Two Wichita school board members voted against dozens of items on the board’s agenda Monday but refused to say why, after making what they said was a private agreement with a district employee to not discuss the matter in public.
Jeff Davis and Mike Rodee voted “no” to 32 items on the board’s consent agenda, including a $23.5 million transportation contract, efforts to recruit minority teachers and additional pay for new superintendent Alicia Thompson.
Asked to explain their votes Monday evening, neither would give details or say which specific item they opposed.
“I don’t want to bring a black eye on the district, so I’m not going to say what I voted against or why,” said Davis, a retired police sergeant who has served on the board for a decade.
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“There was an item on the agenda that I didn’t care for. I’m not going to tell you what it was.”
Rodee, who represents District 5 in west Wichita, also declined on Monday to explain his vote. On Tuesday afternoon, after The Eagle published a story online about the vote, Rodee said he wanted to clarify why he voted against the consent items.
He said he opposed a renegotiation of the district’s bus contract with First Student, which includes a 2 percent increase. A copy of the contract and details about a new addendum were not available from district officials late Tuesday.
“I deal with contracts every day,” said Rodee, who owns South Central Sealing & Paving. “I don’t get to renegotiate my contract. Why should somebody else?”
Davis still would not say Tuesday which agenda item he opposed. He said he did not have an issue with the public not knowing what he voted on or why.
“I’m OK with that,” he said.
On Monday, 34 items were listed on the school board’s consent agenda, a portion of the meeting where measures that are considered routine and noncontroversial are grouped together to be passed on a single vote without discussion.
Board members may pull items off the consent agenda for further discussion, to ask questions or to log a specific vote, but neither Davis nor Rodee opted to do that.
Board member Joy Eakins removed two items from the consent agenda, including a $420,000 expenditure for new district administrative offices, which she voted against. Davis and Rodee voted in favor of those items.
The remainder of the board’s consent agenda was approved 5-2, with Davis and Rodee voting against the entire slate of items.
Davis said he told district staff members prior to Monday’s meeting that he planned to remove an item from the consent agenda and vote against it.
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“I received a phone call asking me not to, so I didn’t,” Davis said after the meeting. He would not name the district employee who made the request.
“I’m not going to say who the staff member was. I’m not going to say what the item was,” Davis said.
“I was asked not to, and I’m a man of my word,” he said. “I told them that I would vote against the whole consent (agenda) just to save face for the district.”
Rodee said he also told a district employee that he would not take action to discuss the transportation contract publicly at the board table. He would not name the employee.
“I wanted to make a point, I did, and I feel like it’s time to move on,” Rodee said Tuesday. “I could have brought it up at the board table and whined about it and said all sorts of things, but we still need to get kids to school. It’s something we’ve got to do.”
In recent years, the Wichita school board has been criticized for what some say is a lack of public discussion and debate.
During a process to close schools and redraw attendance boundaries in 2012, board members met individually and in small groups with superintendent John Allison to help craft the plan, angering opponents who called the process “dishonest.”
Earlier this year, The Eagle asked officials to investigate whether the school board violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act when it met in secret to interview candidates for superintendent.
The Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office ruled in April that board members did not knowingly violate transparency laws but violated a statutory requirement by failing to justify their reason for an eight-day private session.
On Monday, Davis and Eakins referred to private “three-by-three” meetings that take place before some board meetings. During those sessions, up to three board members meet with the superintendent or other staff members to ask questions or raise concerns about items on the upcoming agenda.
Davis said he raised concerns about an issue during a three-by-three meeting last week. He received a phone call from an unnamed staff member after that meeting, he said.
Board members have said the small-group meetings do not violate open meetings law because they include 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.”
Rodee said Tuesday that private, small-group meetings save time because they give board members a chance to ask questions about complex issues prior to regular board meetings.
“This gives us an opportunity to be in a relaxed position and discuss what we need to discuss pertinent to the agenda,” he said. “We don’t make decisions behind closed doors. … We follow the rules.
“I don’t want anybody thinking we’re not.”