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Wichita school board suspends meeting after new members refuse to wear face masks

USD 259
An image from a livestream of Monday's Wichita Board of Education meeting shows three new board members without their masks.

Diane Albert, Kathy Bond and Hazel Stabler, who were elected in November and started their terms Monday, sat at the board table without masks.

A Wichita school board meeting was suspended unexpectedly Monday after three new board members refused to wear face masks during the meeting.

Diane Albert, Kathy Bond and Hazel Stabler, who were elected in November and started their terms Monday, sat at the board table without masks when a livestream of the meeting started.

Board president Stan Reeser addressed the room.

“Before we begin tonight’s BOE meeting, I would like to ask everyone present tonight to follow the Board of Education’s directive approved on Aug. 23 and please put on a protective face mask,” Reeser said.

When the three members did not put on masks, Reeser suspended the meeting.

“Our students and staff have made it clear that they want to be in school to teach and to learn. In order to make this possible, we must follow current health recommendations and public health guidelines,” Reeser said. “The Board of Education face mask requirement gives us the greatest chance to have the safest possible teaching and learning environment.

“This district cannot vote on directives, policies and protocols that we expect students, staff and visitors to abide by, all the while … exempting BOE members,” he said. “This is a message we cannot send.”

Reeser said he planned to meet with Superintendent Alicia Thompson and the board clerk Tuesday to reschedule the meeting.

Bond did not return a call for comment Monday. Neither Albert nor Stabler could be reached for comment.

The three new board members took their official oaths of office last month. A ceremonial swearing-in ceremony was scheduled to take place at Monday’s board meeting.

Wichita is the state’s largest district, with about 47,000 students. The board voted in August to require face masks for anyone 3 or older inside district buildings.

The three new board members were elected after a heated campaign that pitted a slate of four conservative candidates against board incumbents. The partisan race focused on mask mandates, critical race theory and other national issues.

Albert, Bond and Stabler fell just shy of securing a conservative majority on the seven-member board. Incumbent Julie Hedrick won re-election, defeating challenger Brent Davis.

Wichita school board meetings are held in the North High School lecture hall.

Reeser, the board president, said after the meeting that he had hoped the new members would comply with the district’s rules.

“I welcome an open and honest debate about any kind of mask directive,” he said. “But you do not get to use bullying tactics in order to affect change.”

Reeser said he plans to reschedule the board meeting and remind members of the mask mandate. If the new members do not comply, he said, the four others would be a quorum and could conduct the district’s business.

“I do not say that with any glee in my heart whatsoever,” Reeser said. “I’d love an open and honest debate. … But this is counter to everything I believe deep in my soul about democracy.”

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.