Ron Rosales celebrated election night results at home with his family Tuesday night. He will be the first Hispanic member of USD 259's board. kburgess@wichitaeagle.com
Ron Rosales celebrated election night results at home with his family Tuesday night. He will be the first Hispanic member of USD 259's board. kburgess@wichitaeagle.com

Elections

Wichita school board race raises questions about the way members are elected

By Suzanne Perez Tobias

stobias@wichitaeagle.com

November 08, 2017 06:30 PM

UPDATED November 09, 2017 06:26 AM

The race between Wichita school board member Betty Arnold and challenger Ben Blankley likely would turn out differently if votes had been cast only in District 1 rather than across the city, according to an analysis of preliminary election results.

Blankley, who leads Arnold by 123 votes after Tuesday’s election, garnered significantly fewer votes than the incumbent in their home district.

Blankley holds slim lead over incumbent Arnold

School board candidate Ben Blankley reacts to holding a 123-vote edge over incumbent Betty Arnold in one of the USD 259 school board races. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle)

theying@wichitaeagle.com

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Vote counts from precincts in District 1, which includes parts of east and northeast Wichita, showed Arnold ahead of Blankley by nearly 1,000 votes – 2,238 to 1,247, according to data from the Sedgwick County election office.

The Wichita school district does not elect board members purely by district vote, however. Under the current system, a primary election is held in each school board district if there are more than three candidates. After that, the top vote-getters from each district face off in a general election open to all voters in the school district.

Official results in the Arnold-Blankley race are expected Monday, after election officials receive provisional and mail-in ballots.

But the discrepancy in results between District 1 and the school district at large raised questions for some about the way school board members are elected.

Michael Kinard, a former school board member, said he thinks the school district should consider proposing a pure district election like the one used by the Wichita City Council and Sedgwick County Commission. He raised the issue while on the school board in 2004, but the board at the time did not agree to put the question on the ballot.

Any change in the election method would have to be approved by voters. The school board adopted the current system in 1994 to elect representatives from six districts and one representative at large. Previously, the whole board was elected at large.

“When you go citywide, you dilute the district itself, so they don’t really get to pick their representative,” Kinard said Wednesday.

Kinard said he brought up the issue years ago because he was concerned that a district’s choice for board member could be defeated in the general election by someone who is better known citywide. Kinard said he also heard from voters who complain that the board elections are confusing.

In addition, he said, pure district elections offer the best chance for every part of the city to be represented. That is of particular concern in District 1, which includes traditionally African-American neighborhoods.

Arnold, who is African-American, joined the board in 2011. After unofficial results showed her trailing Blankley, she said she felt good about her support in District 1.

“I understand that even though you are elected in a district, you still represent the entire city. I think that was the right thought process,” Arnold said Tuesday.

“But what it doesn’t take into consideration is, I’m known in District 1. I’m the one that parents call, the one who works with families, who visits buildings, who advocates when changes need to be made,” she said.

Blankley, 32, an engineer and community activist, ran a campaign focused on improving board transparency and public engagement.

“The magnet programs, which all candidates and board members agreed should be expanded, have kids across the district attending schools not geographically near them. School board candidates voted on by the whole city makes more sense as magnet programs expand,” Blankley said in a statement Wednesday.

School board member Lynn Rogers has been vocal in his support of the current hybrid system, which he said “requires board members to weigh local concerns with a districtwide perspective.”

But he said the discrepancy in District 1 results was troubling.

“It’s a concern because you want the person representing your district to have the vast amount of support from that district,” he said. “It’s probably something that should be discussed. I’d be open to what people’s thoughts are on it.”

Election officials said turnout for Tuesday’s local election – the first held since state lawmakers moved them from April to November – was slightly higher than previous spring elections.

Tuesday’s turnout was about 8.1 percent, said Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman. She compared that to April 2013, when turnout was slightly over 6 percent.

Turnout for a spring election in 2015 was about 16 percent, but that ballot included a race for Wichita mayor and a measure to reduce penalties for possession of marijuana.

“While we did see some uptick, it just didn’t pan out to be a lot higher turnout,” Lehman said Wednesday. “It was disappointing but unfortunately not all that surprising.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias