For the first time in more than 40 years, there will not be an African American on the USD 259 school board and it’s an issue that has a number of organizations in the Wichita community concerned, including the Wichita Branch NAACP. With African-American students making up nearly 20% of the district’s enrollment, the groups feel it is gravely important to have African-American representation on the chief policy making body for the district.
After the loss in the November election by incumbent District One Boardmember Betty Arnold, things looked grim. Arnold, the only African-American member on the board lost her bid for reelection by just 84 votes.
However, the NAACP found a ray of hope with the resignation of District Three Boardmember Barb Fuller. The board announced a selection process to fill the vacancy created by Fuller’s resignation and the search was on to find a qualified African-American applicant to fill her seat. Applicants had to reside within District Three, which covers predominately Southeast Wichita.
Sondra Luke, an active Democrat who has worked on numerous political campaigns, but never run for office, decided the need was great. She was one of three applicants for the position.
After interviewing the applicants on Mon. Dec. 11, the board voted 4 to 2 to appoint Ernestine Krehbeil,78, to the District Three vacancy. A former high school teacher and an active member of the League of Women Voters, Krehbeil was obviously a qualified candidate. An appointment of Lucas, who was also qualified, would have also addressed the organization’s diversity concern.
“Mrs. Krehbeil was a great applicant for the position and we would have supported her in the absence of this other major issue — board diversity,” says Larry Burks, president of the Wichita Branch NAACP. “It’s important to have diverse input and views at the table when decisions are being made that affect our children — our future.”
Burks says the NAACP wants to look further into the election process for USD 259 to see what policy or procedural changes can help avoid this lack of diversity in the future.
USD 259 candidates run for election by district, and based on the demographics of the city, the District One seat has typically been occupied by an African American.
Like City of Wichita elections, candidates for USD 259 compete in the primary on a district level, with only residents of the district voting on which candidates advance to the general election. Unlike City of Wichita elections, where only residents of the district vote for the candidates in both the primary and general elections, in USD 259 elections, residents from across the City vote in all district races.
Districts were made a part of the local election process in the 70s to address concerns about the lack of diversity on both the school board and city council. It was difficult, if not impossible for African-American candidates to compete and win with city-wide voting in place.
Arnold’s loss exposed an “issue” with USD 259s election process, said Burks.
“District one voters overwhelming selected Betty as their representative,” Burks said. “She lost because of votes from outside the district. The process resulted in District One voters not getting the candidates they wanted to support them. The result is a absence of African-American representation on the board.”
At this point, Burks said the Wichita Branch NAACP has not made a decision to oppose the board’s election process, but it is something they will seriously take a look at during the upcoming year.
“We need to take a further look at this policy, the implications and what it will take to change it.,” Burks said.
Arnold was the only board member who voted for Lucas to fill the open position. Krehbiel received four votes. Another applicant, Rhonda Cox, also received one vote.