CARE Dropped Ball on Educating About Wichita School Bond Issue

My friend Helen Cochran of Citizens for Better Education contributes this article, which appeared in the Wichita Eagle.

In this article, Helen analyzes the work of Citizens Alliance for Responsible Education, a group that supports the Wichita school bond issue. As Helen notes, attendance at the four educational meetings CARE held was low. In one meeting, the only two people in attendance who weren’t either school district personnel, Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture employees (the school district’s architect), or associated with CARE were associated with Wichitans For Effective Education, a group opposing the bond issue. So at this meeting, there were effectively no members of the general public attending.

It is truly a puzzle as to why the attendance at these meetings was so low. Especially when Randy Thon, co-leader of CARE, mentioned that some 1,500 people participated in the formulation of the bond issue plan. On a personal level, I spoke to Mr. Thon after the first meeting and expressed some sympathy that so few people attended the meeting. I don’t think he thought I was serious, or that it even mattered at all.

On April 7, the Wichita school board postponed a scheduled May 6 special election for a proposed $350 million school bond at the behest of a volunteer bond-support group. Citizens Alliance for Responsible Education argued that more time was needed to “educate the public” regarding the bond specifics and therefore a postponement was warranted. The board concurred, despite earlier arguing that postponing the vote would add tens of thousands of dollars to construction costs.

It was concluded that CARE would educate the community and return to the board with a bond recommendation. Prior to hosting four community meetings this summer, CARE commissioned a telephone survey in early June to gauge public sentiment and asked such questions as the age and political party affiliation of the responder as well as questions with regard to the size of the bond and other proposal specifics. The results of the survey have not been made public.

Fewer than 50 citizens attended the four educational community meetings. Perhaps people did not attend because they already had made up their minds as to how they would vote. Perhaps people were busy with summertime activities. Or perhaps people felt that because opponents were denied a voice when the bond postponement was suggested to the board, any opposing viewpoint would not be welcomed at these community forums. As the summer meetings failed to attract the public, neither the school board nor the volunteer group had a backup plan to educate the public. No bulk mailing was undertaken, nor were informational telephone banks set up to reach the public. The “more time is needed” argument translated into a waste of time, as no further steps were taken.

The educational ball was dropped. CARE squandered all opportunity for credibility when it dropped that ball, leaving USD 259 board members to wallow in their indecisiveness. This is troubling because the school board has postured itself to heavily rely upon a recommendation from CARE, scheduled to be made at Monday’s school board meeting, while ignoring other community groups’ recommendations. What are CARE’s credentials to recommend this board spend millions of property owners’ dollars without having fulfilled a promise to better educate this community regarding such an expenditure? CARE may suggest a scaled-back version of the original bond, recommend the proposal be withdrawn (as suggested by some bond opponents) or encourage the board to throttle full-speed ahead for the originally proposed $350 million.

Regardless of what is presented to the board Monday night, the public should be justifiably skeptical of any recommendations made or agreed upon when attempts to educate the public were poorly conceived and executed and failed miserably.

If CARE plans to use its survey results as grounds for its recommendation, the school board should insist upon full public disclosure of those results.

Asking a community to endorse a $350 million bond issue, an issue less than $350 million or a bond issue in any amount should warrant a more conscientious and disciplined effort than what has been offered to date.

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