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The Wichita Board of Education is off to a rough start for the new year.
The board had been set to ceremonially swear in three new board members and one incumbent at its first meeting of 2022 on Monday at Wichita North High School.
But that meeting never happened after the three new board members and several members of the audience broke the district’s mask policy.
The Wichita Beacon breaks down what unfolded at that meeting.
What happened at Monday’s Wichita Board of Education meeting?
Prior to the meeting officially starting, board President Stan Reeser reminded the audience of the school board’s policy, adopted in August, that requires all people inside Wichita Public Schools facilities to wear masks. He asked those without masks – including new board members Diane Albert, Kathy Bond and Hazel Stabler – to put one on.
After seeing that few, if any, of the unmasked attendees were putting on masks, Reeser announced that it was his duty to suspend the meeting – without ever calling it to order.
Reeser soon left the room, as much of the crowd began to heckle the decision. One audience member called the school board “Nazis.” Albert, Bond and Stabler milled around the meeting room and talked with members of the public who thanked them for not putting their masks on.
The board was supposed to ceremonially swear in its new members and incumbent Julie Hedrick, vote on officers and discuss other routine school board items. No items related to the district’s COVID-19 strategy were on the agenda, even as COVID-19 and the omicron variant have led to spikes in the numbers of cases and quarantines in Wichita USD 259 schools.
Board members would have been able to request additions to the agenda as “new business,” although board policy is to add those items to the agenda for the next meeting unless it’s time sensitive. Here’s how the public can watch and participate in the school board’s monthly meeting.
Reeser told The Beacon he suspended the meeting over two concerns.
“The first concern was safety,” he said. “We had a near capacity crowd in which at least 30 people were wearing no masks, and another 10 or 12 had some version of what they were wearing was unsafe.”
“The biggest thing, though, was that we could not have a visual that showed three board members defying the directive that this body had democratically voted on,” Reeser added.
Why were unmasked people allowed at the meeting?
As with every board meeting, Wichita USD 259 security personnel were stationed at the school’s entrance on Monday evening.
Susan Arensman, Wichita USD 259’s news and media relations manager, said security personnel asked members of the public to put on masks as they entered the building but took no other steps to enforce the district mask policy, including with board members.
Do board members have to comply with their own policies?
Procedurally, yes. The Wichita Board of Education’s code of conduct directs that board members “will follow Board Policy and Board Procedures and will abide by the decisions of the Board majority.”
Even though Albert, Bond and Stabler were not yet formally sworn in at the Wichita Board of Education meeting, they are, in fact, sitting board members. They had already been administratively sworn in by the Sedgwick County Election Office, school board clerk Patrick Greene said.
However, the board’s code of conduct does not mention any enforcement against board members. The board president is tasked with presiding over meetings, preserving order and enforcing rules, while a separate policy on meeting procedure allows the board president to order security personnel to remove people interfering with board business from the room.
Why did the three new board members break the mask policy?
As part of their campaigns last year, Albert, Bond and Stabler ran on platforms that argued mask decisions should be left up to parents, among other planks generally against COVID-19 mandates. They were part of a four-person conservative slate running against incumbents. Hedrick was the only incumbent to win in November.
After the abrupt suspension of the meeting, Albert said the trio hadn’t coordinated their refusal to wear masks. She said she had not expected that Reeser would call off the meeting.
“The one-size-fits-all medical decision is not good for everybody,” Albert told The Beacon. “I believe in individual rights for people to make the best health decisions for themselves.”
Bond and Stabler told KAKE News they intended to comply with the mask mandate following Reeser’s request. But Bond said she stopped herself when she saw that none of the unmasked people in the crowd was putting on a mask.
Albert further claimed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that most face coverings are inadequate at stopping the spread of COVID-19. Although it’s unclear which study Albert was referring to, CDC guidance is still to generally wear masks, particularly in schools.
Albert, pointing to the November election results, said voters had spoken “loud and clear that they don’t want more mask mandates.”
She said she was not going to wait for official board action to repeal the mask policy since the school board had two opportunities to do the same between the election and their ceremonial swearing in on Monday.
Additionally, Albert said she had recently asked to add an item on masks to the agenda. After no item was added, she said she intended to bring it up as new business.
Reeser said he was open to a discussion on the topic, but the trio’s approach violated board process.
“It was very important that we sent a clear message that we want them to have their debate, and we welcome debate on any of the directives on masks,” he said. “We can debate anything any board member wants to debate.”
“But you don’t get to effect change by creating chaos and then get your way without actually having a majority vote on it,” Reeser added.
What happens now?
Reeser said he would work with the school district over the next few days to reschedule Monday’s meeting with the board notifying the public of the new date as soon as possible.
Asked how he would deal with board members or attendees who fail to comply with the mask policy in the future, Reeser said he would direct security to deny them entry if they refused to wear masks.
“We’ve been putting out olive branches ever since the election, and we’ve bent over backwards to do training and to (answer any questions) they may have,” he said. “We’ve given them grace and patience on this mask situation, and we’ve welcomed the debate and a further vote.”
Reeser said that discussions with the incoming board members, at least until Monday’s suspended meeting, had been cordial and that he hopes dialogue continues. The three new board members, along with Hedrick, are starting a four-year term.
But the board could meet without Albert, Bond or Stabler, as the remaining four members are enough for a quorum.
Albert, on the other hand, said she wasn’t sure the incumbent board members were actually interested in holding good-faith discussions on the mask mandate.
“It appears they don’t want to work with us,” Albert said. “I’m here, I showed up. I did my work beforehand.
“Mr. Reeser was the one who canceled the meeting. Not me.”
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