Kansas redistricting for board of education raises concerns over gerrymander
A normally sleepy process of drawing new district lines for the Kansas State Board of Education has turned spirited, with a controversial decision to revise board lines, drawing criticism of gerrymandering from the panel overseeing education K -12 in Kansas.
Senate Speaker Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said the moves were partly aimed at breaking up a council he called “monolithic,” saying he hoped the new lines could inspire a more conservative slate of candidates to stand for election.
“There’s a reason we need to shake up and change that advice,” Masterson told reporters Tuesday.
But Masterson’s comments have drawn rebuke from state board members, with tensions running high between the two bodies over the past year over a range of issues.
The Legislature has tried to pass bills shaping curricula and course offerings, earning pushback from the state council, which argues that these matters should be their domain.
“He wants a state council that the Legislature can handle that won’t stand up for children,” said Ann Mah, D-Topeka. “That’s what he’s trying to do. The thing that’s monolithic about the state board right now is that we care about kids and education and we care about public schools. And that’s what he doesn’t like.”
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State Board of Education Chairman Jim Porter, R-Fredonia, said he wouldn’t be “surprised” if the maps were challenged in court over the way they divide communities of color, a fate to which currently facing the state’s newly enacted congressional cards.
“I call it gerrymandered,” said R-Salina board member Deena Horst.
New neighborhoods divide the Kansas City area
The Senate redistricting committee approved the maps on Tuesday and are expected to be considered in plenary later in the afternoon.
The state board of education maps have strict parameters, with each board district comprising four Kansas Senate districts, giving lawmakers fewer options for drawing the lines.
The final product marked a compromise in some key areas, including a decision to keep Garden City and Dodge City twinned in the same western Kansas district, as well as a change to ensure the town of Wichita has its own sits on the Council of State. A previous draft of the map divided the city into two districts.
But the map divides the Kansas City area, with Wyandotte County divided into three districts. Porter said the decision to pair parts of the Kansas City school district with more affluent counterparts in Johnson County hurt representation for all parties.
“They have totally different issues and they need to be represented,” he said. “They all have unique challenges, but they are completely different challenges.”
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He said it was “disappointing” lawmakers failed to address the board’s key concerns, including the pairing of four incumbents, board members Ben Jones, R-Wichita and Deena Horst, R-Salina, in District 7 and members Melanie Haas, D-Overland Park and Janet Waugh, D-Kansas City, in District 2.
The debate is a rehash of criticism surrounding a set of GOP-drafted congressional maps that divide Wyandotte County into two US House districts. Those lines are currently the subject of a legal challenge, with a trial beginning next week in Kansas City, Kan.
But Masterson said he found the criticisms of Porter and others “ironic,” saying those who opposed the Congressional maps argued that Johnson and Wyandotte counties should be linked.
The same logic, he said, should apply to the state board of education.
And he wondered if that would have a major impact on the composition of the board.
“You only have 10 members,” he said. “There is not much effect.”
But it could also complicate matters for at least one district in the Topeka area. Shawnee Heights USD would be included on the Board of Directors for District 4, which spans Johnson County, where the district representative would likely live.
Topeka’s other four districts would be part of the council’s District 6.
“I really think they should keep all of Topeka together,” Mah said.
New maps could support a conservative push
Masterson said he hopes more conservative candidates will run for the state board. The body technically has a Republican majority, but debates there often have a different tone than in the more conservative legislature.
Some local school boards in many parts of the state, including metro Wichita and Kansas City, turned more conservative in last fall’s election, part of a shift many have attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19.
“I think there’s a bit of a disconnect,” Masterson said. “I don’t think a lot of people know what their (state) Representatives and Senators are like, let alone who their state school board members are. , especially after COVID , how important education is and how important this advice is.”
But Porter disagreed.
“If there was a nefarious political motive to change the borders, I find that disappointing and bad leadership,” he said.
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A more conservative board is not without precedent.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the council engaged in a debate about teaching evolution in schools, gaining national attention.
Mah said the debates were a “national joke” and predicted the new lines would pave the way for their return.
“It wouldn’t take much change to put us back in the bad old days,” she said, “where we argued about evolution.”
Andrew Bahl is a senior reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 443-979-6100.