All the USD 259 school board candidates on the ballot for the 2023 general election. Ken Carpenter, Ngoc Vuong, Jason Carmichael, Stan Reeser, Ben Davis, Melody McCray-Miller.
These are all the USD 259 school board candidates on the ballot for the 2023 general election. Top row, from left: Ken Carpenter, Ngoc Vuong, Jason Carmichael. Second row, from left: Stan Reeser, Ben Davis, Melody McCray-Miller. (Courtesy images)

Mail-in and in-person voting begin this month. To help voters make their decisions, The Wichita Beacon asked all USD 259 school board candidates to respond to questions submitted by readers. Questions focused on the teacher shortage, classroom content and student and teacher safety. 

The three school board seats up for election are for the 3rd District, 4th District and the at-large seat. Only those who live in the 3rd or 4th district will vote on those two races. All registered voters in the school district can cast ballots on the at-large seat. 

One candidate opted not to answer the questionnaire — at-large candidate Ben Davis. 

The candidates’ answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Important upcoming elections dates:

Oct. 17 – Last day to register to vote in the general election
Oct. 18 – Advance voting by mail begins Oct. 23. Early in-person voting begins in the Sedgwick County Election Office.
Nov. 2-4 – Early in-person voting in satellite locations.
Nov. 6 – Last day to vote early in the election office.
Nov. 7 – General Election – voters go to assigned polling locations.

How do you intend to address teacher shortages?

Ken Carpenter, District 3

This issue has been addressed with regards to next year’s incoming teachers. The starting wage has been increased, support staffing has been beefed up, and the benefit package will continue to be superior.  

I will do my level best to assist fellow members of the school board and support staff. We should be listening to any grievances expressed by outgoing teachers. If the information seems credible we need to see if we can use it to incorporate positive change for new hires. Our objective should be to not only resolve problems, but exceed expectations. 

We may also need to review policies. If good teachers are getting plagued with students who have bad behaviors and that’s what’s driving them away, then we need to make sure our policies are correctly designed, understood and followed by all staff. Even perfectly designed policies can be counterproductive if they are not carried out as intended.

Ngoc Vuong, District 3

We need living wages and competitive pay/benefits. We need more sustainable, manageable workloads (including smaller class sizes, adequate planning time and reduced take-home work). Our school employees must be treated with respect and valued as professionals (instead of being villainized and exploited). They must have meaningful, relevant professional development opportunities and the time to actually implement what they’ve learned. We must reduce the red tape and bureaucracy that undermines their ability to fulfill their main duties. 

We need to ensure that our school board, district leadership and building leadership are actively responsive to and supportive/empowering of all school employees. Advocacy priorities I have at a state level for this question include paying student teachers; making it easier for retired educators to be substitute teachers; making it easier for paraprofessionals to be teachers (while also recognizing the importance of recruitment/retention of high-quality school employees); sales tax holidays for back-to-school shopping and classroom supply tax credits; fully funding public education (including special education); and affordable housing programs/incentives for school employees.

Jason Carmichael, District 4

Getting qualified teachers is not the problem. Keeping the good ones and rewarding them is the challenge I see. The district must focus on high expectations and competition. I know our future leaders are capable of great accomplishments. It is our responsibility to ensure they are encouraged to perform at the very best they can and more by highly motivated, rewarded and appreciated educators.

Stan Reeser, District 4

Studies (and our educators have told us) that there are three things needed to address teacher retention:

1: Better pay. Starting in 2024 we have made it a goal to have a starting salary for a new teacher start at $50,000. We have also rewarded the longevity of our teachers in order to keep our experienced teachers.

2. Better respect from the community. I have used my position to advocate for our teachers by informing the public on the challenges our teachers face through my social media accounts, community meetings and from the BOE bench during our meetings.

3. Mental health services. Our teachers have requested mental health services that are affordable and readily available. We have one of the strongest employees assistance programs in Sedgwick County, but I want to see if anything needs to be expanded or improved.

Just for the public information: the real shortages are in the areas of special education teachers and paras.

Melody McCray-Miller, at-large

We should continue to increase teacher salaries to reflect regional markets. Our district should become laser-focused and recruit more teachers who reflect our very diverse student population. Seventy-six percent of our students are of color, and 80% of our students qualify for free and reduced lunches demonstrating economic needs. We must recruit more experienced teachers and consider growing the Teacher Apprenticeship Program, making it accessible to more than the current paraeducators. Each of these recommendations has been shown to improve retention as well as a students’ academic and disciplinary behavior.

