The board that oversees Wichita schools could undergo its most significant transformation in decades, with a majority of seats up for election Nov. 7.
Several challengers say change is needed, pointing to what they say is a lack of transparency and public engagement at the board table and a need to recruit and retain qualified teachers.
Two incumbents running for re-election, meanwhile, say the district is making headway on several fronts, including raising the graduation rate and addressing discipline problems in classrooms.
“Five new board members, possibly, and that’s frightening,” said Betty Arnold.
“There really is a learning curve for school board members,” she said. “There are so many policies that you have to understand as well as laws you have to understand and obey. … To make that transition, you really need someone experienced.”
Several challengers, though, said new faces and fresh perspectives on the board could be a good thing.
“We have great people in this district – great kids, great teachers – and lots of good ideas,” said Trish Hileman, a candidate for the District 2 seat. “One person doesn’t have all the answers to fix things … so it’s helpful to get all sorts of viewpoints.”
Voters districtwide have the opportunity to vote for their candidate of choice from all four Board of Education districts, not just the district in which they live.
Board members set policy and oversee a budget of $682 million for a district with about 50,000 students – the state’s largest. Members serve four-year terms and earn no pay for twice-monthly meetings and other work.
Arnold, 68, a retired state auditor, joined the board a decade ago, filling an unexpired term, and ran unopposed for re-election in 2009 and 2013. She is seeking her third full term.
Her opponent, Ben Blankley, 34, is an engineer at Spirit AeroSystems and the father of a 2-year-old. He said he’s running because he cares about public schools and thinks the school board could use a younger parent’s perspective.
Blankley says the board should be more open and welcoming to different viewpoints. He opposes the board’s practice of private, small-group meetings to review agenda items and favors eliminating requirements that members of the public register ahead of time to speak during board meetings.
“Yeah, it’s tough, but that’s why you’re elected to public office is to listen to everybody,” he said. “You don’t have to act on what everybody says, but you at least have to listen to them.”
Blankley said he also favors expanding the district’s pre-kindergarten program, which currently is available only to at-risk students. He would support a sliding-scale fee system that would allow any family in the district to pay for public preschool.
Arnold said she would continue to advocate for families in District 1, which covers parts of east and northeast Wichita. The district includes the “assigned attendance area,” a collection of predominantly African-American neighborhoods that once were subject to busing for integration.
She said Wichita has made progress toward updating schools and closing the achievement gap, but the graduation rate for African-American students – particularly males – still lags behind the district average.
“Being familiar with the district, being familiar with the needs of the district, working with the parents to help them advocate for their students – those are the strengths that I feel are critical,” Arnold said.
Three people – Julie Hedrick, Trish Hileman and Debra Washington – are vying for the board seat being vacated by Joy Eakins, who announced earlier this year that she would not seek a second term in the district in east Wichita.
Hedrick, 61, worked in the Wichita district for nearly 28 years and was division director of facilities when she retired in 2015. She said her knowledge of the school district – including shepherding projects for two multi-million-dollar bond issues – would be her greatest strength as a board member.
“I have relationships with a lot of people – administrators, teachers, staff, board members,” Hedrick said. “I think I would be a person that would just be able to enter in and … start functioning in a positive manner from Day One.”
Hedrick started her campaign with considerably more money than any of the other candidates. Through July 20, she had raised $6,275 – more than five times as much as her nearest competitor, according to financial disclosure forms filed with the Sedgwick County election office.
Hedrick’s donors include local architects, contractors and construction firms, as well as school board member Lynn Rogers and former assistant superintendent Denise Wren.
Hedrick said the current school board “is doing an excellent job.” She said the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling on school finance could mean more funding for Wichita schools, and that much of the money should be directed toward teacher pay and benefits.
“I think we ought to hire the very best teachers there are, so therefore I think we ought to offer the very best compensation package,” she said.
Hileman, 42, a mother of five who has led parent-teacher organizations at several Wichita schools, says the school board needs more open dialogue and engagement with the public.
She garnered an endorsement from Eakins, District 2’s current board member, who recently spoke out against what she says is a culture of bullying and closed-door dealings on the board.
Hileman has proposed doing away with small-group meetings and instead scheduling a public agenda review. She also favors scaling back the board’s consent agenda and allowing more discussion at the board table.
She said a series of listening sessions led by Thompson, the superintendent, are a positive way to solicit input and ideas. Similarly, the board should be more open and accessible, she said.
“This community wants to give. This community wants to make education a great thing in Wichita,” Hileman said. “We just need to figure out how to funnel that into our system and disperse it equitably and well.”
Washington, 57, a real estate agent, has been involved with the school district for 30 years as a parent and grandparent. While volunteering as a youth minister, she met many teens and young adults “who lack life skills – practical skills to make the right decisions,” she said.
