Black activists in Wichita lead the way in USD 259 school board voting reform

The Wichita Beacon
The Wichita Beacon
LaWanda DeShazer, Wichita NAACP second vice chair, asked the USD 259 school board at its Aug. 8 meeting to consider changing how Wichita votes for its board of education members. (Courtesy image/USD 259)

Several leaders and activists from Wichita’s Black community attended the Aug. 8 Wichita Public Schools board meeting to ask it to change the way the district elects its board of education members. Some cited a July 25 Wichita Beacon story that showed recent redistricting of board member districts further diluted the political influence of Wichita’s Black population.

Among the attendees who spoke at the meeting were City Council Member Brandon Johnson, retired Wichita pastor Titus James, Wichita NAACP education committee chair Sandra Rankin, and Wichita NAACP executive board members Lavonta Williams, LaWanda DeShazer and Mark Ritchey.

The way Wichita currently elects its school board members inherently reduces the voting power of Black Wichitans according to a Beacon analysis. Though Wichita school board district residents alone choose district candidates in primary elections, people from all USD 259 districts across Wichita vote on all school board members in general elections.

Wichita voters elected to do it this way in a 1994 ballot initiative. The approach is permitted by state law, according to USD 259.

The new proposed voting structure would have Wichita school board district residents vote only for their own representative in the primary and general elections. Voters citywide would still vote on the one at-large school board member, as is done now.

The school board’s response

The school board agreed to have a ballot measure drafted for presentation at the Aug. 22 school board meeting. Board members will then vote on whether to send it to the Kansas secretary of state to be added as a question on the November ballot this year.

Currently, five school board members believe the matter of school board voting reform should be put before voters. Only two oppose the idea: Diane Albert of District 1 and Hazel Stabler of District 6. Albert, who is white, represents District 1, USD 259’s district with the largest Black population. It has not been represented by a Black school board member since 2017, when Betty Arnold lost by 84 votes in a citywide vote.

Albert, speaking at the school board meeting, said she believes the change would soften the power parents have over their children’s schools because the school board district a parent lives in is not always the district where their student’s school is located.

“They are welcome to change my mind,” Albert said.

The case for school board voting reform

In a previously published Wichita Beacon story, Fran Jackson, a retired Wichita teacher and longtime Black community activist, said, “I think we are at a place now where each district needs to select its own representation. And then, if we become smarter, we can get better on how to share the power.”

State Treasurer Lynn Rogers agreed. Rogers served on the Wichita school board from 2001 to 2018, including multiple terms as president. In that time, he oversaw the passage of a bond issue, the hiring of two superintendents and the end of busing for integration.

“When an African American comes out of District 1 to represent District 1 and the whole city gets to vote on it, it makes it harder for that person to run a realistic campaign,” Rogers said.

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