The community won the battle and the Wichita School Board agreed to let voters decide how members of the board should be elected. The question will be on the ballot on the Nov. 8 general election ballot. Now, it’s important to understand the issue.
Current Election Process
There are seven members who are elected to serve on the Wichita School Board, one from each of six identified districts and one who is elected at large – or by voters across the entire city. Candidates for district seats must live within the boundaries of the district they’re running to represent.
Unlike many elections, races for seats on the Wichita School Board are non-partisan, which means candidates don’t run by or identify their political affiliation.
So school board primaries are different from typical primaries that are held between party candidates – Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, etc – with the party candidate with the most votes advancing as their candidate in the November general election. Instead, primaries are only held to reduce the number of candidates if four or more candidates file for the same seat.
Since 1994, in the primaries, only voters who live in the district voted for candidates running in their district. However, in the general election, instead of just voters from the district voting on who represents them, voters from across the city have a vote on the candidates from all six district races as well as the at-large race.
Members of Wichita’s African-American community have been the most vocal group behind this issue and have been asking for a change for more than a decade. They want both primary and general election voting to be totally by district – with only people from the district voting for who represents them instead of bringing voters across the city into district elections during the general election.
Members of the Black community complain the at-large vote in the general election results in the dilution of their minority vote. Across the nation, there’s been a movement toward district voting in local elections as a way to increase minority representation on city boards, councils and commissions.
As an example, the City of Wichita implemented district voting for its city council races in the 1980s; prior to that, only one Black member had ever been elected to the city council. Since the change to district elections with district voting, the City of Wichita has always had at least one Black member on the council.
However, since the Wichita school board’s bifurcated elections process was put into effect, the board has not had an African American on the board since 2017. That year, African-American candidate Betty Arnold won the vote of those in her district in the general election by more than 1,000 votes. Despite her district’s overwhelming support for her as their representative, Arnold ended up losing the race by a narrow margin, based on votes cast by individuals outside her district.
Challenges of Citywide Elections
With city council elections, county commission elections, state legislative elections – both house and senate – and even congressional elections held based on districts, members of the Black community say it’s hard to find a model that doesn’t support voting for school board members on a district basis.
In addition, unlike other elected officials, school board members serve without pay and the cost of running a citywide election for a position that doesn’t pay is often cited as a reason more people don’t run for seats on the school board.
“We don’t want to have school board members only people who can afford to run a citywide campaign or people that are going to get money to run a citywide campaign,” said school board member Ernestine Kreihbiel. “It takes money to get known, to make yourself available for all these meetings.”
It’s money a lot of candidates – both minority and nonminority – don’t have and it’s keeping qualified candidates from running for office. Because of the small amount of money, a lot of candidates have, it’s hard for people to get to know candidates outside their district.
“You hear people saying, ‘I don’t know these people, but I know the people in my community,’” continued Krehbiel.
The end result is people just guess or push buttons and make uninformed decisions, says Krehbiel.
Representation for the Black Community
In a recent meeting with members of the African-American community, board member Diane Albert, who represents District 1 – the district traditionally represented by an African American – made a case that it was important for her to represent the schools within the boundaries of the district.
Since Black students go to schools – due to busing – in a lot of other districts, Albert says, Black voters should want to have a say on who is elected to serve in other districts.
That idea didn’t fit the concept of “representation” individuals at the meeting were looking for.
“We want a representative that represents not just the schools in our districts, we want a representative that represents our children wherever they are in the district,” said Maaskelah Kimit Thomas. “It needs to be someone who understands the needs of our children. We want them to work on these schools wherever they are because our kids are in all of those schools all over this city.”
Jason Brownski, who lives in Wichita but outside the district and whose children attend Derby schools, says he attended the meeting as a taxpayer.
“When the school board makes a decision, it’s just not per district. It’s for [USD] 259 as a whole,” said Brownski in support of citywide voting in the general election.
A meeting attendee named Becky, who also wasn’t from District 1, says running citywide reduces the time candidates have to become familiar with the needs of their district.
“If you [Albert] were representing this district when you were campaigning rather than worrying about a citywide vote, you would already know the needs and the concerns of this district, and that is why it is important to have district-by-district voting,” she said.
Discuss This With Others
Not sure how you feel about this issue? Discuss this with others in and out of your circle. This is an important decision with the future of our children and grandchildren at heart and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Get informed and by all means vote.
Anyone who wants to vote in the general election must register to vote by Oct. 18.
Early voting opens on Oct. 19 and the general election is on Nov. 8.