Some Wichita parents are upset with what they say is a lack of discussion and debate over a boundary proposal presented to school board members publicly for the first time Monday.
Board president Betty Arnold, meanwhile, said board members have been meeting with Superintendent John Allison individually and in small groups to help craft the plan, which includes the closing of four elementary schools.
Now, time constraints and a need to open new schools, move programs and shift to new boundaries by fall limit the changes board members can make to the proposal, Arnold said.
“There was a lot of work that had to be done, and no, we couldn’t do that at the board table” in public meetings, she said Tuesday.
“Is this something we can do in the public at all times? There’s lots of background things you do that people aren’t aware of.
“The bottom line for the public is: Do you trust the people that you’ve elected to vet this for you? Because it’s certainly been vetted.”
Some parents and others said it seemed clear to them Monday that the board didn’t plan to discuss certain aspects of the boundary plan, particularly school closings, in the public arena.
“A lot of people feel very, very let down that this process has been dishonest,” said Annie Baldwin, a mother of two who opposes the closing of Bryant Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary.
“I don’t understand why it has to be rolled through this way.”
Arnold, reading from a prepared statement Monday night, challenged those who said the district is rushing its decision to close schools and change boundaries.
“At each major juncture, we discussed and gained consensus from the board, which ultimately provided direction to the superintendent,” she said.
Over the past several months, Arnold said, board members were apprised of changes to boundary plan “supposals” and were able to ask questions and provide input during board meetings, individually or in “three-by-threes” with the superintendent and other district officials.
It is unclear how many of the seven board members participated in the individual or three-by-three meetings. Allison did not return a call seeking comment.
The small-group meetings – scheduled occasionally, Arnold said – do not violate open meetings law because they included only three board members.
The Kansas Open Meetings Act defines a meeting as a gathering that includes a majority of the governing body. For the Wichita school board, that would mean four of its seven members.
The law does, however, prevent a governing body from using serial communication – meetings, phone calls or e-mails “intended by any or all of the participants to reach agreement on a matter that would require binding action to be taken by the body.”
Mike Kautsch, a University of Kansas media law professor, said he could not speak to the specifics of the school board’s recent actions. But there is "a high risk in not being transparent" even when elected officials follow the letter of the law, he said.
"The purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to make sure the public has an opportunity to observe discussion and decision-making," Kautsch said. "If members … arrange to meet in a way that the public cannot observe, there’s at least a danger that the public will perceive secrecy was present. And as a consequence, the public will not understand the basis of the binding vote and won’t have confidence in it."
The board discussed some aspects of the boundary plan Monday, including a proposal to reserve spaces at the new Northeast Magnet High School for residents of Bel Aire. Members did not address school closings or offer details about why certain schools were selected for closure.
Following discussion, board members voted to schedule a public hearing about school closings on March 5. They are expected to vote on new boundaries, which are contingent upon certain closures, a week before that, on Feb. 27.
The superintendent’s boundary proposal would close four elementary schools – Bryant, Emerson, Lincoln and Mueller. It also would close Northeast Magnet High School and move its program to a new school in Bel Aire. The plan would affect school assignments for about 5,000 students, Allison said.
Arnold’s lengthy statement Monday came after public comment on the boundary agenda item. She said the process leading to school closings began nearly three years ago, when the board began dealing with cuts to state per-pupil funding.
More recently, she said, board members were invited to attend advisory group meetings and public hearings to collect feedback on a fourth-draft boundary proposal. Allison provided brief updates on draft proposals at board meetings, but he and board members said detailed discussions would not occur until a final plan was presented.
At a special meeting last week, board member Lanora Nolan asked Allison to “look at the viability” of closing Black Elementary instead of Bryant. Nolan said she recently had received additional information from parents and others who were concerned about traffic, moving a special education program and other issues.
Arnold asked for the request to be tabled until the board’s regular meeting, “which is the only venue where a vote can take place.”
On Monday, she said Nolan’s request would require additional work by the district’s consultants and “would be without the benefit of vetting by the focus group.”
“With that being said, unless a motion is made and carried, we will proceed with the current proposal that the superintendent has prepared,” Arnold said.
Nolan did not make a motion. She did not return a call for comment Tuesday.
‘Presumption of openness’
Arnold and other board members said Tuesday that private conversations and small-group meetings with the superintendent are a crucial part of gathering the information they need to make decisions.
“The superintendent or staff inform us as to what’s going on, give us a lot of background information,” said board member Lynn Rogers. “There’s never a request for any votes or support or anything.”
Board member Barb Fuller said “anything can happen, right up to the board’s final decision.”
She said the timeline for boundary changes and school closings “has been a little compact,” but that board members and the public have had plenty of opportunity to weigh in on discussions.
“In hindsight, we might have done some things differently, but this was a huge undertaking and I think we did the very best we could do under the circumstances,” Fuller said.
Kautsch, the KU media law professor, agreed that public officials need chances to "exchange thoughts and formulate their thinking" out of the public arena. But the basis of Kansas open meetings law is the "presumption of openness."
"If officials meet in private and make up their minds about how they’ll vote and what the basis of their vote will be, then any discussion that actually occurs in public, if it occurs, is perfunctory and meaningless," he said. "That is totally against the spirit of the law."
The board’s vote Feb. 27 is expected to set several aspects of the new boundary plan in motion. The district’s Choices Fair on March 1, an event where families learn about magnet schools and other education options, will feature information based on the new plan, Allison said.
But a public hearing – and the board’s final vote – on school closings is scheduled for March 5.
Baldwin, the Bryant mom, said that doesn’t make sense.
“We still plan on speaking even after the vote, to let them know that we don’t accept what they’re doing,” she said. “It’s hard not to feel let down and frustrated.”
Arnold, the board president, said she’s comfortable with the timeline because parents and others have had chances to offer input at public forums and during board meetings.
“In terms of procedures, we really have tried to follow the guidelines that have been established,” Arnold said.
“If it’s dictated (by state law) that we need a public (hearing), then the public should certainly be aware in that public meeting where the board is. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense to have a public meeting and they still think that things are up in the air.”