Three applicants for a vacant seat on the Wichita school board answered questions from board members Wednesday about board relations, funding, diversity and challenges facing the district.
The board interviewed the applicants during a special meeting at North High School. Members are expected to appoint a new board member Monday.
Barbara Fuller, who served on the school board for about a decade, resigned last month because she recently moved out of the district. District 3 includes portions of south and southeast Wichita. Fuller’s tearm expires in January 2020.
Rhonda Cox, Ernestine Krehbiel and Sondra Luke submitted applications and letters of reference by last week’s deadline to seek the seat.
Cox, 36, said she was inspired to seek the seat in part because of an experience advocating for a son who has learning disabilities. The boy, who was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia and can’t read or write, uses a laptop for assignments.
When school officials took her son’s laptop away, Cox said, he required more help from a para-professional assigned to his classroom. She successfully argued for the laptop’s return, a process that took months and required mediation, she said.
“The most difficult thing was to take emotions out of the situation and come prepared to suggest solutions and not just think about problems,” Cox said.
She said she is concerned about the safety of teachers and other school employees.
Cox said she also would like to improve transparency in the district. During negotiations about her son’s individualized education plan, she said, school officials did not offer details about the process or how the boy’s progress was being measured.
“For parents it’s extremely important to have transparency in all those processes,” Cox said. “There should be no reason you shouldn’t be able to look up: What are the steps? What should they be doing next?”
Krehbiel, 78, is a retired high school history and government teacher and a former state president of the League of Women Voters.
She said it’s important for the school board to have different perspectives and to listen to opposing viewpoints.
“I used to have a slogan in my classroom: It’s better to discuss an issue without settling it than to settle an issue without discussing it,” she said. “There needs to be pieces and parts shared, because each of us can contribute a piece.”
Krehbiel, who taught at Metro-Boulevard Alternative High School in Wichita, said cuts to per-pupil state funding have hurt schools. She said she would “absolutely” continue to support the Gannon lawsuit, in which Wichita and other districts claim that current funding levels violate the state Constitution.
“When the state budget just gets cut and cut and cut and cut, we end up with bigger classrooms, and teachers are forced into a situation where it’s a little bit like bowling,” she said. “You roll the ball down the middle, and the kids on the side that don’t quite get whatever knowledge is thrown at them, it’s like, ‘Well, good luck.’”
Krehbiel said Wichita’s diverse student population is one of its greatest strengths. The biggest challenge, she said, will be raising student achievement and the graduation rate.
“How do we get kids to know that they need to stay and be educated? How do we get it through to them?” she said. “How do we make them care?”
Sondra Luke, 63, said she applied for the position because she is “a big fan of public education.” She and her children graduated from Southeast High School, and her grandchildren attend Curtis Middle School.
“Education is important, and I just feel like I would be a good board member,” she said.
Board president Mike Rodee asked Luke whether she would continue to support the district’s lawsuit seeking fair and equitable state funding.
“But it hasn’t been working, though, right?” Luke said.
“We’re still fighting it, yes,” Rodee replied.
“Well then, I would try to find some other kind of resources,” she said. “Something better.”
In a statement toward the end of Wednesday’s meeting, Rodee read a statement disclosing that Luke is a distant relative of Wichita superintendent Alicia Thompson’s. Thompson doesn’t know Luke, Rodee said, but the women’s great-grandfathers were cousins.
“I believe strongly that a statement of this nature is important in the spirit of full disclosure,” Rodee said.
“There is no Kansas statute or district policy that would prevent Ms. Luke from serving in this position. Based on this fact, she is here today to participate in the BOE candidate interviews and we welcome her.”