How Wichita spends your tax money is one big reason to vote

02/28/2013 10:48 AM

02/28/2013 10:53 AM

If you’re on the fence about whether to vote in this year’s April 2 general election, consider this: How your tax money will be spent is the primary focus of Wichita City Council and school board races – and of similar races across south-central Kansas.

Wichita city officials have some big-project bills coming due soon, highlighted by $2.1 billion to repair and replace the city’s sewer lines over the next 30 years. School board members will weigh several cost items as well, including a new southeast high school, bond funds, security and curriculum issues.

Nonetheless, Sedgwick County election commissioner Tabitha Lehman expects a dismal turnout, fueled by voter apathy for the primary and Wichitans’ historic disdain for spring elections.

“We have seen a steady decline in voter turnout for the spring election cycles,” Lehman said.

In 2005, 38 percent of voters turned out for the spring general election. Since then, the figure has plummeted to 12.78 percent for the 2011 spring general election, following an even more dismal 7.75 percent for the 2011 primary. And the 2011 election included a race for Wichita mayor. This year’s election does not. This year’s primary, plagued by snowstorms, had a dismal 4.69 percent turnout of eligible voters.

There are other challenges for the city council, such as a new $21 million bus fleet for the city’s transit system, infrastructure investments downtown as the area redevelops and broader infrastructure issues, such as crumbling bridges and streets.

“We have a lot of challenges,” Mayor Carl Brewer said in February. “So we need to know what the citizens want us to spend their money on.”

The issues are the same for Wichita school board members.

Barbara Fuller, who won re-election for the District 3 school board seat in 2011, said new board members will face several notable issues.

Among them: deciding how to proceed with bond issue projects put on hold because of reductions in federal and state funding.

“They’ll have to come up to speed on the bond issue and that whole follow-through,” Fuller said. “How do we bring schools off pause, and what impact will it make across the district?”

School board members are considering whether to build a new high school in the southeast quadrant, as promised in the 2008 bond issue, and whether to expand and renovate Southeast High School. They also must decide what to do with $10 million in bond funds earmarked for a technical education magnet program.

Board members also must “look with a critical eye” at recommendations and proposals from district administrators, Fuller said. “We have to be thoughtful about what’s being proposed and all the what-ifs.”

Other issues likely to face the Wichita board: school security, curriculum decisions and the impact of the state’s recent waiver from some elements of the No Child Left Behind legislation.

“With the waiver, I don’t know that we have a lot of guidance yet,” Fuller said. “But that will impact a lot of what we do.”

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