All of the school board members and the superintendent seated at their meeting space.
Three of the seven school board members will be up for reelection next year. (Courtesy image/Wichita Public Schools)

Wichitans living within the borders of the Wichita Public Schools district known as USD 259 on Tuesday voted 2-1 in favor of a historic change to school board elections.

The Wichita school board has six district representatives and one at-large member. Currently, residents of each district vote on their district representative in the primary but all voters citywide vote on that representative in the general election. On Tuesday, Wichita voters favored changing this, so in next year’s school board elections, only district residents will vote on district representatives. An at-large member would still be elected by voters across the city.

The current method started in 1994 when Wichita Public Schools took an incremental step toward district representation. Before then, the entire board was made up of representatives elected entirely at-large.

“It obviously had a cross appeal to people of all political persuasions,” said Stan Reeser, Wichita school board president and District 4 representative, “To me, this was run the way elections should be. We presented the facts and people were able to come to the objective answer.” 

Why was this on the ballot?

The recent push for change started this summer when discussions of Black representation on the board came up during a redistricting process required by population changes recorded in the 2020 census. This reignited frustration with the lack of minority representation on the school board to accurately reflect the schools’ population. The approved redistricting map moved nearly 1,000 Black residents out of Wichita’s historically Black District 1 and moved 3,000 white residents in.

“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, during a listening session hosted by USD 259 District 1 representative Diane Albert. 

About 9,200 Black children are enrolled in Wichita Public Schools, about 19.5 percent of the district’s total 47,000 enrollment. The USD 259 Board of Education  — composed of 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.

Many felt the current structure of school board elections in USD 259 made it more difficult for minority representation to be elected. 

This wasn’t new. In 1994 when the current method of school board elections passed, many community activists warned that it wasn’t enough and that minority voters would still be disenfranchised.

LaWanda DeShazer, a Wichita NAACP board member, has been pushing for the change. In a message after the election she said, “I am very happy. Representation is the basic foundation of our democracy.” 

School board elections changed. What’s next? 

The next school board election happens in 2023. The at-large member Sheril Logan, District 3’s Ernestine Krehbiel and Reeser are all up for reelection that year. That means that south-central Wichita will be able to choose their representatives next year without a citywide vote. Logan’s campaign will remain citywide.

“Today is the day where campaigning starts,” Reeser said in an interview the day after the election. 

However, the election process for the school board may not be done changing. In the same interview, Reeser stated that the school board may vote to change how primaries happen in USD 259. 

Currently there must be more than three candidates running for a district’s seat to trigger a primary in the nonpartisan elections. Reeser and other school board members want to bring that number down to two. This would mean only three candidates would be needed for a primary to happen in a USD 259 district. 

This change will not need a ballot measure. Reeser stated that members of the board have already been talking with the district’s lawyer and according to the lawyer, only a vote on the school board is necessary to prompt this change. 

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