A free email newsletter breaking down the issues that affect Wichitans the most.
Delivered every Tuesday and Thursday morning
Update: On July 25, the board of education voted to approve revision plan 3. It passed with a 5-2 vote.
Wichita Public Schools USD 259 is redrawing its school board district maps. State law requires that school board districts are evenly proportioned, with each district representing roughly the same number of residents. This effort for equal representation, however, could further dilute the political influence of Wichita’s Black population.
Under proposed redistricting maps, nearly 1,000 Black residents of Wichita’s historically Black neighborhoods would be moved out of District 1 and 3,000 white residents would be moved in. The changes are triggered by the 2020 Census.
About 9,200 Black children are enrolled in Wichita Public Schools, about 19.5 percent of the district’s total 47,000 enrollment. The Wichita School Board — composed of one member for each district plus one at-large representative — has no Black members. Instead, six of seven of board members are white, though only 30 percent of the students are white.
The redistricting process does not look at demographic makeup of districts, only total numbers of people. USD 259’s six districts are supposed to be evenly divided, with no district exceeding its portion by more than 5 percent. District 2 was 6 percent above the portion.
Sedgwick County Geographic Information Systems, the county’s geographic data analysis division, prepared five maps for the school board to consider. The board narrowed its choices to two at its July 11 meeting, selecting these because they would give each district a high school. Currently District 3 does not have a high school. The change would place Wichita East High School in its borders. District 1 would gain Wichita Heights High School.
At that meeting, Kathy Bond, District 5 representative, expressed concern about legal blowback that splitting the Black population might create. “We need to be very careful with that,” Bond said.
Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union and Democrats sued the Kansas secretary of state over a proposed congressional redistricting map. Plaintiffs claimed the Republican Legislature drew the map with racial and political bias. The Kansas Supreme Court ultimately approved the map.
The Wichita school board is scheduled to settle on its redistricting map at its meeting on Monday, July 25.
Why this matters
Irrespective of redistricting, the way Wichita elects its school board members inherently reduces the voting power of Black Wichitans. Though district residents alone choose district candidates in primary elections, people from all districts across Wichita vote on all school board members in general elections.
Wichita voters elected to do it this way in a 1994 ballot initiative. The approach is permitted by state law, according to USD 259.
Fran Jackson is a retired Wichita teacher, elder of the Wichita African American Council and community activist who helped push desegregation efforts in Wichita. Jackson said more direct representation at the city, county and school board level would produce better results for Black citizens.
“I think we are at a place now where each district needs to select its own representation,” Jackson said. “And then, if we become smarter, we can get better on how to share the power.”
State Treasurer Lynn Rogers agrees. Rogers served on the Wichita school board from 2001 to 2018, including multiple terms as president. In that time, he oversaw the passage of a bond issue, the hiring of two superintendents and the end of busing for integration.
“When an African American comes out of District 1 to represent District 1 and the whole city gets to vote on it, it makes it harder for that person to run a realistic campaign,” Rogers said.
Current District 3 representative Ernestine Krehbiel also believes reform to the voting system might be good for representation. She said that forcing school board members to campaign citywide can be expensive.
“What is more, it is extremely confusing to voters,” Krehbiel said in an email. “They don’t vote citywide for city council or for county commission. So, why would they have to get to know citywide candidates for the school board?”
In Wichita’s last school board election in November 2021, four conservatives ran a conjoined campaign on a platform attacking mask mandates, critical race theory and other national issues. Three incumbents – including Mia Turner, the only Black member – were ousted.
District 1, USD 259’s district with the largest Black population, has not been represented by a Black school board member since 2017, when Betty Arnold lost by 84 votes.