Archive for Wednesday, November 15, 2000

Boundaries become new district issue

November 15, 2000

Voters chose to retain the districts they elect board members from in last Tuesday's election. However, the boundaries of those districts are likely to change in order to distribute the population more evenly and uphold the right of "one person, one vote."

The school board on Monday night discussed the process of redrawing the boundaries of the voting districts. The change is recommended by an attorney for the Kansas Association of School Boards and Douglas County officials.

An issue on last Tuesday's ballot sought to eliminate the boundaries of the voting districts, allowing all registered voters in the school district to choose from the same field of candidates in an at-large district. The at-large bid was defeated 1,898 to 1,152, with 62 percent of voters favoring the current election method of two board members from each district Marion Springs, Vinland and Baldwin City and one board member elected at-large.

The community members who petitioned to have the at-large method of election put to a vote, wanted voters to know what those new districts would be prior to the election. Patti Michalowski, who supported an at-large district, wrote a letter to district attorney Christine Kenney Tonkovich about getting the boundary changes made prior to the election. Tonkovich forwarded the letter and information to Craig Weinaug, Douglas County administrator, and Evan Ice, county counsel.

Weinaug said he received the letter a few days before the election. It was too late for Michalowski's request, but not too late to investigate.

"I informed the school superintendent in Baldwin that we received the letter and it would be an issue if the at-large question on the ballot failed," Weinaug said. "There is a statute that gives the county attorney the ability to make sure there is compliance with districting regulations."

Ice said a request has been forwarded to his office to investigate the population of the Marion Springs, Vinland and Baldwin school districts. He said he is consulting with the Kansas Attorney General, but "there are a lot of unknowns" at the moment.

"State statute requires board of educations to make appropriate changes to districts by resolution every October preceding the general election of a school board member," said Ice, in regards to population of the districts. "It is my understanding that hasn't been done since unification 35 years ago."

Weinaug said it appears Baldwin City has about twice the population of the Marion Spring and Vinland districts. However, he said the 1998 figures used by the group seeking an at-large district are estimates, even though the figures were obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau. He said more accurate figures from the 2000 census should be available in the spring.

"The Department of Agriculture in Kansas does population estimates each year, based on the census figures from 1990," Weinaug said. "Any estimates that come out between the two censuses, are not hard data. Those 1998 figures I am sure are based on estimates."

Weinaug said the voting districts of the Baldwin school district should have a more equal population, as mandated by "one person, one vote."

"You can't have a district with 10 voters and a district with 1,000 voters, to use an extreme example," Weinaug said.

Weinaug hopes the county's role in drawing new boundaries within the Baldwin school district is one of guidance. However, the county also has the responsibility to make sure the job gets done, and in compliance with state statute.

"It is my hope they are able to resolve it locally," Weinaug said. "Every government body has a legal obligation to reapportion its districts based on "one person, one vote." How (the Baldwin school district) does that is yet to be resolved."

Board president Ed Schulte said the board needs more information, including population figures and what is considered an "equal" population by state statute. Supt. James White indicated the process could take up to two years. It was unclear if Ice thought the change should be made sooner.

"The soonest any changes could be made that would affect an election is October 2002," White said, referring to a 1988 opinion from the Kansas Attorney General.

That opinion reads: School boards are required to make changes in member district boundaries by adopting a resolution at the October meeting preceding the general election if such changes are appropriate. Appropriateness of redistricting is to be determined on the basis of equal protection analysis, so that an elector's vote is not diluted in comparison to other electors.

The next school board seats are not up until 2003.

"We do have some time on the issue and can gather some facts," Schulte said.

Michalowski said putting the redistricting off for two years is "irresponsible." She thinks it should be done sooner.

"I hope the board looks fair-mindedly at all of the options available to them, and doesn't just put a chunk of Baldwin into each of the member districts," Michalowski said. "For instance, the board could choose to have two member districts. One member district could be Baldwin with three board members, and the other member district could be a combination of Vinland and Marion Springs with three board members, and one at-large board member."

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