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Wichita school district voters opt to change the way board members are elected

Stephan Bisaha

Voters in the Wichita school district have decided to change the way school board members are elected, adopting a system where only people living in each board district can vote for candidates running in that district.

By a margin of about 2-to-1, voters in the state’s largest school district opted to ditch the current hybrid voting system, which has been in place since 1994.

According to final unofficial results, 48,678 voted to change the method for electing USD 259 school board members; 25,450 opposed the change.

Beginning next year, Wichita school board members will be elected in a fashion similar to city, county and state representatives, where only voters in a candidate’s district get to weigh in on that race.

Three school board seats will be up for electionin 2023 — the District 4 seat currently held by Stan Reeser; the District 3 seat held by Ernestine Krehbiel; and the at-large seat held by Sheril Logan. Voters citywide will continue to vote for the at-large representative.

Supporters said district-only elections are less confusing for voters and result in better representation.

Ngoc Vuong, a 2018 graduate of Wichita South High, said Tuesday’s vote was “a testament to the non-partisan nature” of the ballot measure.

“Unfortunately, I think there were attempts to polarize this, but … the 2-to-1 margin is a clear indicator that regardless of political affiliation, there was majority support for changing the current election system,” he said.

A coalition of groups supporting the ballot measure included the Wichita chapter of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters and the Wichita teachers union.

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

“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.”

There was no organized opposition to the ballot question. But three conservative board members elected last fall — Diane Albert, Kathy Bond and Hazel Stabler — had voted against putting the question to voters.

Bond said she thought efforts to change the election system may have been politically motivated.

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 away from their homes, so their families should have a say in electing all seven board members.

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 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 better known 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.

City Council member Brandon Johnson — Danielle Johnson’s husband — 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.

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

“This is an unpaid position,” said Krehbiel, a current board member. “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.”

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.