The Wichita Board of Education transparency issue is not a perceived problem – there is a problem. I’ve served on the board for over four years now. I’m sorry to say it, but in my opinion things on the inside don’t look any better than they do from where you are sitting.
I believe the issue stems from the misguided belief held by some board members that everyone should be on the same page and agree all the time on the issues before the board. Board members with this mindset are quick to attack others that aren’t in lockstep with their views. I have been told by some members that a vote of 6-1 or 5-2 is harmful – even dangerous. Being out of step with the board is reason for some to attempt to intimidate the disagreeing board member or members, create false stories about their motivations and character, and attempt to marginalize their voice.
But this behavior doesn’t stop with other board members. Parents who approach the board with concerns and issues are treated the same way. For example, last year during discussions about recess, two parents on the Health and Wellness Committee voiced concerns at a board meeting. Afterward, they were instructed by the board president that they were no longer allowed to speak at committee meetings.
The overuse of 3-by-3 meetings, where board members meet in small groups, and private agenda reviews are consequences of this thinking. In my experience, they provide an opportunity for board members to control the message before it goes to the public. But these closed-door meetings, in concert with the formulated public meetings, provide little opportunity for board members to hear the opinions of their peers before a vote, or work together to build consensus on a topic. It also places additional time constraints on the staff as they are required to meet multiple times on the same topics – and then remember what was said in every meeting.
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There is little or no accountability regarding what is covered in those private meetings. This patchwork of meetings creates opportunity for mistrust between members and mistakes in communication to the board – leaving some members uninformed of final decisions until those decisions are announced.
Many of the issues that come before the board do not have clear-cut answers. Good leaders in a community should want to hear all the sides of the issue and promote an accessible, trustworthy process that allows ideas to be passionately discussed and vetted. I think Superintendent Alicia Thompson understands this and has made strides to change some of these processes. But she can’t do it alone.
Each board member must understand that these diverse views are important and that in representing the people of the school district, split votes show thoughtful consideration of the views of others. Instead of bullying the people bringing the issues or having discussions behind closed doors to control the message, we should have those courageous conversations in public and listen with an ear to hear what we might have missed.
We owe that kind of courage, diversity of thought and leadership to our children and to our community.
Joy Eakins represents District 2 on the Wichita school board.