School board goes to Nov. 7 vote
A question on the Nov. 7 ballot will ask voters in the Baldwin school district if the election method of school board members should be changed to an at-large system.
Currently, the school district is divided into three voting districts Marion Springs, Vinland and Baldwin City with two school board members elected from each district and one school board member elected at-large.
An at-large method of election would eliminate the boundaries of the voting districts but would not change the boundaries that determine where a child attends elementary school and all registered voters in the school district would be able to choose from a field of candidates, who reside in any area of the district.
It is an issue placed on the ballot by a citizen-initiated petition. The petition called for a change to a seven member at-large election method, and used state statute to back up the need for the change. However, many of the residents of the Marion Springs and Vinland areas say it is important to have representation and what they call a voice on the school board.
It's a voice with a history as old as the district itself.
An issue with history
The schools of Marion Springs, Vinland and Baldwin City were unified into a district in 1965. As part of the unification, the school board was set up with two representatives from the areas of Marion Springs, Vinland and Baldwin City and one member elected at-large.
Just two years before, Marion Springs Elementary School opened 9 miles west of Baldwin City a consolidation of Colyer, Union, Willow Springs, Central, Exceline and Globe schools. One of the reasons for consolidation was to meet the state standard for elementary schools of eight full-time teachers for grades one through eight.
When the state brought another change unified school districts Marion Springs and Vinland joined Baldwin City to form a school district. And it was a controversial change. The rural residents feared losing their voice in the new district, but the formation of unified districts was the direction education was taking across the state.
"They were so afraid because they were going to go into a city district, so to speak," said Henrietta Schoepflin, a member of the first school board that included representatives from Marion Springs, Vinland and Baldwin City. "We wanted to be sure every area was represented. At the time there was a lot of unhappiness over the way unification was being done. We tried to make it as equal as we could, so they didn't feel like we wouldn't care about them. We decided they should be represented, and that is the way it has been done since.
"We think we did the right thing, and I don't see a reason to change it," Schoepflin said.
That voice is still important to the residents of Marion Springs and Vinland, and some residents feel that is what the Nov. 7 vote is all about. Parents have volunteered to serve as spokespeople, informing the public about the importance of retaining representation on the board.
"Each area Vinland, Marion Springs and Baldwin has its own elements, its own issues," said Cheryl Chamberlain, a Vinland parent. "It is important to have a person aware of all the elements. I'm concerned if we lose our representation, we lose our voice."
School board president Ed Schulte, elected from the Vinland district, said the vote is a choice with good points from each side.
"It is important people not look at the specific board members, but the type of representation they want to have," Schulte said. "The current representation keeps it a little more local and personal by keeping board members geographically close to you.
"Both sides have good points and it is a matter of choice," he said.
During the three and a half years he has served on the board, Schulte said all board members have directed equal attention to all the schools in the district.
"Every member is very much vested in school district," he said. "I have never seen someone make a vote based on the area they are from."
He said he favors the current board format, but if a change is to be made, it should be by a vote of the people.
"It really is an issue that needs to go to the people," he said.
A different view
Organizers of the petition that placed the question on the ballot have a different view. The last school board election in 1999 convinced Betty Bullock, who ran for the at-large position on the board, and Patti Michalowski, a concerned citizen, that a different election method was needed.
Both said that the candidates they felt were most qualified to serve on the board were running against each other, and voters were forced to make a choice. They decided voters should have the opportunity to consider all candidates with an at-large election method.
Bullock and Michalowski organized a petition after unsuccessfully seeking to have the school board make the change itself with a vote from board members. The petition was reviewed by the Kansas State Board of Education and an attorney for Douglas County before it was circulated and gathered enough signatures to be placed on the Nov. 7 ballot.
Included in the petition's plan of change were population figures of the three voting districts that Bullock said violated state statute.
State statute says the formation of board districts in this case Marion Springs, Vinland and Baldwin City must be comprised of one contiguous, compact area; have equal population as nearly as is practicable; exclude no territory of the school district; and not have territory included in more than one district.
Baldwin's three districts meet every criteria but one, says Bullock equal population.
"The original intent was always to give people unrestricted choices, to give them the chance to vote for the most qualified candidates," Bullock said. "As we went along, other issues emerged, including an unequal population."
Bullock said she gathered the most recent population information from 1998 from the U.S. Census Bureau. A few estimates had to be made, but the Baldwin City district, which is defined by the city limits, was considered to have a population of 3,428. The Marion Springs district, which is composed of Willow Springs Township, about a third of Marion Springs Township, and an area of Palmyra Township, had an approximate population of 1,977. The Vinland district, which is composed of Palmyra Township north of U.S. Highway 56 and east of U.S. Highway 59 (outside of the city limits), had a population of around 1,848.
Bullock said that although the two rural districts had similar populations, their combined population was about the same as Baldwin City, which holds 47 percent of the population in the entire school district. Bullock said the state allows up to 10 percent leeway in the population of districts.
"We have an imbalance," Bullock said. "The people of Baldwin don't have an equal vote. They elect two members for twice the population of Marion Springs and Vinland."
Between the lines
With the issue on the ballot, the school board recently discussed redrawing the boundaries of the districts to equalize the population of the districts. Supt. James White said no decision will be made until further board discussion depending on the outcome of the vote on Nov. 7. White said an attorney for the Kansas Association of School Boards says the district is not violating state statute, and White is unsure of the accuracy of the figures Bullock obtained.
"The attorney has assured me we are not in violation of any Kansas statutes," White said. "I think district boundaries will require some more discussion on the part of the board. It would come down to obtaining very accurate population figures. Right now, I'm not sure we have accurate population figures to make that sort of decision."
However, redrawing the districts would not satisfy another concern of Bullock's that the current method of election fosters "special interests" on the board.
"Special interests are not the basis of school boards," Bullock said. "Four board members represent the special interests of less than 30 percent of the elementary students and 13 percent of the district's enrollment.
"I think a seven member, at-large board should appoint a board member representative for each school, then Marion Springs and Vinland will still have someone to represent their special interests.
"I know people in Vinland and Marion Springs want their representation. I don't think their representation would diminish. With an at-large election method, everybody would have representation and equal voting rights."
White said if voters favor an at-large system come Nov. 7, that would not affect the current board member positions. The at-large system would take over gradually, as each position came up for election.
White said the emotions around the issue should bring voters to the polls.
"My intuition tells me this is quite an interesting issue for both sides," he said.