Archive for Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Explaining the school board issue

October 25, 2000

Patrons of USD 348:

In the spring of 1999 when Patti Michalowski and I initiated the process of changing the school board to a seven member-at-large board, our intent was to give you, the voters of USD 348, an unrestricted choice of whomever you felt were the most qualified candidates to serve you and to begin to unify a district that has been unequally divided for 35 years. During our months of research and conversation with a variety of elected officials and, especially, the patrons of USD 348, many other concerns emerged. Please allow me to share some of those concerns and clarify some of the legalities around this issue.

In Kansas, there are only four possible methods by which a school district may create a school board (K.S.A. 72-8009.) 1. All seven of the school board members may be elected at-large from anywhere in the district. 2. A school district may be divided into six distinct member districts. 3. A school district may be divided into three distinct member districts. 4. A school district may be divided into two distinct member districts. (Please note that member districts are NOT the same as attendance boundaries.)

When a school district chooses to divide into member districts, there are four criteria with which those districts must comply. Those criteria, set forth in Kansas statute 72-8004, are stated as follows: "The proposed member districts shall (1) each be comprised of one contiguous compact area, (2) have equal population as nearly as is practicable, and (3) exclude no territory of the school district in the proposed change, and (4) no territory shall be included in more than one member district." Even though these criteria are set forth in a portion of the statutes that describe how a school district may change to member districts, because this is the only mention of criteria for member districts in the Kansas statutes, the intent is to set forth how all member districts of Kansas school boards are expected to be composed to insure equal voting rights protection.

The second criterion, equal population, presents the most grievous concern for USD 348 and especially the patrons residing in the Baldwin City member district. Based on information provided by the U.S. Census Bureau in Kansas City, the current population of USD 348 is estimated to be 7,253. Population of the Baldwin City member district is estimated to be 3,428. Population of the Marion Springs member district is estimated to be 1,977. Population of the Vinland member district is estimated to be 1,848. Baldwin City comprises 47 percent of the population of the district and elects two members to a seven-member board. Marion Springs is 27 percent of the population and elects two members to a seven-member board. Vinland is 25 percent of the population and also elects two members to a seven-member board.

Former Kansas Attorney General Robert Stephan, in response to this very issue of whether or not school boards must change member district boundaries to be in compliance with the equal population criterion, issued this summary opinion:

"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 an equal protection analysis, so that an elector's vote is not diluted in comparison to other electors."

It was to this opinion that the superintendent referred in the October school board meeting when he informed the board that should the voters choose to retain the three member districts, it would be advisable to make changes in those districts, presumably, to bring them into compliance with the equal population criterion that assures the value of the one person, one vote principle.

When patrons vote to change to a seven member-at-large board, the inequities resolve themselves. However, if patrons vote to retain the three member districts in the November election, they are NOT voting to keep things as they are. They are voting for three member districts, the boundaries and details of which are unknown. The patrons of USD 348 have the right to know what those districts look like before casting a vote in November. Should the school board choose to postpone making such changes so they would not take effect until the election of 2003, the patrons of the Baldwin City district will have experienced yet two MORE years of diluted voting rights, rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.

Therefore, we invite all patrons to give thoughtful consideration to the issues set forth in this letter. And, on the basis of equal voting rights and the goal of choosing what is best for the entire Unified School District 348, we urge you to vote FOR the change to a seven member-at-large school board.

Betty J. Bullock

Baldwin City

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