansas chamber, both well known in Kansas and influential and state politics, as well as the League of Kansas municipalities, Association of Counties and the Kansas Association of School Boards. Here to dive into the work of engage Kansas, our Brian Jordan, Executive Director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, and Brendan Werth director of political affairs at the Kansas farm bureau, and Joel left, which also the Kansas farm bureau and a former staffer with us, Senator Pat Roberts, welcome to you all.
Glad to be here. Yes. Thank you. Excellent. So
one of you will have to start this off. And I think let's just ask that basic journalistic question of what what is this engage Kansas? What are you trying to accomplish?
Thank you for the opportunity to be here. Tim engaged Kansas is really an educational resource that's available to all Kansans. That focuses on how do we how do we encourage and support individuals who to consider running for local office. And I can tell you a little bit about how Kansas farm bureau you know, decided to help go down this or to go down this path, is our mission is to strengthen agriculture and the lives of Kansans through advocacy, education and service. And when you think about the Farm Bureau, right, the first part of that mission makes total sense like strengthen agriculture, we're we're the Farm Bureau. But that second part of that mission statement, around the lives of Kansans shows the intent of our board, the recognition of our board, that our communities across the state really needs strengthening as well. And as an organization that's got a footprint in 105 counties with over 105,000 members, our board feels strongly that we can use that footprint, we can use these resources, in a way, again, to strengthen the lives of our communities, and local leadership matters to our communities. And coming out of COVID. You know, we started asking around, you know, what's, what's it look like for our city council, city councils or school boards, or county Commission's and those elected offices? Are people running? You know, do they feel? Do they feel that call to serve their communities? And we really heard some stories that, frankly, worried us, you know, there's folks there's high turnover on on city councils, or, you know, any of those offices, there's a lack of, of good people in the communities who are willing to step up and who can blame them? Right. They just like nobody ran for the school board thinking, geez, I really hope I get to make a decision about whether grandparents get to go watch their granddaughter play volleyball inside, like, right, yeah, that had to have been terrible, like who runs for them, we run for the school board think you're gonna have to make that call, where the County, the county commission about whether to whether to shut down a business. And then regardless of how you decided that what how you voted, like you just get ripped apart because of that. Because of that decision. I think it turned a lot of people off. So that's why Farm Bureau started asking around to other to other leaders to thought leaders to subject matter experts like the association of school boards, about what can we do? What can we do to help encourage people to consider public service? good
segue, Brian Jordan Cancer Association of School Boards. You used to work in school districts for many years, you've been how many school board meetings, you can maybe reach back in time and compare 25 years ago to now in terms of recruiting for local school
school board. Yeah, I would say that recruitment of local school board members, you hear about certain pockets in the state where there's, you know, contested races and 10 people trying to get two seats on the school board. But I would say most districts across Kansas, they're they're longing to have people run for the school board. And and so we're trying to figure out as an association, just exactly what he was talking about. How do we get people awareness of what the role is? And I'm doing it for the reasons that they want to get back to their community? Because Because I would, I would bet that 99% of the people run for the school board because they want to strong school in their community, because that's a pound of foundation of a strong communities having a great school system. And so that's why people typically run but finding those people and helping them understand that role is becoming more of
a drop off in terms of interest. Yeah, I
would say generally, yeah, I've been with the association almost 11 years and And my job prior to being the executive director was going out and working with boards in their, in their board rooms. And I it's become more and more common to show up at a board meeting and they have a vacancy because they can't find somebody to fill one of those seats. So I think it might be because of the pay because board bored Yeah, it's volunteer. Yeah, it it's it's a volunteer little your expensive. Yeah, we we tell school board members when they get elected, we have training and support for them. That public education, school boards are the purest form of democracy. It's not partisan. There's no pay. You're really trying to do this to strengthen your schools to have a strong community. And so but that's been a trend that I've seen emerge over the last several years is more and more of these boards, have vacant seats don't have anybody that's willing to step forward like he was talking about because of some of the extraneous stuff that gets piled on you when you're in that role.
And you know, let's skip to Brendan Brendan Werth. You're you you're with the Farm Bureau now, but you you've served on school board?
Yeah, over 10 years. Yes, yes.
