Next Tuesday, four members of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, seek to be elected again to their current posts.
These members — Lanora Nolan, Lynn Rogers, Connie Dietz and Betty Arnold — are part of a board and school district that is increasingly out-of-step with education reforms that are working in other parts of the country. Their policies and actions are harmful to both Wichita schoolchildren and Wichita taxpayers.
At the time when most of the country is starting to realize that quality teachers, not the number of teachers, is what makes the biggest difference in student outcomes, the Wichita school district is going the wrong way. The bond issue, with its focus on reducing class size, will force the district to hire more teachers. This makes it more likely that schoolchildren in Wichita will be taught by poorly-performing teachers.
Its contract with its teachers union forbids any type of merit pay that might induce the best teachers to stay in teaching. Instead, all teachers are paid the same. Only length of service and extra education credentials allow teachers to earn more. Now researchers have found that length of service and the credentials earned at university schools of education make very little difference in student outcomes.
Across the country parents can take advantage of school choices programs such as charter schools, vouchers, and tax credits. These programs give parents — instead of school administrators and politicians — choice as to where to send their children to school. In some cases, they allow parents to decide how their own tax dollars should be spent. The Wichita school district, including its board and the incumbent candidates that stand for election next week, are firmly against these type of programs that have benefited many students and parents. They prefer a government monopoly.
The Wichita school district and its board are miles behind other school districts and governmental agencies regarding transparency and openness. Its recent search for a new superintendent was conducted in such a secretive manner that even the Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman — one of the district’s several apologists at that newspaper — was critical.
The district and board’s attitude towards citizens is nothing less than hostile. In particular, board member, now board president, Lynn Rogers has told citizens that records requests are a burden to the district. When citizens ask for evidence of claims the district makes, Rogers advises them to use Google to look things up for themselves.
The board gets even little things wrong. For example, the board’s agenda that’s posted on the USD 259 website holds appendixes, which are usually attached files that hold additional information such as a Powerpoint presentation. But these files are removed quickly after the meeting. Most governmental agencies leave them available for eternity.
Three board members, in their joint campaign materials, state they are proud of 11 years of rising test scores. Across the country school districts and states have watered-down testing standards in response to political pressure to produce rising test scores. Is this the case in Wichita and Kansas? We don’t know. But as scores rise on tests administered by the state, they remain unchanged on the national tests that are immune from local political pressures.
The fact that all of the candidates facing election challenges have advertised jointly is evidence of another severe problem on the Wichita board of education: Rarely is there controversy or evidence of independent thought by board members. Consider the bond issue from last year, which passed narrowly (51 percent to 49 percent) when voted on by the public. Board members were unanimous in their support of the bond issue. What are the odds of that? (Well, board member Jeff Davis initially dissented, but only because he thought his district didn’t get its fair share. His straying from the board’s groupthink mentality was short-lived, however, as at the next meeting he changed his vote.)
Then there’s the bond issue from last year. One analysis found that 72% of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, came from contractors, architects, engineering firms and others who directly stand to benefit from the new construction. The board rewarded Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture for its efforts in passing the bond issue with a no-bid $3.7 million contract to manage the bond issue.
As large as the bond issue is, to board members it’s not enough. Board members started with a list of projects that totaled some $550 million. These projects are on the back burner, and as soon as this board senses the time is right, it will propose another bond issue. Count on it.
We should remember the board’s conduct during the election. Calling a special election to be held in May, the board delayed it when it appeared the political landscape was not in their favor — after their opponents had mobilized and spent resources. The board appeared to rely on a hapless citizen group during the summer months for recommendations. Despite the district’s denials, huge amounts of district resources, all provided by taxpayers, were used to promote the bond issue.
This Wichita school district and its board is an institution firmly rooted in and preferring a big-government style of education monopoly. It ignores evidence of reforms that work, preferring to remain beholden to special interests such as the teachers union, education bureaucrats, and firms that benefit from school construction. None of its members deserve re-election.