Should school board members decide classroom and library content? Is there content you feel should be either included in or omitted from classrooms and school libraries?

Ken Carpenter, District 3

The schools have a responsibility to make sure all materials are appropriate for the age level of students who will have access to them.

Ngoc Vuong, District 3

We can all agree on the importance of age- and developmentally-appropriate materials in the classrooms, school libraries and beyond. However, book bans, restrictions of school curriculum and overall government intrusions into/micromanagement of classrooms and schools imperil freedom of expression, diversity of thought and intellectual curiosity. And it reinforces groupthink and herd mentality. We want students to develop critical thinking skills — instead of rote memorization/regurgitation of information — and cultivate a more comprehensive, nuanced perspective of this complex, diverse world we live in. And we want our students to recognize their individuality and grow their empathy. Censorship stands in the way of all of that. 

I support content that improves our students’ (1) academic skills and readiness for college/career and (2) their civic engagement, sense of community and respect for others. On the second part of the question, our school district should educate students on the history of Wichita, including in the context of racism and pursuit of civil rights, e.g. redlining and segregation,1958 Dockum Drug Store sit-in, 1965 plane crash near Piatt and 20th Street, TCE contamination in northeast Wichita and Wichita’s refugee/immigrant identity.

Jason Carmichael, District 4

This is literally what the job of the school board is — to approve the curriculum. The state has laws of mandated classes. The State Board of Education gives guidelines as to what curriculum should be used. Ultimately, every district has the duty and obligation to approve the curriculum to the local school district.

Stan Reeser, District 4

The BOE members should be aware of all challenges to whether or not a particular literature is appropriate for our students based on their age level, but it should not be involved directly in book-banning. We have a Professional Standards Board that looks into all curriculum and literature to make sure our children have access to the proper books to help them gain a love for reading.

Melody McCray-Miller, at-large

Currently, parents as well as other members of our community, acting as members of a committee to initially review textbooks, are closely involved in the selection of books that will be accessible and utilized in curriculum. And if there is an agreement, the textbooks are then piloted and evaluated before being implemented into the curriculum. Similarly, USD 259 has a process in place, where parents and other members of the community review any book(s) that come forward as a book being challenged, and after a thorough review, the committee decides to remove the book or allow it to remain in circulation.

Behavior and attendance have been a top concern in recent school years. What role should the school board play?

Ken Carpenter, District 3

The school board should work with the superintendent to bring about positive change through effective policy and policy implementation. Schools need to be a safe place for everyone. Our responsibility is to prepare students for the future. If they’re not showing up for class, they’re not going to hear the lecture and they’re not going to be prepared for the exam. Rewards for excellence in attendance might be as simple as offering a free Big Mac sandwich from McDonald’s if they have perfect attendance. If they want to play in sports they should meet minimum expectations or forgo the pleasure of participating in the sport.

Ngoc Vuong, District 3

We cannot enable student misconduct, discipline issues and disengagement from learning. It is vital USD 259 effectively implement innovative, evidence-based programs, policies and practices to address problematic student behaviors and chronic absenteeism, and conducts robust, transparent audits and evaluations of these strategies. Our students’ lives do not exist in a vacuum, and to the extent we do not consider that, it is a dereliction of duty. The other dereliction of duty is to engage in dog whistles, soundbites and extremist rhetoric, pushing for strategies that are harmful and do not work, i.e. exclusionary discipline, zero-tolerance policies and corporal punishment. 

We need to have alternative settings and educational programs for students who engage in severely problematic behaviors with particular focus on rehabilitation and reward of prosocial behaviors over punishment for the sake of punishment. We must create a positive school climate and culture and have high standards/expectations — and enforcement of those standards/expectations — for all students. Each and every one of our students should have role models in their lives that they look up to and aspire to be. It will take a village to make this happen.

Jason Carmichael, District 4

As attendance gets worse, higher absenteeism and higher dropout rates, grades and graduation rates suffer. I believe it is crucial to have systems in place to entice and motivate students so they are motivated and engaged. We should offer more programs with mentorship opportunities. Encourage more community engagement. All magnet schools have higher attendance, less absenteeism and more engagement. I want to see every district in USD 259 have a magnet high school. Twenty of the 24 magnet schools in the district are north of Kellogg. District 3 and District 4 need magnet schools, too.

