© 2021
background_fid.jpg
In touch with the world ... at home on the High Plains
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ballot question could change Wichita school board elections

wichita_public_schools_sign.jpg
Stephan Bisaha
/
KMUW/File photo
A coalition supporting the ballot initiative says a “yes” vote would better empower voters in underserved parts of the community.

Voters in the Wichita school district will decide whether they want to change the method for selecting school board members, possibly bringing those elections in line with the way city, county and state representatives are elected.

Voters in the Wichita school district will decide whether they want to change the method for selecting school board members, possibly bringing those elections in line with the way city, county and state representatives are elected.

The district currently uses a hybrid voting model. Primary elections in each of six geographic districts narrow the race to two candidates for the general election. In the general election, voters throughout the school district cast votes on all school board seats.

The ballot question would change the system to a district-by-district vote. One at-large school board member would still be voted on districtwide.

School board members who voted to put the question on the Nov. 8 ballot said district-only elections are less confusing and result in better representation. They also said the current system, which has been in place since 1994, makes running for school board more expensive.

“This is an unpaid position,” said board member Ernestine Krehbiel. “We do not want to have school board members (be) only people that can afford to run a citywide campaign or people that are going to get money in order to run a citywide campaign.”

Three conservative board members elected last fall – Diane Albert, Kathy Bond and Hazel Stabler – voted against putting the question to voters, and they accused their colleagues of playing politics.

“What is the end goal? Our district is failing our students, and all this board can think about is political moves to win their reelections,” Bond said.

A coalition supporting the ballot initiative, Vote Local USD259, includes the Wichita branch of the NAACP, the Wichita League of Women Voters, the African American Council of Elders and the Wichita teachers union. Members say a “yes” vote on the ballot question would better empower voters in underserved parts of the community.

“We want to make sure that the person that’s populated for the school board in fact represents the community’s best interest,” said Danielle Johnson, a member of the NAACP board of directors.

“When you’re proximate and understand where your students are coming from — their families, their communities — you can ensure that you’re serving them as best you can when you're creating policies and procedures.”

Wichita is the state’s largest school district, with about 47,000 students. Less than 30% of the district’s students are white, but six of seven school board members are white. Stabler, who represents District 6, is Native American.

Opponents of the current voting system have raised questions several times over the years. In 2004, former board member Michael Kinard said the citywide general election diluted votes from individual districts, and he warned that a district’s choice for a board member could be defeated in the general election by someone with better name recognition citywide.

That happened four years ago, when District 1 challenger Ben Blankley ousted incumbent Betty Arnold, who is Black, despite garnering fewer votes than Arnold in the predominantly Black district.

Last November, Albert beat Blankley by a margin of 50.9% to 49.1% in District 1. She gathered about 56% of the vote citywide.

At a community meeting in northeast Wichita earlier this year, Albert said she supported the current method of voting because all seven board members answer to residents across the district. She said students often attend schools outside their geographic district, so their families should have a say in electing all board members.

The yes-or-no question will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot for anyone who lives in the Wichita school district. Here is the wording:

“Six board member positions for the USD 259 Board of Education are now elected from separate districts and one board member is elected at-large. Voters in primary elections vote for member positions from the district where they reside and for an at-large member position. Voters in general elections vote for member positions from all six districts and for the at-large member position. It is proposed the method of electing board members be changed to a system wherein voters in both primary and general elections vote for the members positioned from that district where they reside and for the at-large member position.”

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.