School board member Diane Albert and City Council member Brandon Johnson talking.
School board member Diane Albert and City Council member Brandon Johnson talk before the Aug. 15 listening session on school board voting reform. (Trace Salzbrenner/The Beacon)

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When the Wichita USD 259 Board of Education meets again on Aug. 22, it will vote on whether to put before voters a change in the way its board members are elected. At issue is whether voters should be able to elect their own district representative – or allow all voters in the city to vote on all representatives, as is currently done.

Members of Wichita’s Black community say the current method dilutes the impact of their vote, making it harder to elect a Black member to represent the majority Black District 1. Diane Albert, the current representative of that district, initially opposed the change but held a listening session on Aug. 15 at the Atwater Neighborhood City Hall. 

At the last board meeting, Albert and Hazel Stabler of District 6 were the only two out of seven board members to oppose sending a ballot measure on to the Kansas secretary of state. A simple majority will pass the measure. After the listening session Albert said in an email, “I am still meeting with many other people to hear their thoughts before Monday.”

Overwhelmingly, those in attendance at the Aug. 15 listening session wanted a ballot measure to be included in the November general election. 

The two sides of voting reform

At the Aug. 8 USD 259 school board meeting, Albert stated that she opposed the voting reform because she believed that it would decrease the power that parents had over the schools their children attend. 

At the listening session, Albert handed out papers that showed how a student can attend schools in multiple school board districts while never changing where they live. In example, a student can go to Chisholm Trail Elementary in District 6 and then Stucky Middle School in District 1. This is because the neighborhood base school maps are wholly different from board of education voter district maps. 

Those in favor of changing the voting structure say they want to ensure the person they vote for becomes their representative. Some also argue that more people would seek the unpaid school board position if they did not have to campaign citywide. 

Attendees also said that they believe that whether your child goes to school in a different voting district or not is a moot point. A school board member should care about all schools in USD 259 regardless of what district they come from, even if the voting structure changes. The change would just ensure that the representation that comes from District 1 would reflect District 1’s values.

Black students make up roughly 19.5% of the school district’s 47,000 enrollment. Six of seven Wichita school board members are white; Stabler is Native American.

Pat Havis, pastor at St. Matthew Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, spoke on what representation means to her. (Trace Salzbrenner/The Beacon)

Comments from the community

Albert started the listening session on Aug. 15 by asking two specific questions to those in the room: What does representation mean to you?  And what kind of change do you want in how school board officials are elected?

City Council member Brandon Johnson and Wichita chapter NAACP President  Larry Burks were there to help facilitate answers from the audience.

The question of representation got the most attention.

“Most of the children in USD 259 are minority children and when we look at our school board, it does not represent those children in those schools,” said Teresa Lovelady, president and CEO of HealthCore Clinic. 

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 Board of Education  — comprising  one member for each district plus one at-large representative — has no Black members. Instead, six of seven board members are white, though only 30 percent of the students are white.

“And when you don’t have that representation on the board, how are you advocating when the door is closed?” Lovelady asked. Lavonta Williams and Elaine Guillory, both NAACP executive committee members, nodded in agreement as she spoke.

“I look for someone who understands my needs. I look for someone who recognizes my wants. I look for someone who works to fulfill my hopes as it relates to education. I look for someone who respects my cultural likeness and differences,” said Pat Havis, pastor at St. Matthew Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.

“Holistically and intrinsically, I like Black people representing me, but that’s not always the case… So, I look for, as Dr. [Martin Luther] King said, I look for the content of a person’s character. I look for someone who is African American but if that is not the case I look for someone who can do the things I just said.”

What’s the background of school board elections?

This conversation started after the July 25 school board meeting. At that meeting, the board voted on a new map of districts for school board members. The school board meeting directly after on Aug. 8 had many Black leaders and community members requesting change from the board.

The change in district lines was prompted by a state law requiring nearly even distribution of citizens among districts, accounting for population shifts recorded in the 2020 census. 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. The new maps moved nearly 1,000 Black residents of Wichita’s historically Black neighborhoods in District 1 out and 3,000 white residents were moved in.

“I always say you’ve got to be at the table or you’re on the menu. July 25, we were on the menu,” Williams said. “July 25 you made a decision because nobody was there. We weren’t at the table and we got put on the menu. And, we don’t get fed.”

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.

Albert, speaking at the Wichita Pachyderm Club on the Friday before the listening session, said that election is what prompted the effort to change how school board members are elected, according to The Wichita Eagle. “They’re very, very upset by this, so what they’re trying to do is change it to district-only voting.”

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.

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Trace Salzbrenner

Trace Salzbrenner is a community journalist for The Wichita Beacon. Follow him on Twitter @RealTraceAlan.