State school board member Walt Chappell spoke to the Pachyderm Club in Wichita earlier this month about some controversial ideas to improve K-12 public education — changing teacher tenure laws, performance-based teacher pay raises and a $1,000 fee for students who can't prove they're in the country legally.
Chappell, a Democrat who represents most of the Wichita school district, asked the state board to reimburse him $88.66 in daily salary and mileage for the speech.
But a majority of board members refused to reimburse the speech to the Republican group and a subsequent television interview Chappell did discussing similar issues.
The travel expense issue is the latest flare-up in board members' public disapproval of Chappell's
And although board members and education leaders say he's ineffective because he's not a team player, that same quality makes him popular in communities outside the education field.
The majority of board members are allowed roughly $6,000 a year in travel expenses. Since July 2009, no other board member has requested reimbursement for a media interview, according to board records.
"If he's asked to come speak as an individual, we as taxpayers shouldn't pay for that," said Sally Cauble, the board member who suggested not reimbursing the expenses, adding that the travel policy states that no expenses be paid for political events.
Chappell said he felt singled out because he included his comments from the Pachyderm speech to the board. He said most board members don't report what they said during their travels.
"It's an obvious attempt to have no one speak off-script," Chappell said. "We have major issues to discuss as a state. I speak to those facts."
'Stirring the pot'
Chappell is what you could call a "free spirit," said Jean Schodorf, who has heard him testify before the Senate Education Committee and has been his neighbor for a decade.
Sometimes free spirits are effective on an elected board, sometimes not, said Schodorf, a 12-year member of the Wichita school board before she became a state senator.
Chappell, a former teacher and school budget planning director, said since he was elected to his four-year term in 2008, he's been "stirring the pot" with important issues he felt were being ignored, especially dropout rates, and career and technical education.
But board members said his behavior can be disruptive to the board's operation, which includes setting standard curriculum for schools.
He should be allowed to say anything he wants whenever he wants, Cauble said, as long as taxpayers don't fund it and his speeches as a board member follow what the board has discussed or decided on.
"What a lot of people don't understand is on the state school board, we don't speak our own mind when we speak as a board member," she said, adding she only asks for travel expenses for events where she simply provides information.
In December, chairwoman Janet Waugh sent out a news release reprimanding Chappell, saying comments made in a television interview on school finance had nothing to do with the board's stance.
The board voted this month to recommend the Legislature increase education funding by $471 million, which members said is consistent with current law on education funding. Chappell cast the only no vote.
He said there's no use asking for money all board members admit the Legislature can't provide.
Besides being a consistent no vote to otherwise unanimous decisions, Chappell often hijacks meetings with long comments, taking time away from official business, said board member Dave Dennis.
"He concerns me he isn't working with the board," he said. "We need to be working on the goals for the kids of Kansas that the entire board established."
His lack of collaboration makes Chappell an ineffective representative for his district, according to Dennis and some Wichita school board members.
For example, this month Chappell voted against awarding Wichita's Curtis Middle School a $6 million, three-year federal grant.
Chappell said he doesn't think money is the solution to turning around failing schools. Plus, Curtis already has a new principal and staff and is doing well without the millions in taxpayer dollars.
Wichita school board member Barbara Fuller said Chappell's strained relationship with other board members has had a negative impact on the district.
"The last thing he wants to be is a team member," she said.
"And some figures he has are just wrong," she said, adding that when he appeared before the Wichita board he urged members to use money from the capital outlay fund for purposes other than construction, which isn't legal.
What supporters say
But not being one of the education crowd is why others think he's doing a great job.
John Stevens, president of the Pachyderm Club, said Chappell is an effective board member because of his willingness to bring up the issues education leaders don't.
"We have some very serious problems with education," he said, adding that he invited Chappell to discuss issues, such as dropout rates and school safety.
"It's a sacred cow,'' Stevens said. "They don't want the establishment disrupted."
Chappell said his sometimes divisive ways will eventually be effective in starting discussions and making changes.
He said he is seeing some of the results of coalition building he participated in, including a wellness policy that restricts the sale of soda and junk food until after lunch.
"Sometime it takes a while for ideas to bubble up," he said.