Topeka attorney Fred Patton, a veteran of service in the Kansas House and Seaman school board, looks back on nearly two decades of public service during the Kansas Reflector podcast. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Outgoing state Rep. Fred Patton filled nine years with Statehouse intrigue and twice that time as a member of the local school board.
Years juggling complex issues of deep public interest left him a changed person. Not the kind of overwhelming personal transformation associated with huge egos and bright lights of the nation’s political epicenter in Washington, D.C. No, Patton’s realm was the Seaman school district north of Topeka and the domed Capitol in downtown Topeka.
“I don’t know this is a good thing, but I take criticism a whole lot easier than I used to,” Patton said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “Someone would post a comment online or leave a message and it would bother me for days. I would wake up and I was, you know, ‘Tom down the street really thinks that about me?’ And, now, it still bothers me, but not near to the extent that it used to.”
The Republican also proved to be a rarity in politics — a centrist in spaces increasingly occupied by folks hell-bent on advancing ideology of the far right or far left.
“I’m not on either end of the spectrum by any means,” he said. “And I wouldn’t say I’m right smack dab in the middle, either.”
Patton, an attorney, joined the Seaman school board before adding to his workload through service in the Kansas House. He was president of the school board five times and chaired key House committees. He blended those interests while grappling with the school district’s budget and collaborating with peers in the Legislature to craft a K-12 spending bill that helped resolve years of tortured litigation to satisfaction of the Kansas Supreme Court years.
In 2021, he stepped down from the school board post. It had become clear to Patton during the COVID-19 pandemic that it was impossible to continue with those overlapping responsibilities.
“I felt like I was not doing the job that the constituents deserved when it came to the school board,” he said.
This spring, he decided not to run for a new term in the House during 2024. He also took up jogging in the mornings. During that 30 minutes or so without a phone ringing, he had time to reflect on what was important in his life. His sons were finishing college and heading off to jobs. A daughter was headed in the same direction. Patton determined he needed more time with family. In September, he announced his resignation from the House.
Patton said he was convinced participating in a public school district board helped prepare him for the Legislature. He recommended anyone thinking of running for the House or Senate to first consider serving on a school board, city council or county commission. Or, he said, at least get to know people in those roles to get a sense of how to best represent the interests of others.
“I always tell student groups this. Right there in my title in the word representative, is the word represent. I’ve always tried to, you know, as I’m casting votes,” Patton said.
While looking back on time at the Capitol, he was undecided about whether lobbyists had too much control over the legislative process.
“I don’t know if it’s too much,” he said. “I mean, there’s certainly a role for the lobbyists that I did not know or anticipate before I came to the Legislature. I don’t know the first thing about some issues. And, so there are some really good lobbyists that will come in and they’ll explain what their client thinks. And if I have questions, they’ll tell me what the other side thinks. Those are the ones you respect and you go to.”
Now that he wouldn’t be seeking campaign contributions, he said it was fine to let it be known he paid little attention to who sent him donations.
Patton said he always had an idea how GOP leadership viewed bills on the House floor. He stressed about the influence of leadership during his initial years in the House, but didn’t sweat that guidance later on. He said he voted for imperfect bills that emerged from the process of give-and-take. He also welcomed opportunities to help lawmakers take ill-formed legislation and find compromise for good for the state.
“If they got close, I would vote for it,” Patton said. “There still may be some constituents or groups in the state that still thought it was a bad idea.”
On Saturday, Republicans selected Seaman school board member Kyle McNorton, a former University of Kansas football player, to serve the remainer of Patton’s term in the Kansas House.
Back to school
Patton, who is married to a school librarian, said political criticism leveled at K-12 public education had a detrimental influence on educators, who assumed high-stakes responsibility for the education of youths.
“I certainly think it has an impact on educators,” he said. “It’s certainly not merited in most situations.”
It was important community members had a voice in what was taught in schools, Patton said, but that view could be tested by dissidents attempting to dislodge books from school district libraries. He recalled instances when protesting parents hadn’t bothered to read the book they sought to bury.
“I remember one, maybe two challenges. And both of those, I immediately got the book, read the book, and then I called the parent. And I’m like, ‘Have you read the book?’ And, they’re like, ‘Well, I read, you know, pages 17 through 23.’ That’s frustrating,” he said.
It’s likely Republicans in the Legislature plan a substantive push in the 2024 session to approve expenditure of hundreds of millions of Kansas tax dollars for private school vouchers.
In the 2023 session, he said he was an “easy no vote” on vouchers because that’s what his House district wanted.
“I get that there are students out there who are in schools that maybe aren’t able to provide what they need. So, how do you address those? I don’t know the answer. But I’ve never been supportive of just sending unlimited amounts of money to private schools.”
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