Century II, transparency and budget cuts dominate the Arts Council forum 


Morgan Anderson

Mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell speaks at the fine arts forum at The Wave on October 1.

Nine candidates on Wichita’s municipal ballot took the stage Tuesday evening to talk arts in the community at an annual forum hosted by the Wichita Arts Council. 

The panel included Mayor Jeff Longwell and challenging State Rep. Brandon Whipple, five candidates for city council, and two candidates for the USD 259 Board of Education. 

For their opening statements, candidates were asked to describe their last arts experiences and the meaning art holds for them. 

Whipple, who gave his introduction first, did not mention specific arts-related experiences, instead giving a brief history of his time in Wichita. 

Longwell spoke next. 

“I’m going to share a little bit about my arts background, because arts have always been important to me,” he said. 

He listed his experience with the Maize school board, the Arts Council board, and the Museum of World Treasures board.  

Each of the nine candidates was then given the chance to answer community-suggested questions, with 90 seconds allowed for each response.  

The questions ranged in topic from initiatives for beautifying Wichita to the inclusion of arts education within traditional STEM subjects. 

Candidates repeatedly emphasized the role of arts in education and community engagement.

“Before humankind knew how to read or write, we were communicating through art,” District 4 hopeful Beckie Jenek said. “Art helps us with learning, it helps us with education, and it helps us define who we are as a culture.”

Only a few specific policy ideas were brought up, however. 

Longwell relied on his track record of arts projects in Wichita — the East Bank project, emerging artist scholarships — while Whipple leveraged the state budget surplus into an argument for diverting more city and state funds to the arts. 

“Our budget as a city is a reflection of our priorities,” Whipple said. “When we develop our downtown areas, we should be budgeting to add art to these structures by consulting our local art community here.”

‘A trust deficit’

About halfway through the forum, moderator Tom Shine of KMUW asked the candidates how they would keep voters fully informed on the future of Century II and the organizations housed there. 

The fate of the performing arts and convention center in downtown Wichita has been a subject of debate since the Century II Citizens Advisory Committee, formed by the city in February 2018, recommended building a new performing arts center elsewhere — rather than renovating the 50-year-old building. 

Nearly all the candidates at the forum underscored the need for public input on the decision. 

“The voters decided to build Century II; whatever happens to Century II, the voters should also have a say in,” District 4 candidate Christopher Parisho said. 

District 2 candidate Rodney Wren said that public input is especially crucial now in Wichita.

“I’m going to address the elephant in the room — this is a big decision. There is a serious trust deficit at City Hall,” he said.

“Who are you going to trust to make the decisions that are transparent, that are above board, and that in no way reek of any kind of impropriety, perceived or actual?”

The Wichita Eagle reported Sunday that Longwell guided the largest city contract in Wichita’s history to his friends and supporters, conflicting with the decision a city selection committee unanimously decided on. 

Longwell has denied the suggestion that he used his power inappropriately, saying it’s part of his job as mayor to steer the city in the direction he thinks is best.

The mayor did not respond to Wren’s comment. 

“We have a rich history in this community of saving buildings,” Longwell said. “We have to make sure that we engage this community on the East Bank, and it’s incredibly important that we get it right.”

From the audience

During the closing segment of the forum, questions were opened up to the audience. Susie Cunningham, a teaching artist at CityArts, asked the candidates to weigh in on school art supply budgets around the city. 

“Sometimes I go and there will be schools that have plenty of supplies . . . but I was at Woodland Elementary last year, and they had $100 in their budget,” Cunningham said. “How do we balance it so that all the schools have paint and pencils and supplies?”

Sheril Logan, a member of the USD 259 Board of Education running for re-election, said each teacher at each school should have an equal budget for the year — and they can speak with their building principal about getting their needs covered if the budget is used up.

“We believe teachers shouldn’t not do a project because they don’t have crayons or they don’t have tempera paint,” Logan said. “So we’re trying to do everything we can to make sure schools do have everything they need.”

Joseph Shepard, 26 years old and a former WSU student body president, is Logan’s challenger for at-large seat on the school board.  

“I think, as a board of education member . . . we have to ensure that the budgets we are allocating are equitable,” Shepard said. 

“Regardless of where you teach or where you are, regardless of what zip code your school is in, regardless of if it’s a Title I school or not, we have to make sure that it’s equitable,” he said. 

“Not equal — equitable.”