Wichita NAACP, teachers union and other leaders team up to support ballot initiative

The Wichita Beacon
The Wichita Beacon
On Nov. 8, residents living in USD 259 will vote on whether they want to change the way school board members are elected. The resident of this District 6 home said she picked up her sign at the Wichita teachers union over the weekend. (Polly Wenzl/The Beacon)

A coalition calling itself Vote Local USD259 has organized in support of the school board election reform ballot initiative coming before Wichita voters on Nov. 8. The coalition is urging the public to vote “yes” on the proposed change to how school board members are elected.

The coalition’s members include the Wichita branch of the NAACP, the African American Council of Elders, the United Teachers Union, Service Employees International Union Local 513, the Wichita League of Women Voters and more than a dozen other individuals and organizations advocating on behalf of people of color.

“The Vote Local USD259 Coalition is a diverse group of community leaders who believe that equity is at the root of this nonpartisan issue,” the coalition said in an Oct. 6 press release announcing its formation. “A combined majority of the district’s student population is Black and/or Hispanic/Latino, but who is representing them? According to members of the coalition, students, families and voters with marginalized identities have their voices and voting power washed out in city-wide elections.” Coalition members were out knocking on doors this past weekend, distributing “vote yes” campaign materials, according to their social media.

If the ballot initiative is approved, six of the seven school board members would no longer be elected by a citywide vote in the general election. Instead the six board representatives would be voted on by people living in their own district.

It is unclear whether there is any organized effort to oppose the ballot initiative. While political action committees are required to file reports with the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, no reports are due until Oct. 31 for organizations formed after July 22. The decision to place the reform measure on the Nov. 8 ballot was not made until Aug. 22.

That was the day the Wichita School Board voted 4-3 to place the measure on the Nov. 8 ballot. The three dissenting votes came from Diane Albert, District 1; Kathy Bond, District 5; and Hazel Stabler, District 6. All three were first elected in November 2021, backed by Sedgwick County Republicans, though school board races are historically nonpartisan.

Albert, who is white, was elected by citywide vote to represent District 1, which is majority Black. District 1 has not been represented by a Black school board member since 2017, when Betty Arnold lost by 84 votes.

The Wichita Board of Education — comprising one member for each district plus one at-large representative — has no Black members. Instead, six of seven board members are white, though only 30 percent of the students are white.

The Sedgwick County Republicans are supporting a “no” vote for the ballot measure. In their Oct. 11 newsletter, they claimed “incumbent board members adopted this change hoping to run in their own gerrymandered electoral districts.”

There was no record of gerrymandering in school voting districts in the last redistricting process, but it did dilute the voting power of the Black population in District 1.

The Republican group also says the current system supports government accountability and voting against this measure will preserve fairness in the school board election. This claim is in direct opposition to the Vote Local USD259 Coalition, which states voting for the measure will create fairness where there previously wasn’t any.

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