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On Nov. 8, Wichita voters will get another pass at an issue they last voted on 28 years ago – how Wichita school board members are elected in USD 259. The central issue, however, goes back a century.
The concern is the same now as then: Does allowing the entire city to elect school board members from each part of the city disenfranchise certain groups? Would it be better to allow voters from a smaller geographic district to choose their own representative?
Currently, voters choose among candidates from their own district in the primary, which is nonpartisan and narrows the field to two candidates. Then the entire city votes on all district representative races in the general election. The board comprises six district representatives and one at-large member.
The history of Wichita school board elections
On Nov. 8, voters will decide whether to change the method so each district representative is only voted on by residents of their own district. The process was last voted on in 1994.
Why now, asked Kathy Bond, a new school board member, at the Aug. 15 meeting? “If this is such a bad way, why has it been going on for 30 years?” Bond asked.
“Well, as you know, bad things can happen for many years until somebody has the courage to try to correct the problem,” replied Stan Reeser, board president.
The current system has been in place since a previous ballot initiative was approved by voters in 1994. That initiative, however, was an incremental response to a push for district-only voting.
The Wichita community at the time was sharply divided.
“Depending on how you look at it, district elections will democratize or polarize the board,” reporter Paola Banchero wrote for The Wichita Eagle in an Aug. 1, 1994, story. “It could mean, for instance, having a board member who speaks for south Wichita, an area of town that hasn’t produced a school board member in three decades. Or it could mean political turf battles that pit districts against one another for scarce resources.”
A compromise struck in 1994
At its Aug. 22, 1994, meeting, board member Jerome Williams proposed that voters switch from the existing at-large election system to one where six members are chosen by voters in each district with a seventh member elected at-large. His proposal failed.
Instead of a system of strictly district-based voting, the board put forward a compromise proposal that allows district-only voting in the primary, but not the general election. It was adopted 4-3.
“Although the proposal is more watered down than a pure district election plan, it would guarantee representation on the school board from all parts of Wichita,” The Wichita Eagle wrote on Aug. 24, 1994.
1994 school board divided on best approach
Supporters of the compromise included Jean Schodorf, Claradine Johnson, Debra Ferris and Carol Rupe, who said they feared special-interest groups might take power on the board if a pure district election system was established.
Theresa Johnson, an activist and longtime advocate of pure district elections, said in her critique of at-large voting in 1994, “Someone on the south part of town who has the time to be a school board member does not have the name recognition or the money,” Johnson said.
According to The Eagle story on Aug. 23, 1994, critics were also angry because the city could effectively overturn a districts choice: “Board member Tyrone Gordon strongly disagreed with the compromise measure: ‘It is possible to win in that district and lose citywide.’”
This hypothetical was proved true. The Wichita Eagle analyzed vote counts in the 2017 school board race within USD 259 District 1, the district with the highest population of Black residents. That analysis found that if only the votes of district residents were counted, a different candidate would have won. Instead, a Black incumbent who was most popular within District 1 lost by 84 votes in the citywide election to a white challenger.
The NAACP came out in opposition to the 1994 compromise plan, saying it “would be worse than the system that we now have… This plan is based on the idea that people who live in a district are not capable of choosing their own representatives,” The Eagle reported on Oct. 28, 1994.
The ballot initiative was approved on Nov. 8, 1994, surprising opponents. ”To be honest, I was not expecting this to pass,” said James Crump, president of the Wichita NAACP chapter at the time, quoted in the Nov. 9, 1994, edition of The Wichita Eagle. ”The mindset of the school board members is beyond my comprehension,” he said.
Activist offers hindsight on 1994 compromise
Mark Ritchey, a retired teacher and current treasurer of the Wichita NAACP, advocated for the district-only voting proposal then and now, 28 years later. In a recent interview with The Wichita Beacon he recalled that the 1994 push for district-only voting on the school board started after Wichita’s City Council elections were switched to district-only voting.
“Before district voting, virtually all of the school board members came from College Hill,” Ritchey said, referring to the wealthy east side neighborhood. He explained that activists, coming off the win of switching the City Council to district-based voting, moved their attention to the school board to increase the diversity of representation on it.
Looking back, Ritchey says fears were unfounded that districtwide voting would give special interests more power on the school board. He believes the opposite is true: Citywide voting has made it easier for special-interest groups to back candidates by giving money to run citywide campaigns, pushing out board members who could not afford citywide elections.
Opponents of the current ballot initiative
The current school board is divided on the ballot initiative. Four members voted in favor of bringing the change to district-only voting to a public vote on Nov 8: Stan Reeser, board president from District 4; Ernestine Krehbiel, District 3; Julie Hedrick, District 2; and Sheril Logan, at-large. Opposed were Diane Albert, District 1; Kathy Bond, District 5; and Hazel Stabler, District 6.
The opponents say district-based voting would decrease the influence of parents. Albert held a listening session at the Atwater Neighborhood City Hall on Aug. 15, handing out papers that showed how a child might 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.
Another argument for citywide voting is that Wichita residents support all schools with their tax dollars, not just the district where they live. This argument might also be made for Wichita City Council, but council members are elected by district only. Besides school board members, the only other elected official chosen citywide is the mayor.
At-large voting disenfranchises minorities
A report by Loud Light, a Kansas organization focused on increasing youth civic engagement in the state, found that in the southwest corner of the state, at-large voting contributed to three city commissions dominated by white men, despite large populations of Hispanic residents.
Loud Light recommended that cities in Kansas move away from at-large voting, which the group’s report noted has its roots in fear of the political influence of people of color that dates to 1906.
The Topeka State Journal reported that year on a public meeting featuring a group of lobbyists trying to bring at-large voting – as they called it, “a commission system” – to Topeka and Wichita from cities in Texas. The paper said, “The colored people of Topeka seem to fear the commission system. A number of them were there last night and protested against the system, calling it a reversion to the despotic type of government.”
Ritchey said that a lot of the talking points used to discredit district-only voting have remained the same over time. But this year, he thinks the advocates may finally be successful.
A movement to pass the initiative, Vote Local USD 259, has coalesced. Supporters include the Wichita branch of the NAACP, the African American Council of Elders, the United Teachers of Wichita union, Service Employees International Union Local 513, the Wichita League of Women Voters and more than a dozen other individuals and organizations advocating on behalf of people of color.
“The push for district voting has largely come from District 1 this year,” Ritchey said, “and I am so happy to see it. I support them, I think it will happen, and it’s about 25 years overdue.”