So tell us tell us about that service. And let's just do a little testimonial here about what you got out of it, what the challenges were and what, what people maybe who are new to all this, and maybe the focus of this organization might expect and think about,
well, you know, serving in that capacity in a local community, and it's a small community of 350 students K through 12, only kindergarten through K through 12, in the whole county in Duval County. And what I can tell you is when getting when you first start to serve, it's overwhelming in the context of all the decisions, you may have preconceived notions, but the reality is, whatever your preconceived notions are of your responsibility. There is no partisanship, just as Brian mentioned, there is only decisions that you try to make at the best of your ability with the information you have to better your students, your staff and your community. And I think that's what makes engagement Kansas, so unique, and this rollout is having the resources. And from the Kansas farm bureau, the Kansas Association of School Boards Association of Counties looking Mr. Powell, he's the Kansas Leadership Center with great training resources, Kansas chamber and their connections, with with their leadership development programs. All those pieces can help be great tools, no matter what your personal agenda is to help you better serve and understand what those roles and responsibilities are. Because after my my 10 years, I've served in the negotiations capacity, still am with my teachers, I've served on budget committees building infrastructure, in our district, none of those decisions are partisan issues. They're just about what's the best information I can acquire. And what's the best decision I can make for my staff, students and community. And so WWW dot engage kansas.org is just going to be a great resource. And we're going to continue to add resources and add partners, what we've learned is there's a lot of great organizations across the state that are trying to do a lot of this community development work. And if I'm somebody wanting to go run and serve my community, how do I pull all that together? And that's where that's where efforts are focused on is pulling those resources together.
Jill, do you want to talk about just a little bit about the website that you have engaged kansas.com or org. Org. So it's org just explained to people what the basic look of that website is and what they might be able to find if they jump on?
Yeah, I think it's a great website. So you know, as we started having these conversations around, how do we get this nonpartisan, unbiased, non policy specific information out to as many people as possible a website is what we all landed on, and not just a website that you have to fumble around and, you know, 17 clicks to find out who to talk to or what the what the real information is that you want, we wanted to design a website that was easy to use, that's accessible to folks who are you know, maybe sorry to pick on your folks who you're bribing who are maybe waiting in line to pick up their kid at school sometimes those lines get pretty long you know, and they're scrolling on their Facebook page or whatever it might be see an ad for engaged Kansas, click on it within two clicks, you're you're you're sent directly to the information that you need. So within two clicks, if you're wanting to know about school boards, you're going to take it you're gonna take you to a page that tells you what, what are the what does it take to be a good school board member, there is instructional video that you guys have on your website. So nothing against your homepage, Brian, but, you know, we take you right to that to that specific resource that you need. We also wanted to ensure that it was assessable that all Kansans could could access the information. So we worked with Envision ink out of Wichita, Kansas, you know, to make sure that individuals with disabilities who use screen readers can have access to this information to make ensure that we get as many people visiting the site interacting the site as as possible.
Okay. And this is could be to all of you really, I think part of what you're getting at is you're pushing back against the really harsh, rigorous political position of some of these public service jobs. And as Tip O'Neill says All politics is local, or used to say he's deceased now. But I do think that the government closest to your home to to you that school boards, city and county government are the most important, because that's where nine one ones come. And that's where the ambulance is coming. That's where the police are coming. That's where your kids are going to class. And so part of this is pushing back against the effort that seems to be out there to political sighs all of this. So, Brendan,
it's not just I completely agree with what you're saying. I also don't think it's just pushback. I think it's just an awareness. In fact, I know that I've worked with farmers and ranchers in north central Kansas and across Kansas for over 20 years, there is a direct correlation between the success of our main streets and the success of our farm and ranch and small businesses and communities across Kansas. We that's that's a big reason why Kansas farm bureau is involved. We know that having a great successful downtown and a main street that can provide cash flow, and a health care system, as you mentioned, you know, just economic sources for a young farmer and rancher, substained. Farmer and Rancher, we know that that off farm incomes, a huge component of them to be able to be successful in their operations and maintain profitability. And those decisions made at the City Council, county, government, school board level and the type of education the type of infrastructure and the type of even the type of swimming pool you have, have great impacts on the people that you can recruit to your community that you need to make a successful farm operation Small Business School, and local government plays a huge role in all those pieces,
I would echo what he's saying, Brian, go ahead in our work around the state, thriving communities have all of those things, if there's one of those things missing, if there's not a vibrant downtown, if there's not health care, if the school is, is declining enrollment and can't get staff there, that community begins to erode. And so the local politics statement by O'Neill is exactly what we talked to board members about all the time, there's a narrative out there about failing schools in Kansas or this is happening. But the reality is the people that have the most influence on improving their schools are sitting around that board table. And so we need people that are invested in that community, to be at that table and pouring their energy into making that in a strong community. And I, we got into this, this this relationship with engaged Kansas, because it's exactly what we're trying to do. And I think we can all work together, it's going to be, you know, pooling our resources and be pretty powerful.
Joel, you're suggesting that these various organizations who honestly don't always agree on all policy things, but you're you're trying to build a network and a coalition, that, that that tries to help everyone rise up? When you talk to people about serving on a local school board or the city council? What are some of the objections that people have? Can we talk about that a little bit? Just what are the practical issues time? Yeah, resources, family concerns? There's many, but can we talk about some of the impediments? And maybe talk a little bit about what the organization might want to do to rise above though?
