During Monday’s meeting of the USD259 Wichita Board of Education, board president Betty Arnold admonished the audience, “This board meeting is held in public, but it is not for the public, or of the public.”
The board is considering closing five schools, including Emerson Open Magnet elementary school, to meet budget realities. Board members and district superintendent John Allison have faced strong public criticism over the school closures and the board’s decision making process.
Charity Chapman, mother of an Emerson student, said Wichita BOE claims that public input on the closings began 18 months ago were, “In part a huge lie.” Arnold interrupted Chapman and asked her not to call board members liars.
“The community meetings, in my opinion again, were a sham to simply say we gave you a chance to be involved. The 150 page document, compiled of comments and concerns from the community meetings, was released just hours before the final focus group meeting. I’d love to know how you expected anyone, let alone people who work full time and go straight from work to the meetings, to have had a chance to actually read it and consider any of the comments or concerns.”
Chapman then questioned budget priorities, including the superintendent’s car allowance (5:20 on the video). “How is $750 a month for a car, on top of your salary, budget friendly? That’s $9,000 a year.”
Arnold, in a calm voice, interrupted Chapman again. “No comments should be directed to any staff member. If you have nothing further to say we respect the fact that you’ve let us know you don’t approve. Now if there’s anything further, again, please continue, but otherwise, I will ask you to just take your seat.”
Chapman continued, commenting on budget choices and citizen involvement in the board’s deliberations. She also asked if it was really necessary for the district to call boundary change proposals “supposals.” That’s when Arnold interrupted again and motioned for board security or a Wichita police officer to approach Chapman.
Chapman finished her statement and turned to take her seat as some audience members applauded. Arnold told the audience, “There will be no further outbreaks. I need you to understand when someone is speaking it is within my realm as board president to stop them.”
Later in the public comment period Mary Dean reminded the board that Kansas law requires government transparency (13:00 on the video). Dean said, “The basis of the Kansas Open Meetings law is the presumption of openness. If officials meet in private and make up their minds about how they’ll vote …” At that point Arnold interrupted before Dean could finish her sentence, objecting that Dean was making accusations about board members.
“No disrespect will be shown to the board members,” Arnold said. “I am directing this meeting and you will either …” Arnold motioned again to a Wichita police officer and said, “Sir, could you please come over.”
Arnold threatened to clear the room if there were further “outbreaks” and said, “This board meeting is being held in public but it is not for the public or of the public.”
Dean asked if she could continue and closed her comments with a reminder that school board members are elected to represent the people.
Several other citizens, mostly parents of Emerson students, commented on the lack of real public input on the school closings and budget choices made by the board. Several said they would not keep their child in Wichita public schools.
Later in the meeting Kansas Board of Education member Walt Chappell, R-Wichita, spoke against closing schools. Arnold then allowed Wichita board member Lynn Rogers to ask Chappell, “How many times have you voted with the (state) board to restore our funding cuts or to increase our state funding?”
Chappell, an outspoken advocate for fiscal discipline and accountability, tried to respond but Rogers interrupted and asked Chappell if he voted for the state board’s 2011-’12 funding request to the Legislature. Before Chappell could answer Rogers interrupted again, asking for a yes or no answer.
“I didn’t realize we were at a trial here,” Chappell responded. “The motion was to add $650 million to the taxpayer’s bill, on top of what we already had,” Chappell said. “I voted against adding $650 million more when we were already facing a $500 million deficit.”
The July 2010 KSBOE motion Chappell voted against asked the Legislature to, “fund the law,” a reference to restoring annual school funding increases predetermined by 2004 legislation written to satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court order.
Chappell told KansasWatchdog this is the first time in more than 40 years of attending various school board meetings he’s seen police officers directed to escort a citizen from a board meeting.
Stifling dissent isn’t as uncommon according to Chappell. “They do that about any time there’s opposition,” Chappell said. “It’s a public meeting but board attitude was, you can speak but only on our terms and only if we allow you to.”
Chappell said he’s also heard complaints from other USD259 parents and teachers about how the district’s community meetings on school boundary changes and school closings were conducted. “There’s no reason for a public meeting if you’re not going to listen to the public,” Chappell said.
Thanks to Bob Weeks, WichitaLiberty.org, for keeping an eye on Wichita’s elected representatives.
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