A recent meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, provided insight as to the insularity of the board members and district staff, and as to how little meaningful discussion or debate takes place at board meetings.
At the June 20th meeting, Dr. Walt Chappell, an elected member of the Kansas State Board of Education, used a slot on the public agenda to address the board about the upcoming budget. Chappell received a chilly reception — to say the least — from board president Connie Dietz. Chappell has been outspoken in his criticism of the way the state spends money on schools. Chappell knows, as do other critics of the Kansas school education bureaucracy, that if you’re not a team player, you’re going to suffer abuse from the education bureaucracy and its supporters.
Regardless of the validity of Chappell’s remarks to the board — more on that in another article — the attitude of Dietz is worse than simply being rude. It is shutting up your critics simply because you control the gavel. It is boorish and bullying behavior. It is contrary to good government.
The balance of power at meetings like these is all in favor of the board. Citizens, even elected officials like Chappell, may speak for a short period of time. Then board members may speak at length without fear of being held accountable for their remarks, because if the citizen were to speak even one word out of turn, the board would shut them up.
This is at a school district where much board meeting time is devoted to “feel good” measures such as the lengthy goodbye to departing board member Kevass Harding at the same meeting. That had nothing to do with public policy. It was constructive in no way except to board members, district staff, and Harding’s ego. By the way, he used the opportunity and time to announce his future political ambitions.
But when citizens and officials like Chappell speak — even though they may speak about important and weighty matters of policy — their time is strictly regulated. If they disagree with school district orthodoxy they may be scolded and lectured with no chance to defend themselves or rebut false statements and nonsensical arguments from board members or district staff. There is nothing resembling discussion or debate except among board members and district staff — all who drink from the same ideological fountain.
It’s not the first time this has happened to Chappell at the Wichita school board. Two years ago a similar incident took place. In my coverage, I wrote: “Certainly these three board members were dismissive of Chappell and his input. This is characteristic of this board and the entire district. They’re willing to accept citizen input when citizens agree with them. Otherwise, watch out.”
The debate, however, is not inclusive or fruitful. Few citizens are even remotely aware of the level of school spending, whether spending is going up or down, and whether spending is related to student achievement. Last year the Kansas Policy Institute commissioned a public opinion survey that revealed just how uninformed and misinformed the citizens of Kansas are on school spending matters. National surveys have produced similar findings.
Instead, the debates about policies and budgets take place largely among those who benefit from school spending and increases. And, of course, in the one-sided lectures from the school board bench. Rogers called Chappell’s facts “misleading” despite the fact that the supporting documentation comes from the district itself and the state department of education.
This is not the first time that members like Rogers have revealed just how out of touch they are with the concerns of citizens and how misinformed they can be. For example, he told me during a meeting that responding to requests for information is a burden that prevents the district from educating kids.
In another instance, Rogers said “I know there are kids from many Catholic schools that have come to public schools when the Catholic schools have kicked them out.” It turns out that the Wichita Catholic schools expel very few students, less than five per year on average.
Diversity? It’s a sought-after goal of the district. In fact, the district has a committee with the title “Diversity, Equity and Accountability Committee.” But diversity in thought and opinion must not be part of what’s desired. The belligerent and disrespectful behavior of board members, particularly president Connie Dietz, is a deterrent to parents, teachers, students, and citizens who want to be involved and have their voices heard. That is, unless they agree with and praise the board and district.
Without the involvement of everyone, the board and district make decisions without all relevant facts and input, and often with incorrect information about many vitally important matters. That, I believe, is they way they like it.