Yeah, it's it's a great question. And I wish that we could take all of those concerns away from everyone, you know, and then everybody, no one would have any impediments to running for office, right? Or serving their community in some capacity, even if it's a volunteer capacity. Like, you know, we're talking about these local offices, but there's other opportunities for folks to serve and lead in their communities as well. When we when we've had conversations, when we first started digging into what can the Kansas what's Kansas Farm Bureau's role? How can we how can we help address this issue? We started to hear from folks, you know, who, who are good leaders, but would say no, and they would give us a host of reasons, like you said, but two common ones came back, and that the first one was, I don't really know, what a school board member does every day. Like, I know that, you know, maybe they hire or fire a superintendent, but like, what do they really do beyond that? And what is, you know, if I'm concerned about taxes, should I really should I run for city council, or should I run for county commission? And so there was the first was that really just the lack of information about or lack of understanding of what the job description is? And then the second thing that we heard back frequently was, I don't know anything about campaigning? Well, when we brought that back to our board, we brought that back to the partners that we were having these conversations with, we realized that that's just lack of input. motion. That's an educational opportunity. So how can we provide the information to address at least those two very common reasons for saying no? How can we take those two, those two reasons to say no off the table. 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. Like we have resources, there's other folks that have resources about how to run effective campaigns, we can get folks more comfortable with that.
Okay, Brendan, you and dad,
yeah. They're just if you spend all the time on Engage kansas.org, the resources that we're providing there, for instance, the Kansas Association of School Boards, just being aware of what those responsibilities are at what Joel mentioned, about preconceived notions of what that job is, understanding before you, making the decision to put your name on a ballot is not an easy decision to make. And then once you do that, you're committed and once didn't need to follow through with that, do be able to then put yourself in that office, to be prepared to start making decisions as soon as possible that you feel are effective and the right decisions for your community. But if you look at what Kansas Leadership Center offers, in terms of training to how to analytically look at a problem and help them address it, that thing, the process they're doing, the networks at hand station a school board provides it provided me with networks of individuals in my role as School Board Member across the state just to get ideas what's going on in your community, how are you dealing with this issue? You know, they provide great resources for the policy, the policy component of the school board members really important, we spend very little time talking about it. But those resources that exist out there, through the trainings, networking, and one of them shamelessly plug Kansas Farm Bureau's we have a campaign school that we provide to individuals, anybody can apply. We it's a nonpartisan non sport policy specific campaign school. And what we do is, is this is the nuts and bolts of campaigning if you've never had any campaign, and this is not about what issues you pick that are red, or blue, this is about this is just how the process works. This is how you form a message about you. And this is how we walk you through. It's a simulation of the process of being in a campaign. Those are all things that anybody that has any interest in. So there's great leaders, and it's crossed. So many of our communities have stepped up in so many different ways. It's just there's a next step of putting your name on a ballot. And that's the bridge, we hope to get folks across.
Ryan, when you look at school board races in particular, do you see a lack of certain voices there? Now, now, you might say, in terms of racial composition, there's you know, there's parts of Kansas that are extremely white, for example, but but I'm just wondering about youth or sometimes when I look at the Kansas legislature, there's just not a very broad professional career representation there. You might have a bunch of lawyers or there might be just a bunch of retirees or independently wealthy people. You know, and so I wonder about the real cross section of Kansas not being represented in the Capitol. So do you see that on school boards? Would you like to see more youth? For example?
Yeah, I think, actually, I think we're kind of going through a change with our school board members. And I don't have the actual data right here in front of me, but I know that the, if you took the average age of a school board member, it's getting younger, we're seeing and I think we're seeing this across the state and pockets of people coming back to the rural communities, because they want, they want that way of life. And they value that way of life. And another thing that we see with school boards, I used to frequently asked boards, when I stood in front of them, I would say how many of you either went to the school or your spouse went to the school, and overwhelmingly they raised their hand. And so I think you have a tendency to throw your name on the ballot and do that, if you know what you're getting into, you know that you know, the school, but you also only know what you know, and so, so you get people involved in running for those seats, hopefully for the right reasons. But occasionally, you get people that are running because my gosh, we need to have a new school builder, we need to have a stronger, you know, band or and what happens with those individuals is one of two things, either one they get on and they get frustrated, because they realize, Oh my gosh, there's a whole litany of decisions that I have to be involved with. And they kind of withdraw and then they're four years and done or even unfortunately, less than four years and done, or they get in, they start to get their legs underneath them like Brennan was talking about and start to really, you know, embrace it. I think this this engaged Kansas initiative will help people get in and understand the scope of the work. And because we're having that that younger generation get onto school boards, I think it's going to be beneficial in the long run for them to understand that it'd be able to hit the ground running and not get on and be frustrated. And then next thing you know, you've lost a good person in that role that had good intentions but didn't feel like they knew what they're getting into
you raise a good interesting point about risk zillions. So Joel, this isn't exactly what the organization is about. But do you think the public needs to be a little more empathetic? About how they're viewing the work of County Commissioners, city city, city council members and school board members? Do we need? We need a little just check our pulse a little bit? Every now and then?
