Wichita parents fight to reverse the school board’s vote to close six schools

A month after the school board voted to close six schools, Wichita parents are going door to door trying to take that decision to the Kansas State Board of Education — a move which may have little effect.

by Maria Carter

Minutes after the Wichita school board voted to close six schools last month, a handful of parents began signing petitions in the hallway outside of the meeting. 

It was the first skirmish in their battle to reverse the decision.

“When we started doing the petition,” parent Ruth Lehman said, “that was the only thing that we could see within our grasp that we could attempt to fight with.”

But she and the other organizers soon discovered that petitioning the Kansas State Board of Education to review the decision offered them only an unwieldy and dull weapon.

A daunting number of signatures

To bring the issue to the state board, the parents have 45 days from the vote — their deadline is April 18 —  to get signatures from 5% of registered voters in the school district. In USD 259, that’s a little shy of 10,000 people. 

That’s a lot of people, especially when you’re new to this.

Lehman said they’ve tried to be smart. A handful of volunteers have been going door to door near the schools, where they figured people cared the most. They only knock on doors where there’s a car in the driveway, indicating someone’s likely at home. 

But it’s been slow going.

“Our biggest hindrance has been the fact that the schools that have been chosen to close down are in areas where people were not registered to vote,” Lehman said.

Lehman said the schools chosen for closure have large Latino populations, who may not be eligible to vote. 

With about two weeks to go, the group is far from its goal. Lehman said she has about 1,000 signatures confirmed. But a lot of volunteers still have petitions, and they still need to gather petitions from stores and other dropoff sites.

A dull weapon

If they get enough verified signatures, the Kansas State Board of Education has 45 days to consider Wichita’s decision.

But the board’s power is limited. State law directs it to determine whether a local decision was “reasonable.” 

That type of review was passed into state law last year and has never been used before. 

“It is to make sure that everything was done with integrity and with fidelity,” said Betty Arnold, a state school board member representing much of Wichita. “If there were concerns that perhaps need additional consideration, we might be able to recommend to the (local) board to revisit that.”

Along with the recommendation comes a requirement that the local school board hold a public hearing and another vote on the school closures.

But no matter what the state board recommends, it is nonbinding. The local board can do as it pleases.  

Only the start

Lehman says the petition isn’t so much a weapon as it is one strategy in a longer fight.

She said she and other parents plan to continue on other fronts. 

They plan to attend not just Wichita school board meetings, but City Council meetings, too.  They also plan to talk with state lawmakers to see if there are other legislative options.

But the school district has its own plans. The Wichita Eagle reports that USD 259 could close more schools and ask voters to approve a bond plan as part of its forthcoming master plan.

Superintendent Kelly Bielefeld says those moves are needed to deal with shrinking enrollment and a $1.2 million backlog in building maintenance.

But Lehman pointed to the shrinking enrollment as a symptom of the problem, not its cause.

“Those kids are still getting educated,” said Lehman. “They’re just not getting educated through USD 259.” 

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon