TPS District 6
Tulsa Public Schools District 6 will choose between Sarah Smith and Maria Seidler to succeed Jerry Griffin on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (NonDoc)

Voters in Tulsa Public School District 6 will choose between Sarah Smith and Maria Mercedes Seidler on April 2 in the race to succeed Jerry Griffin, who resigned Jan. 2 and left the seat vacant.

An attorney, Seidler is not new to the world of TPS. She is currently representing parties in multiple lawsuits against the district (and other districts), including one representing TPS board member E’Lena Ashley, who endorsed her campaign.

During an interview this week, Seidler cited founding her pro bono law firm, Legal Overwatch, and her work representing parents as motivating her to run for office. However, on a podcast episode alongside Ashley she said she was recruited to run, but did not specify by whom.

“E’Lena will tell you, when they asked me to run — I didn’t volunteer — I had a group of people ask me to run, and I didn’t really want to run because I love my parents,” Seidler said, referencing here clients.

While other races have featured accusations and denials about connection to the controversial Moms for Liberty, Seidler has been open about the support Legal Overwatch has received from members of the group as well as about a campaign donation she received from a Tulsa church associated with the Christian organizations City Elders and Patriot Pastors. IRS rules prohibit political donations from religious nonprofits, but the donation appears on Seidler’s campaign reports.

Meanwhile, Smith has cited dissatisfaction with Griffin’s tenure as motivating her to run for the office.

“I decided to run because I wasn’t happy with our previous representative, and I thought I could do better,” Smith said. “I’ve been concerned about the attacks on Tulsa Public Schools the last year.”

Seidler criticizes opponent, board and superintendent

TPS District 6
Tulsa Public Schools District 6 includes eastern and southern portions of the district and borders Union Public Schools. (Screenshot)

Seidler is originally from Pittsburg, Kanas. Her father was an immigrant from Nicaragua, and her parents came to the United States “after confiscation of their business,” according to her Ballotpedia profile.

She holds degrees from Missouri Southern State University, Pittsburg State University, the University of Tulsa College of Law and Yale University. This is her second run for office in Tulsa, having lost the Republican primary for House District 79 in 2020 to Margie Alfonso.

Sarah Smith, an employee in the University of Tulsa IT department, is an alumnae of Nathan Hale High School and the University of Tulsa. She’s a mom to four current TPS students and an active PTA parent for the past twelve years.

The Tulsa World and Protect TPS have both endorsed Smith.

In an interview on a March 4 podcast episode, Seidler discussed the election at length and criticized not only her opponent, but also incumbent board Vice President John Croisant, Calvin Moniz and Superintendent Ebony Johnson.

“It’s important [Teresa Peña] wins over John Croisant who is the vice president of TPS,” Seidler said. “We need to understand what’s in place right now is the (then-Superintendent Deborah) Gist machine. I hate to say it, but I think that includes the Superintendent Ebony Johnson.”

During the episode, she criticized other candidates’ connections to the University of Tulsa, a reference to Moniz, Smith and Croisant all being alumni of the university. (Seidler is also an alumna of the University of Tulsa.)

“If you look at all the other candidates running, they’re all coming out of the TU background,” Seidler said. “TU is promoting these.”

When discussing her opponent, Seidler criticized Smith’s membership in parent teacher associations by alleging they are controlled by the national teacher’s union.

“I don’t think people realize the PTA has morphed into an arm of the [National Education Association], the teacher’s union,” Seidler said.

In contrast, Smith has avoided publicly wading into other TPS races and has advocated for strengthening PTAs in the district.

“I’d like to help strengthen PTAs and parent organizations in schools as one way of interacting with parents and teachers,” Smith said. “And just having frank conversations with parents and teachers about the real issues is how we’re going to find out what those problems are and start to address them.”

Asked what criteria she would consider if TPS were to consolidate schools — a proposal floated by State Superintendent Ryan Walters — Smith rejected the question’s premise.

“I’m a proponent for keeping schools open. I’d be very against closing any of our schools,” Smith said. “I would agree we need to talk to families, parents, students. They’ve been against closing schools as well over the years.”

To be (partisan) or not to be?

TPS school board elections are nonpartisan, and candidates often avoid making overtly partisan statements during their campaigns. Smith has followed this pattern.

“This race is nonpartisan, and it should be because we should keep politics out of the classroom,” Smith said. “There’s no room for that.”

Seidler has taken a different route, being quite vocal about her political conservatism during the campaign and declining most invitations to nonpartisan candidate events. Posts on her campaign Facebook indicate she has instead focused on speaking at Republican groups in Tulsa.

At one point during the March podcast interview, Seidler criticized school choice advocates for seeking government money to cover their education costs.

“They’re out at the Oklahoma Capitol with their hands open asking for $6,000 or $7,000 to take their kids out of what they say is a hellhole,” Seidler said. “My thought is don’t sponsor any schools, just give all the people their money and let them figure it out, which I think is the true conservative (position).”

While other candidates have distanced themselves from Moms for Liberty, Seidler has offered praise of members of the group while maintaining she is not a member.

“I would like to give a shout out to Julie Bentley and (indiscernible) who came to me from Moms for Liberty because they thought we were gonna have a more direct impact,” Seidler said on the March podcast episode.

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Church donation raises fundraising questions

TPS District 6
A campaign finance form submitted by Maria Seidler’s campaign Monday, March 25, 2024, lists a donation from “Church in the Heartland Where Jesus is Lord.” (Screenshot)

A week before the election, Seidler’s first fundraising report was released. A Facebook post called attention to a $3,250.08 in-kind donation from Christie Glesener, a co-leader of the Shofar International Foundation, a Christian organization. The group has links to articles on its website such as, “Uncovered Muslim Brotherhood documents could put Obama in Prison.”

While Glesener’s donation caught the eye of some, an unusual donation was reported from “Church in the Heartland Where Jesus is Lord.” Under federal law, churches are usually barred from making political donations.

Asked about the donation’s origin since no church of that exact name exists in state records, Seidler indicated the donation was actually from the group Patriot Pastors.

“That contribution was really from Patriot Pastors, which is an organization of pastors from different churches — including the pastor from the Heartland — but it’s not really from the church. They may have used their check,” Seidler said. “I was told that that was from the Patriot Pastors.”

Patriot Pastors has been around for more than a decade and, according to The Oklahoman, has advocated for intentionally violating the Johnson Amendment that prohibits nonprofit organizations and churches from direct electoral involvement. Heartland Church in Tulsa was formerly lead by one of the group’s founding members, Bruce Delay.

Delay was an active member of City Elders, a Christian organization that describes its mission as “governing the gates of every city in America to establish the Kingdom of God with strength, honor and courage.” Delay died in 2021, and its unclear if City Elders and Patriot Pastors continue to share leadership.

But at least one member of City Elders, current school board member E’Lena Ashley, endorsed Seidler’s campaign.

Asked who is involved with Patriot Pastors, Seidler only mentioned by name former chairman of the state Republican Party David McLain.

“I think (he) was an officer in the Republican Party for a while,” Seidler said. “But since then, you know, he went back into being a pastor, and he’s trying to get more Christian involvement in the elections.”