Let’s be clear with what’s happening within the Wichita school board. One of its seven members, frustrated for years by other members’ willingness to conduct business out of the public eye and with demands of unanimity in decision making, feels the only way she can be heard is to write a letter to the newspaper.
In the letter, she uses a word chosen presumably with a lot of thought: bullying.
An action not accepted on a grade-school playground, Joy Eakins says takes place at the highest level of the school district.
And it has to stop now.
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The kerfuffle between Eakins and other board members is a result of years of a desire to arrive at Monday meetings with decisions already made, differences already hashed out. Vote this way or else.
Eakins, often a lone dissenting vote and often the member to pull items off the no-discussion consent agenda, seemed exasperated and thought it was time to speak out.
This isn’t the first time board members have been at odds. A polarized board became heated over issue after issue in the 1990s, and superintendent Stuart Berger offered his share of antagonism.
One board member resigned. Another was recalled in a special election. Berger left for another job soon after. Wichita exhaled.
This isn’t “Monday Night Fights,” as meetings were labeled then. But the results may appear similar unless changes are made.
State Sen. Lynn Rogers, who’s finishing up more than 16 years on the board, told The Eagle on Thursday that Eakins’ allegations were an attack on the board’s integrity. He tweeted Friday morning, “If I’m on the losing end of a vote, I don’t blame it on bullying BOE members. It’s perhaps (because) I didn’t convince 3 colleagues to vote w/ me.”
Rogers’ tweet framed Eakins’ argument about losing votes and being unable to sway other board members to her side. He didn’t deny decisions are made out of public view, and later Friday in his own letter to The Eagle, he said a lack of public discussion has contributed to the perception and he apologized.
Rogers is proud of the board’s legacy during his 16-year tenure, and he’s naturally defending it and his work. But he acknowledges that after the “Monday Night Fights” of the 1990s, maybe the board tried too hard for unanimity and cohesion.
They took, as Eakins pointed out, differences off the board table and into private meetings. “… We should have those courageous conversations in public and listen with an ear to hear what we might have missed,” she wrote.
If things don’t change with the current seven members, the Nov. 7 election may force matters. In addition to recent District 4 appointee Stan Reeser, Eakins and Rogers will be replaced by newcomers. Board president Mike Rodee and past president Betty Arnold are up for re-election.
Challengers having ranging beliefs. One is in favor of a district-wide local option budget vote to feed every district student free breakfast and lunch. Another thinks the district already has plenty of money without millions more from the Legislature.
Five of seven challengers come together, though, as strong proponents of more transparency by the board and district. Current members comfortable with 3-by-3 private agenda meetings may find newcomers want changes.
At least we hope so. Private agenda reviews with no more than three members skirts open-meetings laws and are offensive to a transparent government.
Superintendent Alicia Thompson is the other game-changer. Though she works for the board – not the other way around – she can be a vocal proponent for transparent government and insist the board take steps to improve discussion. Thompson has worked hard to conduct listening sessions already this fall; the board should listen to her next.
The school board’s next meeting is 6 p.m. Monday at North High. It can be the start of a turning point in the board’s history, or it can be a 21st Century version of “Monday Night Fights.” Seven Wichitans – representatives overseeing our children’s educations – will make that decision.