Stan Reeser, District 4

Student behavior and attendance issues should be looked at in a holistic manner. We must also understand that these issues affect graduation rates. The main role of a BOE member is to get to the real reason for the behavior and to understand the small problems becoming roadblocks to graduation. Then our responsibility is to explain where real efforts are needed. Currently, we understand that elementary school tardiness and chronic absenteeism is an indicator of future behavior problems. We also know that changing to a system of “getting the student to accept responsibility for their behavior” (restorative practice) is key to improving student behavior.

Melody McCray-Miller, at-large

Our district is doing its job to aggressively implement a comprehensive plan to keep students and staff safe in all buildings. However, there has been a noticeable increase in aggressive and-or violent behaviors being demonstrated, and this is unacceptable. Thankfully, there have been no threats with weapons, or injuries during the fights. I believe parent and community engagement in our schools can have a positive impact. When we implement these evidence-based interventions, this will help with student behavior.

What actions can the school board take to protect students of color and LGBTQ+ students from bullying and harassment in our schools?

Ken Carpenter, District 3

The school board needs to make sure all schools are following the policies that are already on the books, which address these issues.

Ngoc Vuong, District 3

Our students, employees and families, particularly those from marginalized and minoritized communities, need to see themselves in our school board. We need school board members who genuinely relate with the values and diverse lived experiences of the people we serve. I want them to feel safe, empowered and driven to learn, to have the resources and opportunities they need to reach their fullest potential. I will prioritize our students over culture wars and manufactured, astroturfed controversies. To our unhoused students, our students in poverty, our students in foster care, our students with disabilities, our students with adverse childhood experiences, our students of color, our LGBTQ+ students, our refugee/immigrant students —  to all of our students — I stand in solidarity with you. I put myself on the line to protect you.

Jason Carmichael, District 4

The policy of the district is already in place. Enforcement is the issue. Have a much clearer message that discrimination shall not be tolerated.

Stan Reeser, District 4

First, we must stay committed to our nondiscrimination policy that now includes (updated and expanded in 2018) sexual orientation and gender identity. Some want to reverse this important milestone. I want to stay committed to treating all students equally and fairly.

Melody McCray-Miller, at-large

Every Kansas school district has a legal duty to protect students from bullying and harassment.

Under federal and state law, as well as individual school district policies, every student has the right to be safe and supported at school. Wichita Public Schools empower all students with 21st century skills and knowledge necessary for success by providing a coherent, rigorous, safe and nurturing, culturally responsive and inclusive learning community. I will support and vigorously defend the rights of all students. This directly speaks to and includes students of color and LGBTQ+ students.

What’s an issue that is a priority for you that others aren’t talking about?

Ken Carpenter, District 3

As an advocate for parents, I want to make sure parents always have the option of “opting in” rather than “opting out” of school activities that are outside of the normal core curriculum. Parents may or may not want their children in a class. There are too many chances to drop the ball with the opt-out option. We don’t want to unwittingly go against the good will of the parents.

Ngoc Vuong, District 3

We need to be cautious of the technologization and gamification of education. I also recognize that many students and school employees are experiencing sleep deprivation — much of this attributed to unhealthy school start times and blue light. If we want to address issues with students’ academic achievement, lack of school discipline and workforce shortages, we need to ensure our students and school employees are getting a good night’s sleep. We should also question why USD 259 does not have driver’s ed, more paid internships and apprenticeships for students, universal free school meals; community schools; and screening, brief intervention, and referral for treatment for mental health and substance use issues. Other issues I am focusing on are learning loss; test scores; traffic congestion/safety of schools; lack of input from students, teachers, classified staff, and parents on the academic calendar; the need to have a student representative sitting on the Wichita school board; the school-to-prison pipeline; and the need for more service-learning and applied learning opportunities.

Jason Carmichael, District 4

“Just say no” isn’t working with everyone. My nearest high school had 77 police reports in the last year on illegal drugs. How many times has this illegal and deadly activity happened that has NOT been caught and reported to law enforcement?

Stan Reeser, District 4

With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and deliberate misinformation we must make a concerted effort in teaching our students critical thinking skills. This next generation will face an information system that will be created to confuse and manipulate them in a purposeful manner. Critical thinking skills will need to be developed. This effort is ongoing now but we need to make this effort more concentrated and we need to move quicker because AI is expanding very quickly.

Melody McCray-Miller, at-large

I support looking at expanding Spanish heritage learner and dual language curricula across the district. I believe the Spanish heritage learner program will help students to gain knowledge in both languages. This program is specifically designed for students who have a familial or community connection to Spanish and can benefit educationally and civically! Also, I believe it will be to the district’s benefit to gather appropriate stakeholders and have a real conversation about where and how we might create an AI technology policy that meets the needs of our district.

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