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Campaign finance records show political donations, retirees funding school board member

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E'Lena Ashley
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E'Lena Ashley

As the drama increases for Tulsa Public Schools, those behind the decisions are coming under scrutiny.

According to campaign finance records, controversial Tulsa Public Schools board member E’Lena Ashley raised more than $18,700 for her race. Donors include a significant proportion of retirees and a political action committee supporting a “Biblical worldview.”

Ashley is known to plug educational excellence and transparency while repeating ultra-conservative talking points. She often takes to social media and has held “meet and greets” paid for by campaign funds. Most recently, Ashley hosted what was marketed as a “community meeting” at an east Tulsa restaurant where supporters decried “Communist China” and touted Christian values in public schools.

But a lot of Ashley’s boosters may not even have children enrolled in TPS. Campaign finance records show that 20% of Ashley’s individual contributions came from people self-labeled as retired.

Andy Moore, CEO of Let's Fix This, said it undermines Oklahoma’s school system when those most directly impacted by public education are not in control.

“Schools should be run and supervised by folks who are stakeholders in the system. That could be parents, grandparents. Even retired teachers and administrators, many of whom continue to volunteer or serve their school districts in a myriad of ways,” said Moore. “But I think what we’ve seen over the last couple of years is a lot of people who are more interested in politics rather than strong public schools.”

Erika Wright, founder of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition, said politics aggressively invading school boards is a trend.

“What we are seeing nationwide, but particularly here in Oklahoma, is that the anti-public school organizations out there that are working so hard and spending so much money to create chaos, to destabilize things, they are now plugging tons and tons of money into school board races so they can get people on these schools boards so they can do exactly what’s happening in Tulsa Public Schools right now,” said Wright.

Just a few months after Ashley was elected, Gov. Kevin Stitt called for an audit of TPS citing a request from Ashley and fellow school board member Dr. Jennettie Marshall.

Records show Ashley received a $500 donation from the Oklahoma Political Action Conservative Committee that promotes “Constitutional liberty, free markets, and a Biblical worldview.” The December donation was documented via an amended form after Ashley was elected in April.

The Oklahoma Ethics Commission wrote to Public Radio Tulsa that there’s no deadline for submitting amendments and that filing incorrect forms with the aim of later amending is in fact a political strategy. But reports that contain incorrect information “need to be amended as quickly as possible to reflect correct activity.”

Moore said filing amended reports isn’t unusual in Oklahoma politics.

“Sometimes, in many cases, an honest mistake, an accounting error, someone forgot to categorize a donation or expenditure correctly, and an accountant goes back through and fixes those things, but we also see it in dubious ways that are designed to distract or obscure the true nature of what’s going on in political races,” said Moore.

As for her future plans, Ashley told The Tulsa World while she hopes to be re-elected in 2026, she hasn’t created a candidate committee. Records show this to be untrue. In June, Ashley filed a statement of organization naming Charity Marcus and Fran Fleming as officers for her 2026 committee.

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In her latest statement of organization, Ashley describes herself as “non-partisan.”

Whether or not Ashley continues in her seat will obviously be decided by voters, but how many is unclear. Both Ashley and Marshall were elected by slim margins. Marshall won her race by just 25 votes, and Ashley won hers by 127 votes with less than 1,000 votes cast.

Wright said low voter turnout for school board elections is not unusual, but it is a problem and she hopes the current struggles of TPS will be a wake-up call.

“The politician that lives closest to your home is the most important politician,” said Wright.

Ashley, who has time and time again touted transparency, didn’t respond to questions for this article.

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.