Before David Dennis made a final decision not to run for a second four-year term on the State Board of Education, he wanted to make sure a like-minded person would be willing to seek his spot representing south-central Kansas and part of Wichita.
So he began talking about it with Jim McNiece to see if the former longtime Wichita principal would do it. Tuesday, McNiece made his answer official and filed as a Republican to run for the District 10 seat.
“I was going to run again if I couldn’t find someone that I trusted to be my replacement,” said Dennis, who has served as the board’s chairman since 2010. “When Jim agreed to run, that made my choice simple.
“I have to make sure we have someone who cares about the half-million kids we have in the state and making sure they get a good education.”
No one else has filed to run for the district seat.
McNiece, 62, cited his years in education, including serving as a high school principal at Wichita schools from 1986-2009, as a main reason for seeking the position.
“I have a wealth of experience as an educator that I think is more than appropriate and needed with the challenges the state has,” he said.
McNiece spent four years as principal at Bishop Carroll High School before moving to the Wichita district in 1990 as the founding principal of Northeast Magnet. After more than 15 years there, he became principal at Northwest before retiring in 2009.
A 1971 graduate of St. Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City with a master’s degree from Fort Hays State University, McNiece was selected as the MetLife Principal of the Year in 2007 by the Kansas Association of Secondary School Principals.
He acknowledged that education faces multiple issues in Kansas but said the three areas that are sure to draw his attention are safety, accountability and being an advocate for parents, students, teachers and school districts.
“School safety was a paramount goal for me as a principal at any school because you can’t learn in an environment where there isn’t safety,” McNiece said.
He said teachers also need a safe environment that goes beyond physical safety.
“Teacher evaluations are also a safety issue,” McNiece said. “Am I going to be treated well and fairly? Am I going to have a good program to help me improve or is it going to be destructive? Safety can mean a lot of things.”
He said he’ll spend the next two weeks listening to what superintendents, parents, teachers and students have to say about issues.
“After that, I’ll be able to take a more definitive position on a lot of issues,” he said.
Still unsettled is how districts for the state school board will be redrawn in the Legislature. McNiece could find himself bumped into District 8, which would pit him against incumbent board member Walt Chappell of Wichita.
“I’m sure that’s a possibility,” McNiece said. “But that’s like worrying about the weather. All I can do is wait and see what happens.”
Chappell, who has said he plans to seek re-election, and Dennis frequently battled each other over issues, including school funding and academic standards.
In the past few years, McNiece has served as a part-time adviser to the Wichita school district on special projects and has helped raise money for the district through a private company. His wife, Chris, is the assessment coordinator at East High School.
He has also worked as a principal at high schools in Chappell, Neb., and Udall. He is a former history teacher and football coach at Thomas More Prep in Hays.
Dennis, 65, a former Wichita North High School teacher, said it was time for him to step down and focus on other things.
“I’m still going to be supporting kids in our state,” he said. “That’s a big passion of mine.”
Contributing: Suzanne Perez Tobias of The Eagle