“We have to look at all the priorities … and not see education as just a structure of reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s more than that today,” she said. “The education system has not changed since the 1800s. It’s antiquated.”
Washington said her Christian faith guides her and would be part of her decision-making on the board.
“I serve somebody – a lot of people don’t serve him, and that’s OK with me – and it’s called God,” she said. “When you’re making a decision, looking at what’s right, you’re always going to come out with the right decision.”
In District 5, which covers western parts of the city, board president Mike Rodee faces a challenger who has run unsuccessfully several times but says he’s running again because the district needs new leadership.
Peter Grant, 60, a table games dealer at Kansas Star Casino, said he doesn’t think the district spends money wisely, pointing to recent sales of several vacant school buildings, which he says were undervalued.
“When they build a high school and they buy the land at top dollar and sell the land for a lot less, something’s wrong there,” Grant said.
He said teachers should be paid more, and assessments used to evaluate students’ and schools’ progress should be easier for the general public to understand.
“I hear these people giving facts and figures and … (members of the public) don’t understand it,” he said. “They want to know what’s being done for their kids’ education. They don’t care percentages. …They want to know the teachers are paid well.”
Rodee, 61, said challenges with state funding have affected the district in recent years but that board members have managed to keep most cuts away from classrooms.
He said his biggest regret was closing Metro-Meridian Alternative High School. He said he also thinks changing the academic calendar – trimming 15 days and making school days longer – was the best option at the time, but the district should go back to its original calendar.
“I don’t want it to sound like everything comes back to budget, it just feels like it does,” he said.
“Mostly I think we’re doing a really good job. I’m really happy with what we’re doing. …There’s great things going on. It’s just hard to get that information out.”
Rodee, who owns a paving company, said new career and technical education programs at Wichita high schools show the district responds to demands from families and employers.
He doesn’t plan to push for any particular program or initiative, he said, because Thompson needs time to establish herself as superintendent.
“I think we need to give her a little time to breathe and grow,” Rodee said. “To say right now (that) we need to go change, wholesale, everything – I don’t believe in that.”
Three people are running for the District 6 seat being vacated by Lynn Rogers, who opted not to seek a fifth term on the board.
Walt Chappell, 75, a former teacher and state school board member, says he would lobby for changes to address low test scores and increased discipline problems in Wichita schools.
“Wichita has lost so many excellent teachers who are fed up with the chaos and disrespect that they have to deal with every day,” he said.
As a state board member, Chappell opposed Kansas’ transition to Common Core Standards, an initiative designed to align states’ standards and measures of progress.
He said the district receives enough funding but isn’t using it appropriately and should direct more money toward classrooms. He opposes spending any additional money on litigation against the state over education funding.
Chappell said schools also should beef up career and technical education programs and teach skills that would transfer to the workplace.
Students should graduate with the ability to “be good employees and be able to fill the jobs that you have,” Chappell said. “If we put our minds to it, we can start turning this ship around. It’s not just ‘college-bound.’”
Shirley Jefferson, 74, a retired human resources professional, worked as a substitute teacher in Wichita schools and says her experience and perspective qualify her for the board. She was appointed to fill an unexpired term on the Wichita school board from 2005 to 2007.
“Public education is facing just so many challenges, from the top down and from the inside out,” Jefferson said. “Being in the classroom, I actually have been able to see some of the things that happen not only with our children but with the staff.”
She said she supports efforts to improve classroom discipline by teaching social and emotional skills.
She said the district should ensure that schools with higher rates of poverty or discipline issues don’t get labeled as “bad schools,” and that additional funding and experienced teachers are targeted at those buildings.
“There’s just no way that it’s going to work if they don’t put resources to it,” Jefferson said.
She said Wichita should do more to recruit and retain good teachers, particularly ones that reflect the district’s demographics. She suggested more recruiting efforts in high schools and area colleges.
“You go where they are, you find them and you make sure you’re bringing them into the workplace,” she said.
Ron Rosales, 52, is a former teacher from Wichita now teaching part time at Haysville High School, an alternative high school.
His top priority is increasing the graduation rate for minority students and curbing suspensions, expulsions and other discipline problems. He favors more and better mentoring programs in schools.
A U.S. Navy veteran, Rosales taught social studies at Jardine Middle School and Curtis Middle School in Wichita for about 10 years before resigning last year to pursue a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction. He said his teaching experience would add a valuable perspective to the board.
“Teachers see things much differently,” he said. “It could be anything from an empty classroom that has an air-conditioner running to how we are spending money for PDs (professional development programs).”
Rosales supports programs that teach social skills, workplace etiquette and general life skills, he said.
“One of the things that’s missing with a lot of young people today is how to speak properly,” he said. “Just simple communication skills, simple norms tend to get broken down.”