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Wichita school district voters will decide Nov. 8 whether to change the way BOE members are elected

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Nadya Faulx
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KMUW/File photo
The yes-or-no question will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot for anyone who lives in the Wichita school district.

The Wichita Board of Education voted 4-3 this week to put a question on the Nov. 8 ballot. It will ask voters whether they want to change to a district voting model — the way city, county and state representatives are elected — or keep the current system.

Voters in the Wichita school district will decide in November whether to switch to district-only school board elections.

The Wichita Board of Education voted 4-3 Monday to put a question on the Nov. 8 ballot. It will ask voters whether they want to change to a district voting model — the way city, county and state representatives are elected — or keep the current system.

The district currently uses a hybrid model. Geographic primaries narrow a field of candidates, but in the general election, voters across the district weigh in on all the school board races.

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

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

Board member Stan Reeser said district-only elections are less confusing and result in better representation.

“There's no politics being done here. This is a debate that has been going on in our community for decades," Reeser said.

The Wichita school board adopted the current system in 1994 to elect representatives from six geographic districts and one representative at large. Previously, the whole board was elected at large.

Opponents 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. He worried 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.

Albert convened a listening session last week to hear from constituents in her district. Dozens of local Black leaders and activists attended the meeting and urged her to put the district election question on the ballot.

“You sat there and specifically said, ‘No, I will not vote that way,’ without asking the constituents that you serve,” said Lavonta Williams, a former teacher and Wichita City Council member. “That hurt. So that’s all we’re asking, is to see us, and to hear us, and to work with us.”

City Council member Brandon Johnson told school board members that the current election system has disenfranchised voters of color. District 1, which includes many of the city’s historically Black neighborhoods, has not had a Black representative since Betty Arnold in 2017.

Black students make up about 20% of the Wichita school district’s 47,000 enrollment. Six of the seven school board members are white. Stabler, who represents District 6, is Native American.

Albert said the ballot question was not fully vetted and that the board had heard from only “a select few” constituents. She proposed forming a committee to study the issue, but the board did not accept her amendment.

Several people who support district-only elections said the current system is confusing for voters and costly for candidates.

“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.”

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.