Documentary scrutinizes state education official

When Ranjit Arab enrolled in Tom Volek's documentary and corporate video production class at Kansas University, he didn't set out to pick a fight.

All he was looking to do was explore a subject of interest to him: the election of Republican Connie Morris to the Kansas State Board of Education on a platform of removing the children of illegal immigrants from public schools.

"I couldn't believe that something like this was happening in this day and age," Arab says. "Lots of people are surprised because people don't necessarily pay attention to the Board of Education race for the Western district (of Kansas), and they're not seeing people out there campaigning on these half-truths and lies."

The end result of Arab's labors (along with the help of KU students Aaron Paden and Diana Martino) is a 30-minute documentary, "El Jard--n" (Spanish for "The Garden,") which will screen at 6 tonight at Room 2092 in the Dole Human Development Center on the KU Campus.

The documentary takes aim at Morris, but its primary purpose is merely to inform and entertain.

"It's not meant to say that I'm right and she's wrong," Arab says. "A lot of people may not realize how many migrant or undocumented workers we have in our state and how important these people are to our economy. And according to the Supreme Court, we have to educate their children."

Kansas is just one of many states facing this issue, defended by a 1982 Supreme Court ruling entitling all children to public education, regardless of immigration status. The movie aspires to localize a national issue.

Throughout the making of the documentary, which took about six months and was edited in the Dole media labs on campus, Arab and his classmates repeatedly tried to contact Morris for an interview, though she declined their request each time. At one point they even attended a Board of Education meeting, but Arab says she "ducked our questions."

Though Morris makes a brief appearance in the film (quickly dodging one of Arab's inquiries to head into a meeting), its main sources are minority activists, students, workers and educators.


Thad Allender/Journal-World Photo

Director Ranjit ArAb, right, and photojournalist Aaron Paden will screen their documentary "El Jard�--n" tonight on the KU campus.

"She knows it's out there (the documentary)," he says. "She just refuses to talk about the subject she brought to the public's attention in her campaigning."

In a phone interview Wednesday from her home in St. Francis, Morris said she knew Arab was making the documentary, and that even though it might increase opposition to her platform, her opinions still hadn't changed.

"I think that citizenship is important to taxpayers and to our country. People need to be citizens before they can enjoy the benefits," Morris says.

"El Jard--n" mentions that even though illegal immigrants may not pay federal income tax, they still pay taxes through avenues such as sales tax and property tax. The film also cites an e-mail that circulated in which Morris wrongly claimed that former Garden City mayor Tim Cruz was not an American citizen -- a matter she called "old news" and refused to discuss.

Though she could potentially be politically hurt by the documentary ("If people don't like me, that's just how it goes," she counters), Morris still supports it.

"I think that's fine," says Morris, who defeated incumbent Sonny Rundell last November to win her seat. "It's all dialogue and it's an important piece of public policy."

Now that the film is completed, it's a piece of public policy that's sure to inspire lots of discussion.

Its title, "El Jard--n," holds a dual meaning. Translated from Spanish, "The Garden" is what Garden City residents sometimes refer to their locale. And the use of Spanish implies the large numbers of immigrant children (many Spanish-speaking) who could get left out of the "No Child Left Behind" federal mandate.

"It's just a nice metaphor," Arab says. "There's room for all of us to grow together."


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