Several people running for Wichita school board say the board conducts too much of its business in private or without public discussion and debate.
Ben Blankley, a candidate for the District 1 seat, said the school board’s practice of meeting privately in small groups before some board meetings may follow state law but indicates a broader lack of transparency and public engagement.
“The board regularly meets in threes, which is one under the mandated quorum,” Blankley said during a forum hosted by the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce recently.
“I think that’s kind of just an end run around the open meetings laws, which I think is kind of sketchy.”
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Incumbent Betty Arnold, Blankley’s opponent in District 1, said the district is open and honest in its dealings.
“When you can go online and look at every check that is written, when you can ask questions about anything that’s been done, that’s transparent,” Arnold said.
She said an upcoming series of listening sessions hosted by Superintendent Alicia Thompson should provide a chance for members of the public to voice their concerns.
“We have to figure out … What does transparency mean to you? What would you like to see?” Arnold said. “Because it matters little if the board feels we’re being transparent and the community does not.”
Four seats on the Wichita school board are up for election Nov. 7. Although candidates hail from and represent geographic districts, the general election is an at-large vote – voters districtwide can select their candidate of choice in all four BOE districts.
Other candidates have raised transparency as an issue during this year’s race.
Trish Hileman, who is running for the District 2 seat, said some board policies and practices “limit engagement.”
She proposed doing away with small-group meetings and instead scheduling a public agenda review or staff meeting – similar to ones conducted by the Wichita City Council and Sedgwick County Commission – during which board members could ask questions or raise concerns with district staff.
Hileman said members of the public wanting to comment on issues during a board meeting should not be required to register in advance. She also proposed scaling back the board’s consent agenda – a portion of the meeting where measures that are considered routine are grouped together to be passed on a single vote without discussion.
“The consent agenda really needs to be for chicken nuggets and paper towels and toilet paper” purchases, Hileman said. “Things that are novel, new pieces of business … don’t belong on the consent agenda. We need to have them out on the table and discussed.”
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Meeting in private
Several times over the past few years, the board has been criticized for what some say is a lack of public discussion and debate.
In 2012, during a process to close schools and redraw attendance boundaries, board members met in small groups with then-superintendent John Allison to help craft a new boundary plan, angering opponents who called the process “dishonest.”
Arnold, who was board president in 2012, said the private meetings were a crucial part of gathering the information the board needed to make decisions.
“There was a lot of work that had to be done, and no, we couldn’t do that at the board table,” she said at the time.
More recently, board president Mike Rodee and former board member Jeff Davis voted against dozens of items on a consent agenda and refused to say why.
Davis, who resigned from the board last month after moving out of the district, said he didn’t “want to bring a black eye on the district” by explaining his vote. Asked if he had concerns about the public not knowing what he voted on or why, Davis said, “I’m OK with that.”
Rodee, who is running for re-election in District 5, initially refused to explain his vote but said the next day that he opposed a new bus contract with First Student.
The board came under fire last week – including from the teachers union president – for voting to spend $270,000 on an internet protection service without discussing the issue in public. When questioned further the day after the vote, Rodee explained that the upgrade was a response to attempted cyber attacks.
Earlier this year, the Wichita school board declared an eight-day private session in order to meet secretly to interview candidates for superintendent.
The district’s attorney said the legal but unusual move was necessary to protect the confidentiality of job candidates. During at least three prior superintendent searches, however, finalists’ names were released and community members were invited to question them in town-hall-style forums.
‘Actions speak louder’
Walt Chappell, a former state school board member running for Lynn Rogers’ seat in District 6, said “actions speak louder than words” when it comes to transparency.
“I’ve asked for cost-benefit: How much does it cost us to teach a kid math or science? We don’t know,” Chappell said. “This budget is … going to the state. But it doesn’t give us, as managers, a chance to make any decisions.”
Chappell’s opponents are Ron Rosales, a high school teacher in Haysville, and Shirley Jefferson, a retired human resources professional who served on the board from 2005 to 2007. Both candidates said the board should strive to be open and welcoming to the public.
“People have to be educated. A lot of them might be ignorant on what is a consent agenda? What is an LOB (local option budget)? What is mill levy?” Rosales said.
“A lot of them just don’t know, and those things become intimidating when you go in front of the school board.”
Rogers, who opted not to seek a fifth term on the board, said school board members, unlike city council members and county commissioners, are volunteers and meet in the evenings so more parents can attend. It’s reasonable for board members to meet privately with staff ahead of time so public meetings don’t last hours, he said.
“Some of my first board meetings went 10 hours,” Rogers said. “I’d say boards don’t make good decisions when the hour is late.”
The Wichita board posts meeting agendas and minutes online, Rogers said, and anyone with questions or concerns can contact board members by phone or e-mail.
“I’ve never seen a problem of constituents not being able to express themselves to me,” he said. “I’ve had people talk to me in grocery stores, schools, even during church.”