I, I love this question. I gotta tell you, that's it. I think we need a lot more empathy all around? Absolutely, we need empathy with our local elected officials, and our local volunteers. Let's think about some of these individuals that Brian was talking about her board, Brendan, you know, it's not uncommon for the school board member, or the city council person, or the county commissioner, to also be on the board of the hospital, the board of the church, or on the PTA, like we are over extending our volunteers. We all do it. Like, you know, we're somebody great in our communities who we all love. And we're like, oh, this would be awesome. I'd love to have your perspective on this committee, or this board or whatever it might be, or the koalas or lions, and all of these communities, all of these organizations are valuable to the success of that, of that town of that city. And yet, we put so much on their shoulders, like why don't we give them a little bit of a little bit of a break? How about we get some more folks to think about volunteering and running, whether that's the Rural Electric Co Op board, or whether that's the county sheriff, or whether that's, you know, the rural water district, whatever it might be, let's absolutely have more empathy for everyone in our community. Let's I love what you said about let's take a pause, let's take a break and really think about the person that's in that role. And maybe that will help us get more people to consider running.
I think we're gonna have to close here in a bit. But I wondered if we could go around the table and have each of you just talk a little bit about how, how important you think this effort is, because you can form this coalition and try to influence people. But back there are on these entities, these Council commissions and school boards are really important decisions. I mean, the what's going on here is very powerful. We're talking about kids, we're talking about property taxes, we're talking about rural water development, this is the future. And so, you know, put you on the spot, just kind of like, let's talk about the gospel of public service, as maybe it relates to these various areas. Brian,
well, I, you're putting me on the spot. But I think about what people value the most, and they value their kids, they value their hard earned income. And people want to see great things for their kids, people want to see their their tax dollars being used in a way that's, that's efficient being in a way that's building their community. And so the only way that happens is by having good people in these roles, whether it's county commission, City Commissioner school board, and so that's that, to me, that's why this is so critical. We got to have good people in those roles that understand. These are things that people hold very dear to their heart, their kids, their hard earned income. And so we need quality people helping make decisions about those things. Okay, Brendan?
Well, I'm gonna tell you, my decision to run and why I'm so excited about helping others to get to this point was obviously, I'm seven children, I feel there's an investment there. But it wasn't just about my kids. What my leadership training with Kansas farm bureau has taught me is you can't, you got to raise the whole boat. You can't leave anybody behind literally in this system. The kids that are in my kids this class, they have to learn together, they have to live in a community together, they have to develop together, and I and we have to do it for all of them. And it's the same way for everybody else in my community across Main Street. And again, I come from a very rural part of Kansas, that we can't segregate our efforts, we have to find a way to work together, build our communities, as a coalition as a group. And I think all these organizations that are a part of this, and I look forward to that work, because that's the only way a county like mine with a 10% rule decline every 10 years, and population is going to fix that issue. And make sure that community is still here, and my family has a place to live for the next 20 to 50 years.
All right, Joe, you get to close it out. Exclamation point.
I think I think this effort is critical. And yes, we've got I think, seven partner organizations now and we're continuing to reach out for others for more to join the effort. The you know, there's there's personal reason I spent 20 years outside of Kansas born and raised here grew my career outside of Kansas and our family decided to come back here to grow and raise our kids. that, that that narrative is common. It's not unique to Joel, that we see it in our communities. And I think that's okay. I think it is okay for folks to leave to leave and come back. But we got to give them something to come back to. And let's give them something that's that that's where our communities embrace and encourage public service. Let's break down some of these barriers for folks to want to engage in lead there and lead their communities for whatever reasons they might be. And so engaged Kansas is a really is a start of that conversation with a broad coalition of organizations who, to your point earlier, we don't have to agree on policy. But all of us agree that local leadership is important. 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. And so I do think that this effort is another arrow in the quiver of how we ensure that our state and our communities remain strong.
Okay, well, well, maybe we'll check back in a year to see how you guys are doing
if you guys are to that.
Elections are kind of
backroom or something or you're in loving and braces. Okay,
first filing. Yeah.
This is all about engaged Kansas. And I want to thank Brian Jordan of the cancellation of school boards, Brendan Werth and Joel left which are the Kansas farm bureau for helping us out here. Thanks for listening